Trail Mix: Nothing Simple About Iraq

A presidential election can be a strange prism on the real world. Small incidents can look monumental simply because they're unexpected or embarrassing (remember the flap over the word RATS appearing in a George W. Bush ad in 2000?). And big topics can get overlooked because they seem old or complex (has there been a serious discussion about Social Security in 2004?).

Yet that doesn't mean elections are incapable of dealing with complex debates. Politicians, reporters and voters often shrug their shoulders at election time, admitting that everything gets oversimplified. But if the Vietnam-era stories about Democratic nominee John Kerry and Bush show anything useful, it's that campaigns can assess and evaluate difficult stories--even when they're old and mired in complexity. If an election can immerse itself in the typographical qualities of obsolete typewriters, or the topography of the Bay Hap River in Vietnam, it can surely cope with other multifaceted problems. And there's no more complex, or more pressing, problem than Iraq.

Both campaigns would prefer to limit Iraq to simple questions of character. That may be good tactics, but it's bad politics, giving voters little guidance on what to do about the biggest challenge facing the United States on Nov. 2. Kerry attacked Bush on Monday for "colossal failures of judgment." He went on to skewer the president for insisting that, given the chance, he would invade Iraq all over again--in spite of the lack of weapons of mass destruction. "How can he possibly be serious?" asked Kerry. "My answer, resoundingly, is no." Oh really? Kerry has tried to answer this question several times when asked to revisit the war. Resounding is not the word that springs to mind. When asked to revisit his vote to authorize war, Kerry's answer was a yes with reservations. When asked to revisit the president's decision to go to war, his answer was a no with reservations.

Bush responded in kind, questioning Kerry's judgment and accusing him of "twisting in the wind" and changing his mind. "Mixed signals are the wrong signals to send to the enemy," Bush said on Monday. "Mixed signals are the wrong signals to send to the people of Iraq." Is there anything more mixed than the signals that Bush has sent to the Iraqi insurgents in their stronghold of Fallujah? When four U.S. contractors were murdered there in April, Marines launched a three-week offensive that radicalized the city and sucked in more insurgents. Instead of finishing the job, Marines handed the operation over to a ragtag brigade of old Iraqi Army troops, who are now part of the insurgency.

When it comes to consistency on Iraq, neither candidate looks like the kind of resolute, unbending leader he imagines himself to be. If consistency doesn't work as a measure of the candidates, what about new ideas? When Kerry delivered in New York on Monday his four-point plan for fixing Iraq, much of the media dismissed his proposals as nothing new. That may be true, given that Kerry has spoken about his plans before. Yet that's not much of a way to assess whether or not a policy is worth considering. Take another subject, such as the federal budget deficit. There are only three options on the deficit--raising taxes, cutting spending or doing nothing. Even if there are no new ideas from either candidate, it's worth engaging in the debate and taking the candidates seriously.

So how about Kerry's proposals? The senator suggested four steps: to bring in more allies, train Iraqi security forces, improve reconstruction and establish democracy in Iraq. Bush's response was direct, even if it wasn't detailed: "My opponent has now settled on a proposal for what to do next, and it's exactly what we're currently doing." Given that exchange between the candidates, voters could do worse than to judge Kerry and Bush on their own terms. It's true that Bush has tried to pursue all four of Kerry's proposals already. The question for voters is whether anyone can do any better.

Is it really possible to recruit more allies to share the burden, as Kerry says? Or have we seen all the allies we're ever going to see, as the White House says? Is it possible to do a better job of rebuilding Iraq than Bush is already doing, given the lack of security on the ground? Or are there quick-fix projects that could have an impact on Iraqi morale, as Kerry says? Can anyone train new Iraqi troops and police quick enough to stop the insurgents from growing ever stronger?

These are not easy judgments, which is why the campaigns and the media prefer to look at simpler questions, such as credibility. But they are the critical questions about American leadership in Iraq. And in many ways the best way to answer them is to read more about the news from Iraq than the news from the 2004 campaign.

In the U.S., the biggest question remains: when will American troops come home from Iraq? Speaking at the United Nations on Tuesday, Bush made it clear again that his goal was a permanent, stable democracy in a terrorist-free Iraq. "Today, I assure every friend of Afghanistan and Iraq, and every enemy of liberty: We will stand with the people of Afghanistan and Iraq until their hopes of freedom and security are fulfilled," he told the world's leaders. Given the state of the insurgency in Iraq, and the number of Coalition troops there, that's going to be a very long-term deployment. The Coalition's track record in Afghanistan gives little ground to be optimistic about withdrawing troops any time soon. And the fact that Iraq has served as a recruitment zone for new terrorists suggests it will take decades to rid the country of violent groups.

In contrast, Kerry predicted a day earlier that if everything went according to his plans, U.S. troops could start to be withdrawn as early as next summer. Kerry even forecast that all the troops could "realistically" come home within four years, if all goes well in Iraq. That kind of prediction is as unrealistic as the idea that the United States is going to stay in Iraq until the nation is stable and democratic.

If both candidates are true to their commitment to Iraqi democracy, there's no chance of troops coming home for a decade or more. In the meantime, the number of troops (American, international or Iraqi) will have to climb sharply, in line with Sen. John McCain's long-standing call for more boots on the ground. Are the candidates willing to discuss that option, or are they going to talk vaguely about winning the war and the unthinkable prospect of failure? That's the kind of detail that voters need before Nov. 2.