I listened to the debates in the 2004 presidential election hoping to hear that one of the candidates was not as pathetic as they appeared. I was disappointed.
During the “debate” on national security issues, in particular, not only was neither candidate personally reassuring but there seemed to be almost no substance to the actual argument. That was particularly frustrating because the talking heads of the media, and all the news stories the following day, kept referring to the “substantive” discussion. I wondered if I’d somehow tuned in to the Cliff Notes version of the debate, or perhaps the Debate for Dummies channel.
I wrote this to protest, to let the candidates know that they had not provided this “undecided” voter with any reason for my support — and to set down in writing, both for their sake and for my own, what it was I thought were the important questions in any debate on foreign policy in this election. I sent it to The Boston Globe and to The New York Times, but I also sent it by e-mail directly to both the Bush and Kerry campaigns. The silence was deafening.
4 October 2004
It has now been three days since the debate between the presidential candidates about foreign policy and security. In the current news climate, with our short attention spans and the frantic pace of the last days of the campaign, three days is forever: that debate is old news and only mentioned, if at all, for its effect on yesterdays polling numbers. We’ve moved on. Subject closed. The world is turning. Too much is happening tomorrow to dwell on yesterday.
And yet, three days does not seem an excessive period for reflection on such a subject. Perhaps I am old-fashioned or archaic, but I don’t think it is necessarily a good thing, this need to rush analysis onto the airwaves and into print. Sober assessment in the fullness of time still has value. And so I’ve just now committed my musings to paper, musings which depart somewhat from the instant analysis and the popular wisdom.
I must explain that I am one of the coveted undecided voters, although perhaps not typical and therefore perhaps not one at whom campaign messages are aimed. I lean toward traditionally conservative principles — political liberty coupled with civic responsibility and respect for normative social behavior; economic liberty restrained by a code of ethics and coupled with social conscience; robust and pragmatic domestic policing and national defense; fiscal prudence; and a government constrained against tyranny — and am, therefore, more likely to support a thoughtful and honest moderate Democrat than one of the current generation of anti-intellectual Republican ideologues tainted by their flirtations with theocracy and oligarchy. But I find that thoughtful and honest moderates are a species as rare and undervalued within the Democratic party as traditional conservatives are within the Republican party. I am undecided in this election not because I am indecisive, not because I cannot resolve who is the better candidate, but because a vote for either seems like a self-inflicted wound and I am searching for some reassurance that one is, perhaps, not really as appalling as he appears. For President Bush, that means convincing me that he and his staff are capable of acknowledging and learning from their mistakes of hubris and judgment, and of adjusting their thinking and their policies accordingly to salvage what we can from the chaos in Iraq and at home. For Senator Kerry, that means convincing me that all his nuance and deliberation fit consistently within some rational and acceptable strategic and moral framework rather than reflecting mere mental anarchy — and that he has the political backbone to articulate and stick to a policy even if it offends the entrenched interests of some Democratic constituency or of socialistic European intellectuals.
Before the Iraq war, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times broke with most of his colleagues on the left to support an invasion on grounds both principled and strategic — that liberation of the subjugated was in the classic liberal tradition and that establishment of a viable democracy in the heart of the Arab world was perhaps the most potent potential counter to the fusion of Islamic fundamentalism with Arab nationalism that is the inspiration for global terror. His support, however, was qualified by the observation that the Bush administration seemed ill-prepared to execute on that strategic vision and was as likely to lose the peace as it was to win the war. That qualification now seems prescient.
President Bush, indeed, must answer for a host of tactical failures in the planning and execution of the post-combat period in Iraq. Even if it is unfair to assert that the current chaos is, itself, proof that the invasion was a mistake — a cancer patient halfway through chemotherapy may not yet see his cancer in a convincing retreat but he has been, nonetheless, poisoned by the process and is, by most measures, less healthy than before the treatments began — it is clear that the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq has been notable for its inadequate preparation and staffing, ideological arrogance, cultural ignorance, misallocation of resources, political interference, and susceptibility to operational catastrophes like Abu Graib. The ill-effects of these problems, and of cynical accusations that the war was prosecuted under false pretenses, have been exaggerated because the President has been so far unable — or, perhaps, for some inexplicable reason he believes it unnecessary or unwise — to articulate clearly and completely either the long-term strategy we are following or how the disarming and democratization of Iraq furthers that strategy. Broad platitudes about freedom and the dangers of WMD offer glimpses of substance but not substance itself.
