How John Kerry should handle Iraq

Thoughts on President Bush's foreign policy debacle -- and what the Democratic presidential nominee should say and do about it -- from John Judis, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Michael Lind and more.

Published July 23, 2004 7:34PM (EDT)

John B. Judis, senior editor of the New Republic; visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

I deal here only with what Kerry should say in the election, not with what he should do as president, which is a very different subject. In the campaign, he must deal above all with the threat of al-Qaida and the invasion and occupation of Iraq. First, he has to counter the impression -- particularly among white, working-class voters -- that Republicans are tougher and better prepared to protect America from foreign attack. He needs to tout his war record, criticize the Bush administration's failure to make Americans more secure, and promise to get the terrorists that have eluded Bush. He's been pretty good on doing this.

Secondly, he has to convince voters that he will deal with them straightforwardly and honestly on foreign policy -- and conversely that Bush has not. It is very important for the Kerry campaign to remind voters that Bush exaggerated or lied about the threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and its ties with al-Qaida. The campaign, if not Kerry himself, has to shake voters' trust in the president as a leader. So far Kerry and his campaign have not been very good at this for reasons I don't entirely understand.

Thirdly, Kerry has to convince voters that while he won't "turn tail" or "cut and run" in Iraq, he will extricate the U.S. from its position as the principal occupying force (along with the docile Brits) in Iraq. He has to convince voters that he is in better position than Bush is to bring in other countries and to get Americans out. (And Kerry is.) This is very important to winning over swing-state voters who fear, above all, a protracted Vietnam-like war. He should be studying Nixon's 1968 campaign. Thus far, Kerry has been awful on this point. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview, he even suggested that American troops could remain in Iraq through his first term. Kerry's failure on this point could cost him the election.

Fourth, Kerry has to emphasize that he will not commit American troops to a "war of choice." The U.S. may contribute to peacekeeping forces or engage with NATO in the Balkans, but under a Kerry administration, we will not launch a full-scale invasion of a country, putting Americans at risk and committing its available resources, unless it is absolutely necessary for our security. He must make it clear that the Bush administration launched a war of choice, not one of necessity, in Iraq.

Kerry has been at best mediocre at making this case. Except in touting his Vietnam experience, Kerry has been either overly vague or overly defensive in laying out his foreign policy. He can't continue to do so, and hope to win in November.

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., historian and Pulitzer-prize winning author:

John Kerry should say he voted for war because he believed in George W. Bush's account of the threat. And since that account of threat turned out to be false, he should say that he did not and could not take President Bush seriously any more. President Bush got us into this mess and we can't withdraw precipitously, but we need to internationalize the occupation and get the U.N. involved -- which Bush is opposed to -- and the sooner the better.

I think the real blow has been the torture revelations. It will take a long time to obliterate the memory of Abu Ghraib, and I think the quickest way to do it is to have regime change in Washington.

Ted Widmer, director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience; former director of speechwriting for President Clinton's National Security Council:

There is some confusion over Sen. Kerry's two votes on Iraq, fanned by a Republican attack machine that will stop at nothing to portray Kerry as a waffler. But there's also an explanation for those willing to get into the weeds. Kerry's first vote, to support a future war effort in October 2002, was less gung-ho than it appeared -- it was predicated on the president's promise to pursue inspections and assemble a coalition -- promises that were never fulfilled. The second vote, against an $87 billion war package in October 2003, was not a knee-jerk antiwar statement. Kerry voted against the money because the bill had serious loopholes, including no-bid contracts for Bush cronies, and Kerry wanted more money to come from cutting tax breaks for the rich. That's not exactly wearing a peace sign and a dashiki.

Will most Americans take the time to sort through these details? No. But a simpler explanation makes just as much sense. In October 2002 the war cause, based on what was presumed to be infallible secret evidence, was persuasive to most people who trusted the president. A year later, after multiple deceptions, cost overruns and clear evidence of an insurgency that was out of control, glib answers from the White House were no longer acceptable. No historian would ever suggest that a principled senator like J. William Fulbright was a waffler simply because he voted for the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Resolutions and then opposed the Vietnam War when it was revealed to be a tissue of lies. In fact, the early deception was precisely what fueled his later opposition. Like Fulbright, Kerry should take pride in his growing skepticism -- basing it not on narrow partisan concerns (Fulbright, after all, was opposing a Democratic president), but on the greater injustice that a president deceived troops, Congress and the American people with claims that were not even close to being true. It is only by resorting to principle -- the most powerful weapon in America's arsenal -- that we can win back the respect of the world.

