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Sebastian Mallaby, Columnist

Three Debates About Iraq

By Sebastian Mallaby
Monday, September 20, 2004; Page A21

There are three campaign debates we could be having about Iraq. The one that's best for President Bush is getting the most attention. The one that's worst for him is getting the least. This is why he's ahead of Sen. John Kerry.

The debate that gets the most attention is: What would Kerry have done 18 months ago had he been president? Kerry refuses, despite one opportunity after another, to come clean on this question. He tries to say that he voted to authorize the war because he believed Saddam Hussein had dangerous weapons and that he voted against the funding because Bush was handling the war badly. But when he is asked what he would have done had he been in the White House, he fudges the issue. The candidate doesn't answer hypothetical questions, his aides explain, infuriatingly.

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This first debate suggests that Kerry is unable to decide what he believes in. It fuels the suspicion that he is not to be trusted in dangerous times, which is why Bush parades his contrasting clarity. "Knowing what I know today, I would have made the same decision," Bush reiterated Friday, in a speech that acknowledged he'd been wrong in believing that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. But the truth is that this first Iraq debate is the least important of the three. It is irrelevant to Iraq's future.

The second debate about Iraq is: Who enunciates the best strategy for the United States, now that we are in Iraq and the news is horrible? Bush wins this argument too, and here's the paradoxical reason: The worse the Iraq mess becomes, the more the nation must decide whether it's 100 percent committed to victory or 100 percent resolved to cut losses and get out of there. The middle ground is not defensible.

To see why this is so, consider the dilemma of Fallujah. This Sunni city has been taken over by fundamentalist America-haters, and it seems likely that much of the violence in Baghdad is being instigated by Fallujah-based terrorists. The plan to hold January elections is likely to fail unless the Fallujah terrorists are rooted out. At best, voting will be difficult in the Sunni part of the country. At worst, the terrorists will gun down voters as they line up outside polling stations across the country. Already they murder Iraqis who are brave enough to volunteer for the new security forces. You cannot expect nation-building to succeed when those joining the effort are liable to be assassinated.

Therefore America's president must choose. Either he must accept the fact that nation-building is failing, in which case it is immoral to send more Americans to die. Or he must resolve to make it work, which means going into Fallujah with ground forces and risking yet more casualties.

Bush sounds as though he understands the all-or-nothing nature of the challenge. He proclaims that he will make democracy happen, and that terrorists won't stop him. Kerry, on the other hand, seems fuzzier. He would not abandon Iraq, but he promises to bring soldiers home. He would not give up, but he emphasizes that the situation sure is difficult. The result is that Bush wins the second Iraq match-up. He sounds clear; Kerry sounds ambivalent.

But there is a third debate that could be had about Iraq, and it might benefit Kerry. It would discount what the candidates say and focus on their real policies. For both Bush and Kerry, the real policy is more cautious than the rhetoric. Bush proclaims his commitment to victory, but his real policy is frequently less bold. Kerry projects ambivalence, but his real policy would probably be to scale back American involvement sharply. When it comes to actions rather than rhetoric, in other words, it is possible that Bush is in the untenable middle while Kerry stands for a clear choice -- whether or not it is the right one.

Consider, again, Bush's stance toward Fallujah. Bush ordered the Marines into the town in April but lost his nerve after three days, allowing the terrorists to entrench themselves. Now he attacks Fallujah from the air but refuses for the moment to put boots on the ground -- a reprisal of the Clinton administration's approach to al Qaeda's bases in Afghanistan. In short, Bush is not giving up on nation-building, but he is not going into Fallujah either. He is stuck in the untenable middle.

If Kerry were a better candidate, he could make Bush pay for this. Instead he pounds Bush for failing to acknowledge the strength of the insurgency -- but does not say what ought to be done about it. He refuses to be explicit about what may well be his real post-election instinct: to abandon the nation-building effort. Either he fears that the voters would punish him for giving up. Or he simply can't decide what his real view is.

All this may be about to change. Bush may resolve to attack Fallujah with ground troops, and Kerry's fluid cast of advisers may push him to a new position. Thus far, however, the first two Iraq debates have dominated the campaign. And so, despite all the terrible Iraq news, Bush is still winning.

mallabys@washpost.com


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