The article below originally appeared on an interesting website called News Informant. It is reproduced here with permission of the author.
By Bernard Perlstein
“Who won the debate?” ask the pundits, the campaigns and even most of the public. Neither debater appeared to make any gaffes, Kerry “discussed” rather than “lectured,” and Bush seemed to know more specifics than people expected. Both sides even seemed gracious. For those who see the debate as entertainment -- or even an entertainment contest, along the lines of the show “Last Comic Standing” -- the debate was a failure. Never mind the fact that the debate is supposed to enlighten the public, so that it can make an educated decision, based upon policy.
Yet the debate -- partly thanks to the questions of thoughtful moderator Jim Lehrer, anchor of PBS’ Jim Lehrer News Hour -- served the useful purpose of elucidating the differences on foreign policy between the two major candidates for president in 2004. Each candidate performed the service, in that respect, of articulating his position, especially concentrating on the Iraqi war. Unfortunately, due to various time constraints -- and perhaps some momentary lapses to which no debater is immune -- not all of the reasoning behind the positions could be summarized. What is missing from the media followup was an attempt to present and discuss these positions in a way that people could fully comprehend the debaters’ stances, in order to judge for themselves.
Background To The Iraq Debate
The differences between the two candidates as to whether the Iraq war was a “mistake”, as claimed by John Kerry, depends upon one’s views in assessing the dangers of various types of terrorist attacks; in approaches to managing U.S. allies; and in the evaluation of America’s diverse set of adversaries. Each one’s assessment of the terror risk from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq two years ago was based upon knowledge available at that time, which was certainly much less than that now. Even then the position differences were considerably more nuanced than typically acknowledged. And the differences going forward are even less. Nevertheless, these differences are significant, with important strategic implications for how the U.S. will engage in what is likely to be a rather lengthy war on terror.
Even A Superpower Has Limitations
Both men understood, based upon the intelligence available prior to the war in Iraq, that Saddam Hussein was a threat. The crucial difference lies with respect to the threat of Saddam relative to other terrorist threats. Aside from the threat of additional attacks by stateless terrorist groups several foreign countries -- alone, or, more importantly, in conjunction with terrorist groups sympathetic to Osama bin Laden -- were believed to pose an immediate threat. These were the three extremist regimes believed to be close to possessing nuclear weapons -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- that President Bush termed “the axis of evil.” In a perfect world, the public would want the government to eliminate every one of these threats immediately. However, that is just not possible.
In World War II, another life-or-death war, the Western Allies -- primarily, the U.S. and the U.K. -- did not establish a second European front against Germany until 1944. There were many reasons why the Western Allies waited so long, much to the chagrin of the embattled Soviet Union. However, one reason, in particular, was that the Allies did not have sufficient logistical capabilities for a successful landing in France. An earlier invasion, frequently discussed by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, was dismissed by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, because the latter believed that it would be a dismal failure. Thus, the U.S. waited 2 ½ years, after entering the war, before embarking on the campaign that, along with Soviet advances in the East, led most expeditiously to victory. The reason was that, much as Roosevelt would have liked to end the war earlier and with fewer casualties, the Allies were not logistically prepared.
Today, the U.S. is the world’s biggest economic power, and by far the mightiest military power, and is, therefore, designated the only superpower on the planet. Yet, even this superpower does not have an unlimited amount of money, matériel and military personnel. The United States must therefore wisely which threats to address, when and how. Despite this, the primary distinction that Kerry drew, at the time of the Bush administration’s commencement of the Iraq war, was “how.”
How Did Bush & Kerry Differ At The Start?
