Picking the wrong fight over Iraq

By Tim Grieve
Published August 12, 2004 4:15PM (EDT)

The Bush and Kerry campaigns continue their cross-country shooting war over Iraq, intelligence and terrorism today. That wouldnt be such a bad thing if the candidates and their staffs were actually talking about the issues. Instead, the presidential race has devolved into a "he said, she said" pissing match over whose comments amount to waffling and whose comments are the most misleading.

As John Edwards might say, "It doesn't have to be this way."

Bush started it last week by challenging Kerry to give a "yes or no" answer on Iraq: Knowing what he knows today, would Kerry have supported going to war? The Kerry campaign apparently debated about a response all weekend. What eventually emerged: Kerry said yes, he would have voted for the use-of-force resolution. It wasn't an answer to the question Bush asked, exactly, but Jamie Rubin handled that one. He said that, if Kerry had been president, "in all probability" he would have decided to invade Iraq.

The answers brought more questions, of course, and the ugly back-and-forth continues. Bush and Cheney accuse Kerry of flip-flopping. The Kerry campaign accuses Bush and Cheney of misrepresenting Kerry's comments and flip-flopping themselves.

Today, Cheney seized on a Kerry comment last week in which he said that America should fight "a more effective, more thoughtful, more strategic, more proactive, more sensitive war on terror that reaches out to other nations and brings them to our side and lives up to American values in history." Cheney locked on to "sensitive," and he suggested that what Kerry meant was bringing some kind of "free to be me you and me approach" to al Qaida. "A sensitive war will not destroy the evil men who killed 3,000 Americans," Cheney said in remarks prepared for delivery in Ohio. "The men who beheaded Daniel Pearl and Paul Johnson will not be impressed by our sensitivity."

The Kerry campaign complained that Cheney was distorting what Kerry had actually meant, which was that the U.S. could use some sensitivity in bringing allies to its side. And the Kerry campaign noted that Bush himself has called for the United States to be "sensitive" when it comes to dealing with other countries.

The Kerry campaign is right about all that, of course, but in some ways it has only itself to blame. This is a week in which the campaign could be making the most out of the latest troubles in Iraq, the bad news on the economy, and a string of curious Bush statements about tax policy. Instead, the campaign let itself get drawn into the tit-for-tat on Iraq -- and not about whether Bush cooked the books on intelligence or whether the United States should have gone to war, but about what Kerry meant about Iraq when. According to today's Times, even Kerry's friends concede that he has lost the "first rounds" of this debate.

How hard would it have been to ignore Bush's questions or to turn them around on him? Imagine this. Reporter: "Sen. Kerry, knowing what you know now, would you have supported going to war in Iraq?" Kerry: "It's a hypothetical question, and I'm not going to answer it. The president asked the Senate for its support in October 2002, and we gave it to him based on the information his administration provided us. That information turned out to be false. Don't ask me about hypothetical votes in some hypothetical world. Go ask him why, in the real world, he misled the country."

Such a response wouldn't have ended the matter immediately, but the press eventually would have grown tired of asking Kerry a question he wasn't going to answer. By responding, Kerry only invited Bush's counter-response, and then Kerry's counter-counter-response. And now the cycle continues to play out right where Kerry -- who has to walk a fine line between war supporters and war opponents -- least wants it to be.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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