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Wednesday, September 29, 2004

I am predicting that this upcoming presidential debate will be the most watched in history. Here are some thoughts on it from US News & World Report:

The great Iraq debate

Tue Sep 28
By Kevin Whitelaw


For a supposedly impromptu debate, this one has already been almost totally scripted. The two sides have dickered over just about everything--a rule preventing candidates from quizzing each other directly, the height of the podiums, you name it. When President Bush and Sen. John Kerry walk onto the stage at the University of Miami in Coral Gables on Thursday, they will even know what kind of pen and notepad they can use. The scripted cordiality even extends as far as the opening-bell handshake. All that's left is what the two men will actually say.

The one thing that's certain is that the subject of Iraq will be front and center. It has been several decades, really going back to Vietnam, since world affairs cast such a long shadow over an American election--and much, much longer since a formal debate on foreign policy has been such a pivotal event in the race for the White House. After months of shadow boxing, the stakes are especially high for Kerry. The debates could well be his best--and perhaps final--chance to reverse his weeks-long slide in the polls.

But the volatility in Iraq makes the issue a gamble for both candidates. The beheadings of two American contractors last week by the most wanted men in Iraq (story, Page 30) were a grisly reminder of the potential for an October surprise that could yet sway this election--in either direction. For Bush, the run-up to the debate was a chance to claim some of the perks of incumbency, starting with his address before the United Nations General Assembly. His appearance afterward in the Rose Garden alongside an Iraqi prime minister who paid homage to his administration was a welcome coda. "I thank you, Mr. President, for your determination to stand firm with us in Iraq," Ayad Allawi told a joint press conference. At the same time, the surging violence in Iraq's festering insurgency has only sharpened Kerry's attack. Accusing Bush of "lecturing" rather than leading at the United Nations, Kerry charged that Bush is living in "fantasyland" and "does not have the credibility to lead the world."

Defining the war.
Pivotal, perhaps, will be whether voters believe Bush's contention that Iraq is "central" to the war on terrorism or Kerry's case that it has been a "profound diversion" from the pursuit of Osama bin Laden. "The two sides are taking diametrically opposed views of where we're at and where we're headed," says Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University. "The issue is starting to revolve around which team has the better chance of getting a reasonable outcome." Kerry has developed a detailed critique of Bush's handling of the postwar period that runs from failing to send enough troops to prevent looting to failing to plan for the complex reconstruction in the aftermath. His bottom line: "We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure." Which, in turn, has given Bush an opening to accuse Kerry repeatedly (if inaccurately) of believing "America would be better off with Saddam Hussein in power."

Their views on what to do next in Iraq are not wildly divergent, although Kerry insists that he would be more successful enlisting the support of now reluctant allies. But rather than focus on the minutiae of policy, the candidates are likely to use Iraq as the main battlefield to confront their media-generated images--Kerry as a flip-flopper and Bush as an unwavering (although perhaps too stubbornly so) leader. "The administration wants to turn anything Kerry says about Iraq into talking about John Kerry's inconsistencies," says James Lindsay, a vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations. "What Kerry will want to say is what the president is doing is not courageous conviction, but tremendous incompetence."

The reality is obviously more complex. While Kerry famously equivocated in explaining his vote for the Iraq war and against the $87 billion aid package, he has actually been quite consistent in his vision of postwar Iraq. His calls for turning power over to Iraqis and building up Iraqi security forces predated Bush's formal endorsement of those strategies. Bush, meanwhile, has changed course on Iraq several times, adjusting to political realities, for example, by reversing his opposition to an interim government.

Kerry does run some risks trying to attack Bush's Iraq policy while the bullets are flying--and U.S. soldiers are dying. Already, the Bush team has implicitly challenged Kerry's patriotism. "You can embolden an enemy by sending mixed messages," Bush warned. As Boston University foreign policy Prof. Andrew Bacevich describes it, "Kerry has the tough task of distancing himself from the president's policies without opening himself to the charges of being a [George] McGovern," the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate who lost after being tarred as defeatist and out of the mainstream.

The essence of the Iraq debate is really who will better defend the nation from terrorists. Bush begins with the advantage of being able to claim tangible progress, such as killing or capturing nearly three quarters of al Qaeda's top leadership and ousting the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Kerry is trying to broaden the debate by arguing that Bush's Iraq war has actually been a setback in the larger battle against Islamic extremists. "At this point in time, the president's behavior in Iraq is creating a reinforcement of the image that al Qaeda is seeking to portray to the world that the West and the United States in particular are intent on crushing Islam," says Kerry's national security adviser, Rand Beers. "What Kerry would seek to do is remove George Bush as the image of America and seek to reverse that general opinion." The main ammunition for this argument would be global opinion polls, which show an alarming surge in antipathy toward the United States, especially in the Muslim world. "The reputation of the United States has never been lower," says University of Virginia history Prof. Melvyn Leffler.

Below the surface, there are actually many similarities in the candidates' worldviews. "Kerry and Bush really buy into a larger consensus about what America's role in the world should be and what the implication and meaning of 9/11 was," says Bacevich. It quickly becomes less of a debate about where America should go than how it should get there. "Bush in all his comments projects total confidence in the utility of American power, in the goodness of American power, and the virtues of the American people," says Lindsay. "With Senator Kerry, he can be seen projecting far less confidence about how beloved we are in the world, more skepticism about how others see us, and more sensitivity about the limits of American power."

In practice, this comes down to a debate about America's traditional alliances and Bush's practice of assembling "coalitions of the willing." "This president recognizes that as different problems come forward, they will require different groups of countries to deal with them," says Richard Falkenrath, a former Bush aide now at the Brookings Institution. Kerry, meanwhile, says that relations with allies need urgent repair: "We are weaker when we fight almost alone."
In many ways, there is a strange reversal of historic roles. Kerry (the Democrat) is promoting himself as the realist, while Bush (the Republican), with his proselytizing talk of spreading democracy, comes across as more the idealist along the lines of Woodrow Wilson. Richard Holbrooke, a top Kerry adviser on foreign policy, faults Bush administration officials for articulating a "sloppy neo-Wilsonianism" in which "they talk about democracy, but none of their policies advance it--not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in Liberia." Yet Bush can, and does, point to accomplishments like an upcoming election in Afghanistan and plans for voting in Iraq.


True or false?
Much of this will come down to whether Kerry's new assault on Bush's credibility can be successful. The two candidates will trade competing facts, but the truth will very likely be quite elusive for viewers. Take, for example, the spat that broke out last week over the number of Iraqi police and soldiers. Months ago, the Bush administration was boasting about more than 200,000 Iraqi security forces, while more recently, Bush has talked about nearly 100,000 soldiers. Kerry puts the number of deployable soldiers at 5,000 and says that no police officers are fully trained. As is often the case with statistics, it all depends on definition. The early training for Iraqi forces was so spotty that Washington was forced to start the count at zero a few months ago. The Pentagon says it has nearly 39,000 police who have completed a multiweek training course and who are on duty in a probationary status. Few, if any, though, have completed the mandatory half-year mentoring program.

That kind of complexity is almost certain to get lost in a 90-minute debate, but America will still be listening.

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