The two candidates have had many strategic differences with regard to the threats of terrorism and how to address them. The critical differences, however, can be reduced to two issues -- diplomacy and Afghanistan. Kerry says that he has issues not with that we went to war in Iraq, but, instead, how we went to war, meaning how the U.S. failed, diplomatically, to win international support. The Bush administration, meanwhile, says that it had exhausted diplomatic measures. And the differences with regard to Afghanistan form the crux of the estimation of relative threats by the two camps. U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2002 had quickly displaced the Taliban government that had supported Osama bin Laden, and now U.S. forces, as well as those of NATO allies, remain there. But Kerry sees, in Afghanistan, an incomplete mission against the most important threat of all, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
Bush And The Threat From Saddam’s Iraq
To comprehend the different conclusions of Bush and Kerry with respect to Iraq, in late 2002 and early 2003, it is important to understand how the Bush administration viewed the threat of Saddam Hussein in light of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Although there was no conclusive proof -- as there often is not, with respect to intelligence about secretive regimes -- according to the best intelligence available at that time, Iraq had ongoing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. Moreover, it appeared that Iraq either already had nuclear capability, or was going to have that capability within a short period of time.
The ability for Iraq to damage the United States with WMD, through military means, is easy to question. Iraqi missiles would not have had the capability to reach the U.S. However, the greatest concern was about terrorist attacks, more deadly than the airplanes deployed on Sept. 11, using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. True, a nuclear device, if crudely exploded on the ground of -- let’s say -- a major city would not have the explosive power of a nuclear bomb delivered by plane or missile. But the device would release enormous amounts of radiation and, in a populous area, could threaten thousands, if not tens of thousands, of lives.
And Iraq had a notorious leader, in Saddam Hussein. Hussein had shown the willingness to use “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), using chemical weapons against Iran once he began to lose the Iran-Iraq War -- which he had started -- in the early 1980s, and later, even within Iraq, against the rebellious Kurds. (It must be noted that one or more high-ranking Bush administration officials, in the administration of then-President Ronald Reagan, had been slow to condemn Hussein’s use of these weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, at a time when Iran was considered a more immediate threat to U.S. interests. But that subject is too much of a digression from the current analysis.) And Saddam certainly hated the United States for the Gulf War, and the subsequent “no-fly” zones, economic sanctions and weapons inspections.
Although Saddam was unlikely to have been involved with the 9/11 attacks and probably had little connection to al-Qaeda, Saddam made his feelings about those attacks abundantly clear. An article in the leading Iraqi newspaper hailed those attacks on the U.S. Perhaps more significantly, the article did not so much discuss any political goals behind, or the long-term effectiveness of, the attacks. Instead, it showed admirations, as only a sociopath of Hussein’s ilk would, for the amount of destruction caused. Was it then so far-fetched to assume that Saddam, if he possessed WMD, would be willing to now carry out such attacks?
The administration had evidence of contact between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Evidence of actual connections to al-Qaeda was admittedly weak. However, given a common enemy, it was easy to believe that Saddam would be willing to provide WMD to al-Qaeda for the latter to use in a terrorist attack. Not only was there sufficient evidence of Saddam’s willingness to engage in such activity, if he had such weapons, but being allowed to outsource the execution to al-Qaeda might also lend him the ability to deny his involvement.
In addition to these reasons, many senior officials in the Bush administration believed that there would be several benefits in ending Saddam’s rule. Saddam was such a cruel dictator, the Iraqi people, it was believed, could see the United States only as liberators. In fact, several administration officials believed that, in ending Saddam’s regime, the U.S. could regain favor with many Iraqi groups – including Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north -- which had scorned the U.S. for failing to assist them in uprisings that occurred just at the end of the Gulf War.
Yet the hopes of administration officials went farther. They hoped that the U.S., being seen as a liberator, would be able to lead the Iraqi people to form a “free” society, with some protection for individual liberties, as well as an elected government. This new, “democratic” Iraq, they believed could be a beacon to the people of other Arab and Muslim countries. The larger hope, then, was for the democratization of Iraq to lead to a democratic and more stable Middle East, which would free itself from the influence of Islamic extremists, such as al-Qaeda.
Much of this argument, on a broader scale, has been made in a book titled An End To Evil, by David Frum and Richard Perle. The latter was, at the time, head of the Policy Defense Board, an influential government institute of U.S. foreign policy thought leaders, who advise the U.S. Secretary of Defense.
Kerry’s Assessment Of The Iraqi Threat
A noted chess grandmaster wrote a book about how grandmasters think. In summary, the grandmaster looks at both opportunities and threats on a chessboard, and evaluates each potential move to determine both how it will strengthen and how it will weaken his current position.
