As the decibel level rises in the debate over Iraq between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, the argument is veering further and further from reality.
Bush has applied coat after coat of whitewash to a pattern of misjudgments on the part of his administration. Starting with the faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction and going on to erroneous assumptions about needed troop strength, the impact of a large occupying army on a defeated population and the credibility of Iraqi leaders installed by American power, Bush has led the United States into a truly dangerous and intractable situation.
Kerry, for all his claimed expertise, did not spot the gaps in prewar intelligence and therefore voted to authorize the use of force. Since then he has twisted and turned in trying to define an alternative position. He has criticized Bush's management of both war and diplomacy but mainly has held out the prospect that he could pull in other nations' troops to relieve the Americans. No credible support for that belief has been vouchsafed by the officials of any NATO nation not already in the coalition, and reporters who cover Paris and Berlin say Kerry is fantasizing if he thinks they will rush to the United States' rescue.
Meanwhile, neither man is talking much sense about what one of them will face the day after inauguration in January.
Hoping for a better perspective, I picked up a copy of the autumn issue of a publication called Middle East Policy, devoted to "Alternative Strategies for Gulf Security."
It turned out to be a summary of a conference held this year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, with 50 experts -- former government officials, academics, diplomats -- from the United States, Europe and nations in the Gulf, including Iraq and Iran.
Michael Kraig of the Muscatine, Iowa-based Stanley Foundation, which co-sponsored the session along with the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analyses, wrote the 39-page summary. What emerges is a picture of a region with a complex set of problems -- and conflicting attitudes toward U.S. intervention.
A point basic to their discussion but never mentioned in our political debates is the inherent instability arising from the imbalance between two traditional powerhouses, Iran and Iraq, and their smaller neighbors. "The imbalance of power creates a vacuum and invites aggressors to make adventures to destabilize the region," said one participant (identities were not disclosed because of a promise of confidentiality).
"The United States is strongly needed to protect smaller countries, but the overall dominance of its military forces in the region raises overwhelming negative sentiments and even hate against the U.S. presence," said another.
Neither candidate has begun to suggest how he would finesse that debate. And yet that question is critical for the nations of the region. "Many participants asked throughout the conference whether the United States would play its historic role as a balancing power, or whether it was in fact intent on a major 'transformation' of the region through forceful regime change or coercive pressure on regional regimes to undertake domestic political reforms toward greater liberalization."
Bush clearly has chosen the "transformation" route, but he has not begun to spell out what its long-term costs -- in military and financial terms -- may be.
Kerry has hinted at scaling back the massive American commitment to the region, but has not made clear how he will secure America's sources of oil until the time when, he visualizes, the United States ends its dependence on Persian Gulf petroleum.
The current crises with Iran and Iraq look different to their neighbors than they do to us.
Gulf states "fear the Israeli nuclear program as much, if not more, than potential future Iranian developments.
For Arab states in both the Gulf and the Levant, Iran's program is at most a nascent weapons capability, while Israel's arsenal is a fact.
In this context," Kraig wrote, "a serious question was raised: Why is so much international and global pressure exerted on Iran . . . while Israel, with its own alleged WMD arsenal, is forgotten?"
That is a question we are unlikely to hear from Bush or Kerry.
"Further," Kraig wrote, "there was fear and uncertainty about the political future of Iraq and its defense program. . . . For example, many regional participants asked, Will the United States provide Iraqi national security in the future? Or will Iraq provide its own security, both domestically and vis-a-vis its neighbors?" Will a rearmed Iraq again become a threat to the region?
All good questions. And none of them part of this distorted campaign debate.