Kerry finally reports for duty on Iraq

Published September 20, 2004 10:51PM (EDT)

However disingenuous, distorted or plain dirty the Bush campaign's attacks against him have been, John Kerry has disheartened supporters for weeks on end with his uncanny knack for getting flipped (or is it flopped?) by the Bush team's highly practiced campaign jujitsu. Wistful Dems sighed anew last week as Kerry again contorted in the wrong direction, this time when radio interviewer Don Imus pressed him on what his plan was for Iraq. Kerry replied that due to Bush's policies, "the plan gets more complicated every single day," and went on to tell Imus, "What you ought to be doing and what everybody in America ought to be doing today is not asking me; they ought to be asking the president, 'What is your plan?'"

"We're asking you because you want to be president," Imus replied. "That's correct," Kerry said. "But I can't tell you what I'm going to find on the ground on January 20th."

Right-wing pundits and bloggers, needless to say, rolled around gleefully in the catnip of that flimsy response.

But on Monday, a more straight-talking, fire-breathing John Kerry began to emerge. In a speech at New York University, Kerry declared war on Bush's disastrous handling of Iraq, charging that the president's policy has been riddled with "errors of judgment of historic proportions."

Still, there are lingering questions as to how Kerry himself will handle the war if elected, and how he should campaign on the issue down the homestretch. His detractors will no doubt continue to hound him with all manner of "flip-flop" refrain. And his supporters still differ on campaign strategy. Under the banner of "What Should Kerry Do?" the New York Times' Op-Ed page on Sunday offered no less than four shots of advice from Democratic luminaries, echoing the liberal amount of quibbling among the campaign ranks in recent weeks. But help was on the way with one clear-eyed piece from former Clinton speechwriter Paul Glastris, who stated outright that Kerry "will lose the election unless he turns the issue of national security to his advantage." A spate of recent polls confirms that view as visibly as a code-orange alert. One survey out last Friday showed that America's coveted youth voters, foremost concerned about Iraq, are more galvanized now than during any campaign since 1972.

Of the many reasons not to vote for George W. Bush on Nov. 2, the slow-burning disaster in Iraq tops the list. The Bush administration's leadership during the occupation -- from stumbling over the Fallujah insurgency, to policies that spawned the ghastly U.S. interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison -- leaves little reason to believe that it is equipped to handle the daunting obstacles to Iraqi reconstruction (some of its own making) going forward.

In last week's interview with Imus, Kerry said that he would "immediately call a summit meeting of the European community" to rally key support, and that he would accelerate training of Iraqi security forces as part of his goal to remove all U.S. troops by the end of a first term in office. He stuck to those points in his speech on Monday, with repeated emphasis on shoring up international cooperation that would also include a U.N. protection force for upcoming Iraqi elections.

But with the prospect for stability in Iraq dimming fast, Kerry will have to dig deeper if he wants to persuade the many voters who remain unclear about the U.S. endgame, and the sacrifices that it will require.

Right now only the latter half of the equation is in view. Amid the sharp escalation of violence and casualties in Iraq last week, a new National Intelligence Estimate forecast a grim future for the reconstruction, while reports surfaced that even Baghdad's uber-fortified Green Zone may have been infiltrated by insurgents and is no longer safe from attack. And there have been several reports anticipating a U.S. offensive to crush insurgencies in Fallujah and elsewhere after the U.S. election -- which would undoubtedly leave many more casualties in its wake.

Some strategists have argued that it's risky for Kerry to get too specific on national security or the war; another terrorist attack on the U.S. or a major change in Iraq before the election, they say, could leave Kerry chewing on his own words again.

But with the darkening picture in Iraq increasingly on Americans' minds, Kerry will have to stride, not edge out onto the high wire. Today was a start. He has only 43 days left.

By Mark Follman

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

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