But, if the President must answer for tactical blunders in pursuit of a real but unarticulated strategy, Senator Kerry has yet to offer anything that resembles a strategy at all. His has been a platform of rather minor tactical adjustments, buttressed by assertions of calumny and incompetence and claims of his own superior managerial and diplomatic talent, seemingly disconnected from any long-term vision other than some vague faith in the moral ascendancy of the inaptly named international “community”.
So my choice has seemed to be between continuing along a perilous road with a demonstrably incompetent driver following what may be a decent map that he won’t show anyone, and starting along the same road with a driver of self-proclaimed but unproven competence who has no map at all and a suspect sense of direction. It was my hope that the give-and-take of a debate on foreign policy and security would reveal something encouraging about one or both of them. Notwithstanding the considered judgment of the commentariat that the debate was substantive and that Senator Kerry won, I was disappointed.
From President Bush I had hoped to hear, at last, an intelligent and thorough overview of our strategy for the war on terror, an acknowledgement of where things have gone wrong (and right) so far, and a plausible plan for correcting those problems. What I heard instead was “Trust Me” repeated ad nauseum in a precious few tedious variations. His recurring assertion that to question the wisdom of his strategy or tactics somehow gave succor to the enemy might have been persuasive if he had made any attempt to explain or justify either, but without such an attempt the assertion was merely condescending. And his refusal even to acknowledge that we might have cause for concern about the future in Iraq — his insistence that merely acknowledging that it is “hard work, important work” should somehow be enough to reassure us that we have a viable plan for calming the current conflagration and extracting a democracy from the ashes — did nothing to assuage my doubts.
I believe — I hope — there is a strategy hidden in the pabulum: I doubt either Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice would still be attaching their names to the effort if there were not. And I believe that the strategy follows the general outline suggested by Thomas Friedman: to win the hearts and minds of our enemy by birthing a stable democracy at the heart of the Arab/Islamic Middle East, a counter to the forces of theocracy. Expecting it to be there, I even heard hints of such a strategy in the President’s formulaic presentation. But the fact that I had to infer it, rather than hear it plainly, was a constant frustration. And Iraq is still burning.
But, if I heard nothing new or encouraging from President Bush, what I heard from Senator Kerry was disheartening. I expected, of course, to hear a critique of the execution in the war on terror and certainly that was there — although whatever specifics he proposed seemed so close to current policy that they amounted to the same program under new management. That may or may not be worthwhile: the current management has proved inadequate but, since Senator Kerry has no record of management that we can examine to know whether or not his self-confidence is justified, the decision to keep the old or to try the new must be based on little better than guesswork. And his continued assertion that he would internationalize the war to take the burden off our troops and our treasury is almost laughable: unless the leaders of old Europe have already struck a secret deal with Senator Kerry to announce, immediately after George W. Bush’s defeat at the polls, a heretofore absent intention and capacity for assisting in Iraq (note: that is not an accusation), then Senator Kerry’s confident assertion that the French will suddenly stop behaving like the French when President Kerry strides into Paris is either deluded or disingenuous. If his plans for victory in Iraq rest on that tenuous a foundation, they are as unrealistic as the worst assumptions from the Pentagon about American soldiers being treated as liberators during the initial invasion.
