The role of commander in chief is clearly one of the president's most important jobs. But a presidential campaign provides voters little opportunity to evaluate how a candidate would handle that role, particularly if the candidate isn't an incumbent.
At the end of last year, during 3 1/2 hours of interviews over two days, I asked President Bush hundreds of detailed questions about his actions and decisions during the 16-month run-up to the war in Iraq. His answers were published in my book "Plan of Attack." Beginning on June 16, I had discussions and meetings with Sen. John Kerry's senior foreign policy, communications and political advisers about interviewing the senator to find out how he might have acted on Iraq -- to ask him what he would have done at certain key points. Senior Kerry advisers initially seemed positive about such an interview. One aide told me, "The short answer is yes, it's going to happen."
The Big Winners (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2004)
Don't Do It, Justices (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2004)
It's Bear Baiting, Stupid (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2004)
They're Looking Hard for a Reason to Be Optimistic (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2004)
A Major Case of Superpower Envy (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2004)
They Know Who's on Their Side (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2004)
On Bush, the Communists and Their Foes Can Agree (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2004)
Shave and a Haircut, With Political Bits (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2004)
We Don't Care, So They Don't (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2004)
Political Pursuit (The Washington Post, Oct 24, 2004)
In August, I was talking with Kerry's scheduler about possible dates. On Sept. 1, Kerry began his intense criticism of Bush's decisions in the Iraq war, saying "I would've done almost everything differently." A few days later, I provided the Kerry campaign with a list of 22 possible questions based entirely on Bush's actions leading up to the war and how Kerry might have responded in the same situations. The senator and his campaign have since decided not to do the interview, though his advisers say Kerry would have strong and compelling answers.
Because the interview did not occur, it is not possible to do the side-by-side comparison of Bush's record and Kerry's answers that I had envisioned. But it seems to me that the questions themselves offer a useful framework for thinking about the role of a president who must decide whether to go to war.
Here are the 22 questions, edited only for clarity:
1. On Nov. 21, 2001, just 72 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush took Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld aside and said he wanted to look at the Iraq war plans. Bush directed Rumsfeld not to talk to anyone else, including the National Security Council members and the CIA director.
Questions: If a President Kerry wanted to look at war plans pertaining to a particular country or threat, how would he go about it? Who would be included? What would the general war-planning process be in a Kerry administration? Was it reasonable to look at Iraq at that time?
2. The CIA was asked in late 2001 to do a "lessons learned" study of past covert operations in Iraq and concluded that the CIA alone could not overthrow Saddam Hussein and that a military operation would be required. The CIA soon became an advocate for military action.
Questions: How can such advocacy be avoided? The CIA argued that a two-track policy -- negotiations at the U.N. and covert action -- made their sources inside Iraq believe the United States was not serious about overthrowing Saddam. Can that be avoided? How can diplomacy and covert action be balanced?
3. In January 2002 President Bush gave his famous "axis of evil" speech singling out Iraq, Iran and North Korea as threats.
Questions: Was this speech too undiplomatic? How would a President Kerry frame the issues and relations with Iran and North Korea? Do you consider these two countries part of an axis of evil now?
4. On Feb. 16, 2002, the president signed a secret intelligence order directing the CIA to begin covert action to support a military operation to overthrow Saddam, ultimately allocating some $200 million a year. Bush later acknowledged to me that even six months later, in August, the administration had not developed a diplomatic strategy to deal with Iraq.
Questions: How should military planning, CIA activities and diplomacy (and economic sanctions and the bully pulpit) fit together to form a policy?
5. On May 24, 2002, Gen. Tommy Franks and the Pentagon's Joint Staff began work on stability operations to follow combat in Iraq. This was about 10 months before the Iraq war started. But it was not until seven months later, in January 2003, that President Bush became involved in the aftermath planning.