For politicians, striking the right tone about war is rarely easy, except in times of resounding victory--and this clearly isn't one of them. The choice of tone is relatively simple for George W. Bush: certainty about future success and celebration of past triumph. But for John Kerry, the struggle to talk about Iraq seems as hard as the administration's struggle to find an exit strategy. He hedges and he dodges; he issues caveats and subordinate clauses. Kerry's underlying suggestion is that he thinks he can turn the war around. But he finds it unusually difficult to say so in simple terms, without offering ammunition to his rivals.
It has been only two months since Kerry entangled himself in the notion that the rest of the world was yearning for his victory over Bush. "I've been hearing it, I'll tell you. The news, the coverage in other countries, the news in other places," Kerry told a Florida fundraiser. "I've met more leaders who can't go out and say it all publicly, but boy, they look at you and say, you gotta win this, you gotta beat this guy, we need a new policy, things like that." Those comments have become fodder for a thousand Republican punchlines, endlessly repeated by Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as part of their standard speech on the stump.
Kerry made a similar assertion last week, when asked how he would overcome international opposition to sending troops to Iraq. Kerry said that even countries that have publicly ruled out sending troops to Iraq--like France--would reverse their positions with a new president. Citing "conversations" with "senators and other diplomats", Kerry told reporters at his campaign headquarters. "Given the right statesmanship and leadership, it's possible to have a very different level of participation. I know what the public statements are today. It doesn't deter me one iota from saying what I say based on private conversations."
Whether or not the rest of the world likes Kerry--and whether or not any American voter should care--is beside the point. Kerry's suggestion that many world leaders want to change U.S. foreign policy--and the administration behind it--is obvious to anyone who has picked up a newspaper in the last three years. What's less clear is why Kerry would cite private conversations to back up his position. Some critics suggest that the Massachusetts senator is echoing Nixon's "secret plan" to end the Vietnam war. However Kerry's plan is anything but secret. He wants a NATO mission in Iraq, and has described that mission down to the sectors and operations that could come under its control. He has outlined not just his desire to include the United Nations in Iraq's future, but the title of the person leading its work: a high commissioner, no less. And he wants a "massive training effort" to rebuild Iraq's security forces. You can disagree with Kerry's policy, or even dismiss it as similar to Bush's approach. But you can't call it a secret.
Kerry's problem here is political, of being outmaneuvered and outspun by his opposition. Take the prisoner-abuse scandal. Kerry's comments on the pictures were mild until the end of last week, yet that did not stop the Bush campaign from tearing into him for "politicizing" the issue. Campaign chairman Marc Racicot accused Kerry of having "relentlessly played politics with the war in Iraq," and suggested there was something treasonous in criticizing Bush at a time of war. "At a moment when America and Americans stand strong behind our troops on the battlefield, John Kerry is attacking President Bush and the military and seeking to divide along party lines," he told reporters. Ignoring for a moment the obvious politics of Racicot's attack, the Bush campaign's message is reaching its target. According to the latest NEWSWEEK poll, 54 per cent of Americans (including more than half of independent voters) say it's inappropriate for Kerry to criticize Bush when U.S. troops are fighting in Iraq.
In fact, Kerry's position on the prison photos is best described as ultra-cautious. When the photos first emerged, he issued a written statement saying that he was merely "disturbed and troubled" by the events. It would take another week before Kerry spoke in public on the scandal, as Congress jumped into the fray. Even then, the senator limited his finger-pointing at the Bush administration to what he called Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's "slow and inappropriate" response and Bush's failure to express regret. After seeing the pictures of abused prisoners for himself in Washington, Kerry finally took his attack to the highest pitch, accusing the president of ignoring reports from the Red Cross and failing to uphold American standards in wartime. "As president I would personally have been concerned long ago about the reports that were coming out form the Red Cross and from elsewhere, about the pictures from Guantanamo, about the status of our own approach," he told reporters. "Our own soldiers are at greater risk of torture and ill treatment when we don't live up to that."
From the outset, Kerry's strategists believed the controversy would hurt Bush as part of a general picture of incompetence--rather than a personal scandal that could be connected directly to the White House. "It's the whole sense of a president who isn't really in command of this thing," said one senior Kerry adviser. Kerry's challenge now is to convince voters he really could be in command of Iraq's future. "You have to change the entire dynamic, ladies and gentlemen," he told reporters last week, explaining how he would secure more foreign troops to help in Iraq. "You cannot do it proceeding as we are today with a stiff arm to the international community, with a half-hearted sort of open door, without a legitimate transfer of authority, without a recognition that you've made some mistakes." In 2000, George W. Bush declared he was going to change the tone in Washington. Four years later, John Kerry could do worse than saying he wants to change the tone outside Washington--and start by changing his own.