Kerry agreed that Saddam’s Iraq was a threat, or at least a potential threat. That is why, according to Kerry, he voted for a Senate resolution to give the president the authority to engage in war, if he deemed it necessary. Nevertheless, voting to give him the authority is not the same as voting for war. Kerry believed that there was credible evidence that Saddam might have nuclear weapons, but that, also, is not the same as certainty. More importantly, he felt that war should be the last resort, because Kerry and others, unlike most members of the Bush administration, worried more about the consequences of a war.
Modern Iraq was not historically a nation, but the 20th century creation of the British Empire, in the period following the First World War, from three provinces of the former Ottoman Empire. Two of the former provinces were predominantly Arab, ethnically. In the third, in the oil regions of the north, the Muslim, albeit non-Arab, Kurds, who continue to dream of a united Kurdistan, form the majority. In any case, even the two former southern provinces are divided. The southern-most former province is predominantly Shiite Muslim. The religion of the former middle province is majority Sunni Muslim, and the Sunnis had a larger share in the professional and governing classes dating back to the Ottomans, but also under the Saddam’s Baathist Party, which was largely Sunni.
Modern Iraq, then, was seen as a powder keg, at least as much as the European Balkans (the former Yugoslavia). In fact, as Kerry accurately mentioned in the debate, the current President’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, wrote several years ago that, one of the main reasons for not entering Iraq and dethroning Hussein at the end of the Gulf War, was the fear of what would happen afterwards. Bush père feared the possibility of a bloody civil war, division and destabilization in Iraq, potentially resulting in a Shiite theocracy, such as followed the Shah in Iran, that would also be a sworn enemy of the United States. Most international leaders were skeptical, to say the least, of post-Saddam Iraq’s adhering to a democratic form of government.
Several Bush administration officials cited Germany and Japan after World War II as successful examples in building democracies. But in Germany, as in the rest of Europe, the ideas behind modern democracies had been spread over several centuries. Japan, admittedly, had a very different history, but it still had a modern economic infrastructure and high levels of education. Culturally, it had a high acceptance of modern ideas. Perhaps more significantly, while Germany and Japan may have been humiliated in defeat, these countries were still international powers, so there was no lingering legacy of historical humiliation. The Arab world, including Iraq, had suffered the dominance of the Ottoman Empire for many centuries, only for it to be followed by both political and economic domination by non-Muslim Europe and by the United States.
Another concern about an Iraq war was that evidence of Saddam’s possession of WMD was far from abundant. Middle East leaders, who despised Hussein, nonetheless were concerned that any U.S.-led military interdiction in Iraq would be seen as an invasion, and even an attempt at an oil grab. They believed that, not only would their own people -- who did not have as direct an experience with Saddam -- but also the Iraqi people, would see the U.S. as an outside occupying force.
And, especially if Saddam did not have the weapons capability feared, Saddam might not be the highest risk. The Iraqi military had been in decline because of the loss in the Gulf War and the subsequent sanctions. Although Saddam constantly thumbed his nose at the no-fly zones, the U.S. constantly patrolled and even shot down Iraqi planes in these areas. Saddam was still limited in many ways. At the same time, Iraq was a “stable” and secular regime, with little fundamentalist influence and in which Saddam would not allow any alternative political group, including al-Qaeda, to base itself.
On the other hand, Kerry worried that, far from creating a more stable Middle East, a war in Iraq might cause such instability there that Islamic extremists could prosper and could then recruit larger numbers of people willing to carry out suicide attacks in America and elsewhere. In other words, Kerry’s concern -- especially if Saddam did not, in fact, have the weapons capability -- was that a destabilized Iraq, could be even more of a threat. Islamic extremist groups might be able to turn Iraq into yet another base, and might even attract more members to its anti-American cause. And the destruction of Saddam would also not eliminate the possibility for a post-Saddam theocratic regime that would still hate the U.S., develop WMD and even directly support al-Qaeda-style terror.
