It was a wartime debate, at least. But it didn't provide much clarity about what George W. Bush or John Kerry would do as a wartime president to resolve the deterioration in Iraq. On that crucial question, unfortunately, both candidates are still offering rhetoric rather than reality.
"I have a plan for Iraq," Kerry kept repeating. But the elements of his plan are either things the Bush administration is doing, such as accelerating the training of Iraqi security forces, or things that Kerry himself will have trouble achieving, such as drawing more European allies into the fray.
Bush said he had a "plan for victory," too, which was to "remain strong and resolute" -- and to keep training more Iraqis to take the place of U.S. soldiers. But he was relying on a still-untested assumption when he said that 100,000 Iraqis are now "trained to do the job," and that more than 200,000 will be ready by the end of the year.
The president sounded occasionally as if he were caught in a pre-invasion time warp, repeating the idealistic rhetoric that led the United States to war in Iraq without thinking through a pragmatic postwar strategy. "A free Iraq will set a powerful example in the part of the world that is desperate for freedom," he proclaimed. But that kind of talk just doesn't match a real-world situation in which the secretary of state says the Iraqi insurgency is becoming worse and the CIA warns that the country could be slip- ping toward civil war.
A taste of reality was coming over the news wires from Iraq Thursday night, even as the candidates were debating in Coral Gables, Fla. U.S. and Iraqi troops were launching a bloody offensive to regain control of the rebel-held city of Samarra, north of Baghdad. It's the biggest test yet for Iraqi forces. If they succeed, the next step will be to try to recapture the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah and stabilize the country before January's scheduled elections. But if "our" Iraqis can't hold Samarra, all bets for the future are off.
"The counteroffensive has begun here," a senior U.S. official in Iraq told me Friday. "We need to pull out the roots put down by the bad guys in a number of places. Samarra's going well so far, and Iraqi units are doing their part. The challenge will be reconstituting the police there -- and in other places as we clean them up.
"There will, indeed, be a fight to the [January] election here," the American official explained. "And we'll also be in a race to train and equip, and get operational experience for, the Iraqi security forces that will be so key during the election effort."
That's the real face of what's ahead in Iraq -- a violent, U.S.-led campaign to regain control of areas that were lost to the insurgency over the past year. And it's politically risky, because it will link the fledgling Iraqi army and the interim Iraqi government even more closely with a U.S. military occupation that most Iraqis hate.
The coming offensive in Fallujah could be the bloodiest combat that U.S. forces have faced yet in Iraq. Worse, it could push interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's fragile interim government toward the breaking point. One early warning sign was this week's comment by interim President Ghazi Yawar, a Sunni Muslim, criticizing recent U.S. airstrikes on Fallujah as "collective punishment." It was Yawar's threat to quit the interim government last April that helped halt the previous U.S. offensive in Fallujah.
History will have to judge whether Kerry was right in his claim that invading Iraq was "a colossal error of judgment." But the situation there now is a mess, and looking at the reality on the ground, one finds it hard to accept Bush's claim that the war has made America safer and more secure. Bush doesn't seem to see that a war that was supposed to reduce terrorism has instead drawn more.
If you try to put yourself in the boots of a U.S. soldier in Iraq, what you want to know from the candidates is: Can we win this thing, and if not, how can we get out? Unfortunately, the debate didn't really illuminate those essential questions. The most difficult days in Iraq may well lie ahead, but neither candidate has leveled with the country about how severe that test will be, or what fallback plans he has if his assumptions prove overly optimistic.
The American people face an agonizing choice in November, and they still don't have the information they need to make it wisely. Next time, the candidates should try harder to answer that hypothetical soldier's questions: How do we win it? How do we get out?