Right Hook

Zell Miller promotes his Kerry rage, David Frum says Dems missed chance to exploit rising U.S. casualties -- and real debate over America's future in Iraq is still missing in action.

Published September 15, 2004 9:47PM (EDT)

Against a darkening backdrop in Iraq of suicide car bombings, rampant kidnappings, stepped-up U.S. air strikes and spreading insurgencies, Bush supporters continue to shower the John Kerry campaign with cynical political shrapnel. The slow-motion collapse of Iraq's reconstruction on Bush's watch has at times been eclipsed by the volley of bitter and often backward-looking attacks -- from both sides of the race.

But most Americans know that regardless of who wins the election, the war will be a defining issue for many months, and likely years to come. In sympathy with the Bush campaign's core strategy, the president's supporters continue to play to voters' fears about Kerry's potential for wartime leadership. In Monday's Wall Street Journal the cantankerous Sen. Zell Miller, much criticized for his fierce diatribe against Kerry at the Republican Convention, dueled with his detractors en masse while further declaring, "I will never trust John Kerry with my family's safety." Today's trying circumstances, Miller argues, justify his wrath.

"My critics in the national media are working overtime trying to paint me as an angry nut who got the facts all wrong in my speech to the Republican National Convention. Since there's not enough time to challenge all of these critics to a duel, let me set the record straight here and now.

"First, the anger. A lot has been said about my angry demeanor. I've made enough speeches to know that you're supposed to connect with the audience by telling a joke or a humorous anecdote or some amusing tale. It's a tried-and-true formula that I've used for most of my life. But this was not a normal speech in a normal time."

Continuing to charge that "John Kerry is weak on national security," Miller claimed that his mistaken Democratic colleagues believe "America is the problem" in the Middle East -- even as untold millions of Iraqis and Afghans, according to Miller, are now "enjoying freedom" in their war-ravaged lands.

"John Kerry and his crowd derisively call American troops 'occupiers' because it fits with their warped belief that America is the problem, not the solution. While more than 50 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq are enjoying freedom, Mr. Kerry is still fretting over whether the U.N. crowd likes us or not. The American people will not abide a commander-in-chief who gets squeamish over America's role as a liberating force in the world."

Former Bush speechwriter and National Review contributor David Frum chastises the "Bush haters" for blowing an opportunity to hurt the Bush campaign with the bleak picture in Iraq. He argues that Bush hating could be "costing the Democrats an otherwise winnable election" because the "two huge anti-Bush attacks" of the past week, one by CBS on Bush's murky National Guard record, and the other by author Kitty Kelley on Bush's alleged record of hedonism, amount to nothing.

"The week that the Bush-haters have [spent] on these two rapidly discredited stories happened to be the week that the thousandth American soldier died in Iraq. Any White House would have to dread a milestone like that. It could have been a big and dangerous news story for the incumbent president -- that is, if his enemies had not buried it by deluging the country with two lurid and immediately retracted hoaxes."

David Adesnik of OxBlog takes note of a recent Washington Post article suggesting that the chaos in Iraq has not resulted in any major backlash against Bush.

"In spite of increasing violence," Adesnik writes, "more Americans think the invasion of Iraq was worth it and more American[s] think it has contributed to our national security. Perhaps most importantly, 53 percent think Bush will handle the situation better, as opposed to 37 percent for Kerry. In early July, the split was 47-47."

Though he doesn't discuss how the Iraq war has "contributed" to U.S. national security, Adesnik has an interesting take on the disconnect between the apparent success of the Bush campaign's rhetoric and the reality on the ground in Iraq.

"What is going on here? You might say it's the Swift Vets, but I don't buy it. My best guess is that the Republicans' relentless hammering away at Kerry's flip-flop on the war has persuaded voters that he can't be trusted. As for Iraq, I don't think that the handover fooled anyone or that there has been insufficient coverage of the recent violence."

"Hawk vs. Hawk"
With a flourish of rhetorical jujitsu, New York Times columnist David Brooks attempts to dispatch antiwar critics altogether from the discussion over Iraq: "The debate on how to proceed in Iraq is not between the hawks and the doves: it's within the hawk community, and it's between the gradualists and the confrontationalists."

But while most liberals and conservatives now agree that there is no turning back in Iraq, Brooks also understands the daunting set of problems wrought by the U.S. invasion and occupation.

"The gradualists argue that it would be crazy to rush into terrorist-controlled cities and try to clean them out with massive force because the initial attack would be so bloody there'd be a debilitating political backlash...

"The confrontationalists can't believe the Bush folks, of all people, are waging a sensitive war on terror. By moving so slowly, the U.S. is allowing terror armies to thrive and grow. With U.S. acquiescence, fascists are allowed to preen, terrorize and entrench themselves."

Brooks sides with the "gradualists," who "clearly have the upper hand within the Bush administration." He sees both options as bleak but casts his hopes with the Iraqis who are in the line of fire.

"It's depressing to realize how strong the case against each option is. But the weight of the argument is on the gradualist side. That's mostly because people like Ayad Allawi deserve a chance to succeed. These people in the interim government are scorned as stooges and U.S. puppets, but they're risking and sometimes giving their lives for their country. Let's take the time to give them a shot."

Michael Moore's "racist" freedom fighters
Others remain invigorated by the battle between hawks and doves. Aussie blogger Tim Blair offers a wry new twist on Michael Moore's so-called sympathy for Iraqi insurgents. In a post titled "Racial Profiling in Iraq," Blair writes: "Michael Moores brave 'Iraqi Minutemen' could use some sensitivity training." (He links to this widely circulated cartoon vilifying Moore for speaking out against the U.S. occupation in his typically hyperbolic fashion.) Blair's barb hinges on this segment from a recent Observer profile of a Sunni guerrilla:

"Black soldiers are a particular target. 'To have Negroes occupying us is a particular humiliation,' Abu Mujahed said, echoing the profound racism prevalent in much of the Middle East. 'Sometimes we aborted a mission because there were no Negroes.'"

But after Tuesday's massive suicide car-bomb attack on Baghdad's main police headquarters, Blair struck a more somber tone.

"In previous years the killings were carried out by policemen. The same people are targeted: those who opposed/oppose Saddam's regime. It's going to be a long, bloody crawl to complete liberation."

Blogger and syndicated columnist Austin Bay, who serves as a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, recently returned from Iraq with some thoughts on what may have gone wrong there.

"If there is one mistake I think we've made in fighting this war, it's been the way we've soft-pedaled the ideological dimensions. This really is a fight for the future, between our free, open political system and the unholy alliance of despots and Islamo-fascists whose very existence depends on denying liberty.

"Iraq -- long plundered by despotism -- should be a wealthy country. It has water, an agricultural base, a source of capital (oil) and people willing to work. It is the best place to begin to reform the dysfunctional political systems that shackle and rob the vast the majority of Middle Easterners. The lesson of 9-11, three years on, is that liberty must sustain a focused offensive if it is to survive.

"That's an enormous undertaking, and I've seen firsthand in Iraq just how complex and costly a task it is. Strategically, however, we must do it to protect our free and open society, and to provide our families with the security they dearly deserve."

Whether that enormous undertaking becomes a real focal point during the remaining weeks of the American presidential race is another matter.

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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

2004 Elections 9/11 David Brooks Iraq War Michael Moore Terrorism