Bush & Kerry And Diplomacy
The Bush administration, as we have seen, saw Saddam’s Iraq not only as a credible, and the worst, threat, but also as an immediate one. In the post-9/11 world, most Bush foreign policy analysts felt that the U.S. could not take the risk of another -- and worse -- terrorist attack. If they were not completely certain that Saddam already had the WMD or the connections with al-Qaeda, they believed it would be imprudent to wait until they were proved right. Besides, they were certain that Saddam would eventually become capable of, and willing to, supply America’s nemesis, al-Qaeda. The administration therefore began to prepare the U.S. public -- and to some extent, the world -- for a U.S. pre-emptive war against Saddam’s Iraq.
In the meantime, the Bush administration did decide to try the UN Security Council one last time. Bush recognized that worldwide support -- both materiel and moral -- for a move against Hussein would be, in the long term, beneficial for U.S. efforts in Iraq and elsewhere, in the war on terror. The Security Council provided stronger support for weapons inspections than it had in years, and its strongest provisions yet. Saddam, in typical response, yielded to some inspections while reneging on some points. However, by early 2003 the Bush administration was concerned about waiting any longer, and went to the Security Council for a war resolution. This, the Security Council was not ready to provide. The Bush administration then decided that it would go ahead with this pre-emptive war, without official sanction from the UN body.
Here is where Bush & Kerry parted ways, so to speak. The Bush administration felt the need to depose Saddam and disarm Iraq immediately. If the administration waited past March or April to commence a planned assault on Iraq, it would have to have been delayed through the summer, due to the intense Iraqi desert heat -- upwards of 120 degrees (F). Yet the administration was not willing to grant a delay of at least six months. Thus, the administration went to war quickly, without the support of the Security Council that it had already agreed to solicit. This decision angered many in the international community, not only for explicitly going beyond a Security Council resolution, but also for, many believed, trying to manipulate Council members. The U.S. was willing to work with the UN Security Council when the body supported the U.S., they felt, but simply ignore the body when it would not.
Kerry, apparently, was mindful of the international community. In the first place, Kerry had hoped that further dithering by Saddam, as well as possible additional evidence of WMD, would unite the international community against him. Under UN auspices, a war with Iraq would be less likely to be seen in the Arab world as a U.S. invasion. The international community would also help the U.S. by providing much-needed troops and material. Believing that the war on terror is partly a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world, an intervention by a U.S.-led force, backed only by its closest allies, would push many Arabs and Muslims, Kerry felt, to the side of Osama. And it would leave the U.S. to expend more of its money and men in a war with Iraq.
What concerned Kerry even more was that the post-war situation would be even riskier, without international support. Iraqi people who saw the U.S. as occupiers would not rush to support any governing ideas represented by it. The lack of international support for rebuilding Iraq, which was impoverished under the sanction-ridden Saddam regime, would mean a less stable post-war Iraq politically. And Kerry believed, even before the war, that a fractious Iraq would require an extended period of international peacekeeping, if it were to avoid disintegrating entirely into chaos and civil war. Of course, it is not clear if, or how soon, the international community could have been won to this position. But the very fact of renewed inspections gave some optimism.
And the inspections might reveal even more. If the inspectors found more, and more credible, evidence of WMD, the U.S. could bolster its case for going to war, and could possibly win more allies and more international support, even if it did not gain an actual Security Council resolution to back the war. The same would be true if Saddam continued to obstruct the newly vigorous attempt at inspections. On the other hand, there would be other, equally important, implications if properly executed inspections showed that Saddam did not possess WMD.
Here was another significant point of departure for the Bush administration. The administration feared that Saddam might be able to fool weapons inspectors, or at least that the process of finding them would be too long. Afraid that the inspections process might fail, administration officials trusted its existing intelligence reports. Intelligence that appeared to confirm the existence of WMD might have been somewhat sketchy, but it was drawn from numerous sources. These included not only the exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmed Chalabi, then popular with the U.S. Defense Department, but also Russia, a strong opponent of U.S. intervention in Iraq.
However, it was possible that inspections might actually show that Saddam was still far from obtaining the WMD that he clearly desired. This was significant for two reasons. It would make Iraq less of an immediate threat, allowing for more consultation with the UN and time to prepare for both an intervention and a post-Saddam Iraq. It would allow for a greater focus directly on al-Qaeda, and on Afghanistan, where Taliban and al-Qaeda still exist, although with much less political support and strength. Furthermore, if Saddam had, indeed, not been able to acquire WMD as yet, it might imply that the post-Gulf War military and economic limitations had worked. Thus, further inspections might have contradicted the impression that Saddam’s Iraq was a current threat, or even one of the greater threats in the near future.
Current Differences Over Iraq
Hindsight is 20-20, but the question many people will ask was whether the odds of a Saddam Hussein-backed terrorist attack were more than 50-50. Certainly, Bush argues, whatever the odds, the removal of Saddam pre-empted a potential threat. Kerry, however, appears to make two distinct counter-arguments with respect to Iraq. The first is that the Bush administration’s appraisals of the Iraqi threat, as well as its estimation of post-Saddam challenges, turned out to be wrong. Therefore the Bush administration should admit that mistakes were made. The second is based upon Kerry’s fundamentally different approach to America’s friends and foes.
Differences Over Dealing With Enemies
Bush made several telling remarks in the debate with respect to America’s enemies. Bush several times referred to himself as “steadfast” and said that, “When I say something [the rest of the world] knows I mean it.” Both political supporters and adversaries would agree that he has been remarkably consistent in his Iraqi policy, though adversaries might remind him of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Emerson, of course was not a political philosopher, but the politically savvy Machiavelli might have advised the President that being militarily steadfast may be convincing to your enemies when it is clear that you are winning. Otherwise, the politically astute must resort to additional means.
Libya is a positive example for the Bush administration. Within the first weeks of the Iraqi war, Libya’s own notorious leader, Muammar Qaddafi, announced that he would meet all international demands concerning his nuclear program and former involvement with terrorism. The timing of Qaddafi’s decision was more than a coincidence, and probably was a response to the U.S.-initiated war against Saddam. Still, it should be noted that Qaddafi had been moving in the direction of international cooperation for a decade or more. The announcement in 2003 was just the final step.
North Korea, in contrast, went ballistic (pun intended) after the U.S. intervened in Iraq. This country, led by a leader, Kim Jong-il, who is perhaps even less rational than Hussein, has announced that it now possesses nuclear weapons capabilities. Kim Jong-il. leads a country with probably the least amount of freedom of communication in the world. His people, who are not allowed to read any outside sources of information, believe that their nation is the economically soundest (it is actually one of the poorest), and are told that the U.S. is the equivalent of Nazi Germany. North Korea is seen by most independent analysts as the nation that is the greatest threat to U.S. security. And, unlike Saddam’s Iraq, Kim’s North Korea would not be so simple for the U.S. military to invade.
Iran’s recent refusal to cooperate with the international community over its nuclear program is potentially another result of the current Iraq war. Although Iran claims that its program is not intended to build nuclear weapons, there is evidence now that Iran has an advanced program for the development of weapons-grade uranium. Iran also would have been more difficult militarily than Saddam’s Iraq was in 2003. However, the investment of so much U.S. military in Iraq also makes it harder for the U.S. to pose a credible threat to Iran, if it simply continues on its path.
Another critical Bush comment came in response to Kerry’s assertion that foreign troops -- believed to be predominantly Islamic extremists -- keep pouring over the Iraqi border into the country. Implicitly admitting this, Bush replied, Of course, our enemies are trying their hardest to beat us. Yes, the U.S. has a lot of opposition in Iraq. This ranges from the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Islamic extremist close to al-Qaeda, to a variety of former Baathist Sunnis and those who follow the radical Shiite Moqtada Sadr. Yet the current administration needs to be careful about lumping all of them together.
Groups like al-Qaeda or Zarqawi’s Tawhid and Jihad want to kill Americans, whether in the Middle East or in the U.S., in order to instigate a worldwide war of Muslims against the West. Many of the others simply want the U.S. to leave Iraq. They would not be particularly interested in fighting Americans, if America was no longer involved in Iraq. And they probably have less interest in executing those attacks on American soil. Treating them as a single entity runs the risk of creating the self-fulfilling prophecy of uniting them either temporarily, or perhaps even on a long-term basis.