Charles W. Maynes, former editor of Foreign Policy:

A colleague who spent his teenage years in Baghdad during the 1960s recalls his experience with Iraqi nationalism: He would go horseback riding along the Euphrates, and young Iraqi children, holding rocks, would demand to know if he was British. When he said, "American," he could pass unharmed.

The number of places in the Islamic world where an American can prudently venture out alone is fast dwindling. Beyond political and economic concerns, such a shift in attitudes poses a strategic concern: Today thousands of terrorists violently opposed to U.S. policies in the Middle East find shelter within the Islamic world, much of which strongly disapproves of U.S. policy. A recent poll by the Pew Global Attitudes survey foud that "True dislike, if not hatred, of America is concentrated in the Muslim nations of the Middle East and in Central Asia, today's areas of greatest conflict."

Kerry-Edwards must make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority. The principal reason cited for growing antipathy against the U.S. is its support for Israeli policy in the occupied territories. A close second is a backlash against the U.S.-led war on terror. Unless we change attitudes held by so many in the Islamic world, the United States stands little chance of eliminating the strategic threat posed by terrorist groups determined to strike the United States. We cannot find isolated enemies hiding among a billion people.

It is delusional to believe the U.S. can change these attitudes through better public relations alone -- policy must shift. The U.S. should take up the offer of Jordan and Yemen to send troops to Iraq and encourage other Arab states to follow suit. It should realize that NATO is unlikely to play a positive role in a nationalistic Iraq and think of other ways that NATO could be useful. One would be a NATO security pledge for Israel within its 1967 borders. Once that commitment to Israel is firm, the West must strongly discourage Israel from further colonization of the West Bank. Each new step there only places another obstacle in the path of U.S. efforts to control and eliminate Islamic terrorism, and thus to reduce a direct danger to the United States.

Sherle Schwenninger, senior fellow at the World Policy Institute at New School University:

John Kerry's allegiance to the "multilateralism-if-we-can, unilateralism-if-we must" school of American foreign policy will clearly improve the atmospherics of America's relations with the world. But this alone will not restore American respect or regain American influence, which has suffered greatly under the Bush administration. In fact, the causes of America's loss of respect and influence go much deeper -- to changed perceptions of American power and virtue and to the direction of American policy, particularly as it relates to the war on terrorism and the Middle East.

For much of the past decade and half, we have benefited from an inflated sense of our power and influence -- a foreign policy bubble, if you will -- which much of the rest of the world bought into. So it has been especially damaging to our position for other major countries to see just how recklessly we can use that power and just how limited it can be in achieving declared American policy objectives. The Bush administration's inability to stabilize Afghanistan and to subdue the insurgency in Iraq has revealed the limits of American military force. Even these limited military engagements have stretched American forces thin, thus making any threats against North Korea, Iran and Syria look increasingly hollow.

This bursting of our military supremacy bubble comes on the heels of a similar decline in America's international economic influence. Against their better judgment, emerging economies in Asia and Latin America went along with the Robert Rubin-Larry Summers program of financial liberalization, which contributed to the Asian financial crisis. Now American policy advice is suspect in much of the world, and the American economy is even more dependent on mercantilist China and Japan, to buy U.S. treasuries to fund our war in Iraq.

Washington's self-declared war on terrorism has also contributed to the loss of influence because it has changed the balance of interest and influence between the United States and its allies, most of which do not share Washington's obsession with the terrorist threat or with rogue states like Iran. Because of this obsession, we now need our partners in Europe and Asia much more than they need us. It does not help that they also believe that our policies in the Middle East are misguided, and that we are too indulgent toward Israel's destructive approach to the Palestinians and have made ourselves hostage to the backward-looking Saudi monarchy to control the price of world oil, both of which are seen as the cause for much of the Islamic extremism gathering force in the Greater Middle East.

James Chace, director of the Globalization and International Affairs Program at Bard College; author of "1912: The Election That Changed the Country":

The United States must pursue a solvent foreign policy that responds to the vital interests of the nation. Rather than embracing the idea that a democratic Iraq can become a model for other Middle Eastern countries, John Kerry should put greater efforts into distancing the United States from autocratic regimes. The White House can press for reform in those countries by cutting back on military sales and economic aid. Egypt, for example, ranks second to Israel as a recipient of U.S. aid.

Conversely, a Kerry administration can reward countries for liberalizing their economies and their political institutions. The United States simply cannot go on binding itself to reactionary regimes out of fear of instability in the region. If the White House chooses to pursue the path of democratic imperialism, the consequences will be endless wars.

Messianic efforts to imprint an American model of democracy on a global scale should not be the centerpiece of American foreign policy. Nonetheless, Washington cannot pursue a successful foreign policy without a moral component. A strategic rather than an ideological approach, however, not only advances the nation's interests but also seeks allies among governments and peoples who share those interests and values. The goal of a Kerry administration therefore should be to have a solvent foreign policy. Solvency in this respect means bringing our ends -- moral as well as physical -- to be compatible with our means.

Charles A. Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University; senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations:

John Kerry should continue to support America's efforts to bring order to Iraq -- but without embracing the Bush administration's naive assumption that the war has paved the way for the immediate establishment of liberal democracy in Iraq. The goal in the near term should be security and stability. Furthermore, Kerry should keep in mind the power of nationalism in the Middle East, seeking to limit the size and duration of America's military presence in Iraq.

When the Senate voted on the congressional resolution backing the Iraq war, its members widely embraced two critical assumptions. One was that the Bush administration would use the coercive leverage provided by congressional approval of the resolution to explore fully a diplomatic solution, resorting to war only as a last resort. Furthermore, the Senate presumed that Washington's diplomatic efforts would enable the United States to assemble a broad international coalition should war prove unavoidable. The second critical assumption affecting the Senate's vote was that President Bush's main justifications for the war -- the presence of WMD and Iraq's links to al-Qaida -- were credible.

In light of the fact that the Bush administration did not exhaust its diplomatic options, failed to build an international consensus, and saw its main justifications for attacking Iraq evaporate, a vote for the war resolution hardly obligates Kerry -- or any other member of the Senate or House -- to stand by the administration's handling of the conflict or its governance of post-war Iraq. Indeed, to criticize Bush's rush to war, his diplomatic missteps and his bungled management of post-Saddam Iraq is not to flip-flop, it is to exercise responsible leadership.

The Iraq war and the Bush administration's go-it-alone tendencies have cost the United States one of its most precious commodities: its legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Three key changes are needed to regain America's standing abroad. The first is a Kerry victory in November and the return of a brand of U.S. leadership that inspires global confidence -- not resentment. The second is a series of policy initiatives from the new administration aimed at restoring America's political capital abroad. Of particular importance are measures to revive the Atlantic partnership, protect the global environment and pursue multilateral means of limiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The third key step entails the rebuilding of a moderate bipartisan coalition in the United States, a coalition critical to putting U.S. foreign policy back on a centrist and responsible course.

Michael Lind, senior fellow at the New America Foundation; author of "Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics":

Neither John Kerry nor any other member of the U.S. Congress voted for the war in Iraq. They voted for the threat of war as a tool of coercive diplomacy. The Iraq Resolution was a conditional declaration of war, like Eisenhower's Formosa Resolution of 1956 and Johnson's Southeast Asia Resolution of 1964. Conditional declarations of war allow the president to threaten war in an effort to achieve diplomatic results.

Congress authorized President Bush to use the threat of war in order to coerce Saddam Hussein into allowing intrusive arms inspections to determine whether his regime possessed weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. The policy worked. The buildup of U.S. armed forces pressured Saddam into allowing arms inspectors. They discovered that, indeed, he probably had no weapons of mass destruction. Since it was likely if not certain that Saddam posed no real threat, the existing sanctions regime should have been continued, with the addition of intrusive arms inspections. Most of the U.S. troops who had taken part in the buildup as part of America's successful coercive diplomacy should have been transferred to Afghanistan, where they were needed to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban and to pacify the country.

The members of Congress who voted to give the president the threat of waging war to pressure Saddam into allowing intrusive arms inspections were vindicated, when coercive diplomacy in Iraq succeeded. By proceeding to wage war, President Bush disobeyed the express terms of the congressional resolution, which authorized him to use "necessary and appropriate" force only in two circumstances: to "defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq" and to "enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding Iraq." Because the inspectors had determined that there was no threat to the U.S. from Iraq, and because Saddam had broadly complied with all "relevant" (arms-related) Security Council resolutions, neither of the two express conditions for either the threat or the actual use of force had been met.

George W. Bush waged the war in defiance of the terms of the resolution which he claims authorized it. Bush asked Congress for the authority to threaten force to pressure Saddam Hussein into admitting international arms inspectors. Then, after the success of that policy made war unnecessary, he proceeded to wage a war of regime change which Congress had not authorized. Bush, not Kerry, is the flip-flopper.

By Compiled by Salon staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Iraq John F. Kerry D-mass. Middle East