Tuesday, October 05, 2004


The following article was written by Rami G. Khoury, Executive Editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. It appeared in the Jordan Times October 5.

American common sense on Iraq Rears its Head

A series of recent developments in Iraq and the United States has suddenly propelled the war in Iraq into a more prominent place within the current American presidential election. The likely impact of this trend, as the situation appears today, would be to improve the prospects of the Democratic candidate John Kerry and weaken the position of President George W. Bush, in relative terms. More importantly, it signals the awakening of a slumbering giant — the common sense of ordinary Americans who resent being taken for a ride.

The reasons for the greater prominence of the Iraq war in the minds of the American electorate revolve around both Kerry's recent performance and events on the ground in Iraq. The former include such factors as Kerry's going on the attack against Bush on the issue of the president's handling of the whole Iraq matter, and particularly making of this a litmus test of the president's judgement and character. This reversed the trend of the previous month, when Bush's attacks succeeded in making Kerry's conduct in the Vietnam war three decades ago the big issue of the moment. Kerry has also prompted many Americans to associate the $200 billion Bush spent on the Iraq war with massive amounts of money that otherwise could have been spent on domestic American needs, including healthcare and education.

The ongoing change in Iraq's place in the presidential election has also reflected the continued deaths of American soldiers almost on a daily basis, and the large-scale assaults by thousands of American troops in places like Samarra. Scenes of daily car bombings that kill scores of Iraqis, along with the recent beheadings of two kidnapped Americans in Iraq, serve to raise new questions about the effectiveness of Washington's Iraq policy among segments of American society.

All of this was accentuated by the first of the three presidential debates last Thursday, which focused on foreign policy issues. Opinion polls released in the past few days indicate that the American public generally saw Kerry as having done a better job in the debate than Bush. The cumulative evidence suggests that more and more Americans are questioning whether their country's military involvement in Iraq is sustainable in the long run, given the rising tide of anti-American attacks in Iraq and the more focused political attacks against Bush at home on the issue of his handling of the war and its aftermath.

My impression during a visit to the US this week and discussions with Americans who closely follow foreign policy issues is that Bush's vulnerabilities on the Iraq war issue are finally becoming more obvious — given the politically deadly combination of the rising tide of violence in Iraq, continuing American deaths and major spending costs there, and a Democratic presidential contender who has finally figured out how to attack the president on this issue.

Iraq on its own is not a big enough issue in the eyes of the average American to cause a majority to vote for Kerry or against Bush. But as the pivot of a series of issues that do impact on the lives of ordinary Americans — economic prospects, the moral character of their president, widespread perceptions of continuing security threats and their nation's derision throughout most of the world — the American adventure in Iraq looms more important in the presidential race than it did at any point during the past year.

The sad aspect of all this, though, is how thin and superficial is the foreign policy debate in the US generally. The president and his political advisers have consistently played on the fears and aftershocks of Sept. 11 among the American public, and they have painted a dramatic but false picture of the world and America's place in it. For the past three years, ordinary Americans who were shocked and bewildered by the attack against them on Sept. 11 have dealt with their very normal concerns largely by accepting both the analytical and emotional approaches that Bush has offered them: the world has changed forever, dangerous and evil people plot widely to attack the US and undermine freedom and Western civilisation, and the only way to stop this is to go on the offensive and fight the terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of in New Jersey and Oklahoma.

The events of the past two weeks, with Kerry pulling even with Bush again in the opinion polls of likely voters, suggest that the Bush strategy of playing on the fears of ordinary Americans at home and waging war abroad is being questioned with some seriousness for the first time since Sept. 11. With a month to go before the presidential election, other factors will come into play and determine the winner. In the short run, though, something constructive may be taking place inside the United States, and it is a joy to watch: ordinary citizens are asking more probing questions about the true reasons for, and the full costs and consequences of, their country's policy in Iraq. A democratic system that showed its flaws when it allowed emotionalism to dominate reason and reality in recent years now seems to be trying to redress the balance.

The common sense of the American people is a mighty force, and usually a benevolent one. It is a force that usually seeks to do good when the real choice between good and bad is on the table and clear — as may be happening, at last, this month.