Kerry, although understanding the danger of the former Baathists or Shiite radicals, differs tactically from Bush in proposing more troops to close the borders. Implicitly, he shows more concern about the foreign forces -- more likely to be al-Qaeda sympathizers -- than he does about some of Iraq’s domestic opponents to the new interim government of Iyad Allawi. It is a subtle difference, and it is not certain that Kerry, if elected, would be able to obtain more troops for this effort. This is made more critical, in light of Kerry’s concern about the lack of completion of the Afghanistan war. The latter also would require more troops. But this would likely require more assistance from U.S. allies. Kerry asserts that he can obtain support from more allies. This would result, he states, from his differences from the Bush administration, with respect to our allies.
Differences In Dealing With Allies
Kerry wants to rely more on relationships with allies. Kerry feels that he will be able to accomplish this, in cases where Bush has been unsuccessful, because the Bush administration has been ungracious in dealing with America’s allies. The Bush administration would deny that its treatment of allies has been a significant factor in not gaining the cooperation of allies. It is far from certain, for example, that any U.S. leader would be able to convince other powerful allies, such as Germany and France, to commit troops to Iraq. In any case, whoever is right, this -- in itself -- is not a strategic difference between the two candidates.
The strategic difference is that the Bush administration believes that member nations of NATO, the European Union and the UN will often obstruct U.S. efforts in the war on terror. Bush asserted in the debate that giving the UN a “veto” over U.S. military policy would hamper the ability of the U.S. to eliminate dangerous regimes and terrorist organizations worldwide.
Kerry clearly asserted in the debate that he would never grant the UN a veto. But he takes a more optimistic view of how, by fostering a more positive relationship with U.S. allies and the UN, the U.S. may get greater international support. In essence, his position is in line with the Rolling Stones song, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” The significant departure for Kerry is that he believes that international support for the U.S. is not just helpful, but even necessary, to win its eventual victory in the war on terror.
Differences Concerning Leadership
The Bush campaign has frequently referred to Kerry as a “flip-flopper,” and contrasts this with the President, who has been “steadfast.” Bush, in the first debate, alluded to the same trait, saying, “The only consistent [sic] about my opponent's position is that he's been inconsistent.” But Kerry appeared to defend his position, as consistent, in the following way: he thought that Saddam Hussein was a threat, but that it was a mistake to go to war without exhausting the diplomatic possibilities.
But Bush several times criticized Kerry’s stated position and commented, “[I]f I were to ever say, ‘This is the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place,’ the troops would wonder, how can I follow this guy?” Kerry, in his own his behalf, criticized the President’s certainty by remarking, “You can be certain and be wrong.” Although some of this reeks of rhetorical flourish, there does appear to be a difference in leadership philosophy.
Bush seems to believe that a leader must guard against admitting mistakes, because it will make him or her seem less of a leader. Most people do not confess mistakes if they do not have to, and it may be tactically better than confessing to mistakes that do not directly affect people. But when mistakes become clear to others, it may make a leader look more foolish to avoid acknowledging them. Kerry appears to be saying that it is better to acknowledge an honest error by, at minimum, correcting your position, if not transparently confessing the error.
On the other hand, it certainly is true that there are positive and negative ways to admit mistakes. If Kerry were actually to say that the war was a mistake, it would be hard to get either the public or our U.S. allies to commit to it, however, Kerry believes the war should be conducted. But that is not how he says that he would approach the soldiers and world leaders. And, as for the latter, he believes that they may actually be more receptive to the message that, regardless of their differences over the initiation of the war, Iraq and the rest of the world will now be a better place if they back U.S. efforts at rebuilding the country.
Deciding On A Candidate
The candidates will have two more debates in the next few weeks. The domestic issues addressed in those debates will be important to most voters. However, with the war on terror on most people’s minds, foreign policy is perhaps more important in this election than at any other time in the past thirty or more years. These television debates can easily tell us which candidate is taller, warmer, more assured, more interesting, more articulate or more telegenic. But they cannot telegraph whose policies are better. A voter can only determine that based upon each candidate’s responses. That is what debates are supposed to be for. And it helps to have a news media help individuals better comprehend the candidates’ statements.
Otherwise, people will not be electing the best candidate for U.S. President, but, instead, the best candidate for the heavyweight championship.