The more important message I had hoped to hear from Senator Kerry was his vision for the long-term struggle: who and what he perceives to be the enemy and how he thinks they can be subverted or overcome. What I heard instead confirmed my worst fears: that Senator Kerry not only has no strategy but does not even view this as a struggle worthy of one. His critique of the decision to invade Iraq is still mired in details — who suspected which intelligence and when; how close was Iraq really to deploying WMD; did Saddam Hussein support the attack on America directly (and don’t mention indirectly); did we make enough effort to drag France and Germany along with us — rather than addressing the broader strategic questions: what is the nature of the enemy and their cause; was the tyranny in Iraq contributing to that broader cause; is establishment of a democracy in the middle east the best way to begin to turn the tide against Islamic fundamentalism? I would respect the argument that the strategic benefit of a democratic Iraq has been overstated; or that the potential benefit could not justify the price in international prestige and domestic treasure; or that the difficulty of establishing the desired end and the potential for it going horribly wrong made the risk too high. Whether or not the benefit was worth the cost was always a matter of judgment, and there was no certain answer. I would respect the argument that some approach other than military intervention would be better, provided it was backed by more than wishful thinking about our common humanity. A debate on the merits of these arguments would have been welcome before the invasion and would still be welcome now. What I cannot respect is the utter failure to acknowledge any strategic purpose at all, the assertion that the war in Iraq was entirely about mythical WMD or about mythical connections to the attacks on America or about oil or about personal revenge or about empire — and entirely divorced from the war on terrorism; and, worse, the assertion that the war on terrorism itself is all about capturing Osama Bin Laden or about securing ports and airliners.
That utter lack of strategic vision — exemplified by the dogmatic insistence that Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden are still the only true front in the war on terror — doom any possibility of victory.
Immediately after the attacks on New York and Washington, Osama Bin Laden was the top priority not merely because he was behind the events of that day, and not merely because he represented the head of the serpent, but because he had many of the essential attributes of a commander-in-chief: a significant fighting force under his command; secure bases from which to operate; a well-defined command and control structure; large-scale financial and material resources; and an international infrastructure for force-projection. And Afghanistan was the top priority not because the odious Taliban regime, itself, represented any serious threat but because of its use of Afghani sovereignty to shield Bin Laden: we had to go through the Taliban to get to Al Quaeda.
But once the Taliban was demolished, once the Al Quaeda safe havens were eliminated and its financial and material infrastructure fragmented, once the Al Quaeda command and control structure was disrupted and its leadership forced underground, Afghanistan largely lost its strategic significance. Al Quaeda and its cousins persist, but as a dispersed network to which Afghanistan is of only minor significance; the capture of Bin Laden now, while a boost for morale in America, will no longer significantly affect the Islamic movement he champions or the terrorist network he spawned. And, although support for an Afghani democracy is both desirable and a moral obligation after our invasion, Afghanistan is too remote and too poor to serve as a model for greater political possibilities or as a voice for moderation in either the Islamic or the Arab worlds. Senator Kerry’s fixation on Bin Laden and Afghanistan illustrates a continuation of the mindset of the 1990s: that the war on terror is more a matter of law-enforcement and homeland security than a matter of military and cultural strategic significance.
As for Iraq, although President Bush embarrassed himself with his endless repetition of the mantra about sending mixed messages, Senator Kerry’s continued contention that Iraq is a distraction from the “real” war on terror almost guarantees that President Kerry will turn it into one. His position, reaffirmed in the debate, seems to be more that we must fix Iraq because we broke it than that we must fix Iraq for any strategic purpose. If that is his limited goal — to fix what we broke and get the hell out — then he is likely to settle for the first political solution that seems moderately stable rather than putting in the greater effort required to achieve viable democratic institutions. But if Iraq emerges merely as yet another Arab tyranny, or worse as yet another Islamic theocracy, we will have gained almost nothing for our risk, treasure, blood, and frayed alliances. The primary strategic justification for invading Iraq — notwithstanding the real yet remote threat of Iraqi WMD or the accusations from the left of some more nefarious agenda — was to establish a beachhead for democracy and prosperity within the middle-east from which moderate Muslims could strive against the tide of Islamic fundamentalism. If we give up on that then it truly will have been a colossal waste.
© Copyright 2004, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell