How Kerry Can Pass the Iraq Test
By David Ignatius
Friday, March 19, 2004; Page A23
John Kerry faces one overriding question in this presidential campaign: Does he have the toughness and wisdom to lead the United States and the world in wartime?
That's the line being pushed by the Bush campaign and its newly unleashed attack dog, Vice President Cheney. But it's the right question -- especially now, as we contemplate the disorderly, dangerous world that exists a year after President Bush rolled headlong into Iraq.
So far, to my mind, Kerry is failing that test. Instead of showing that he will not flinch or compromise, Kerry is temporizing: He's for the war in Iraq and against it; he wants to stay the course and also to get out; he calls for restoring America's alliances, but he doesn't make clear what principles and policies should unite us.
Kerry must convince the public that he will be a strong president who can rebuild America's standing in the world -- and, yes, repair some of the damage done by the Bush administration. He must also show that a Kerry presidency won't reverse Bush's tough stand against Islamic terrorism -- any more than America would have abandoned its fight against communism during the Cold War.
The risk for Kerry is that he will be seen as part of the Bush backlash -- a candidate whose chances rise with every bomb that explodes in Baghdad or Madrid. The more stridently he criticizes Bush, the more he's in danger of sounding like Spain's intemperate prime minister-elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Not content with announcing that he will retreat under fire in Iraq, the Spaniard on Wednesday called the situation there a "fiasco" and said he hoped Kerry would win. Friends like that Kerry doesn't need.
Kerry's dilemma is like that facing his would-be European supporters. They desperately want Bush to lose, and they worry that by coming to his rescue in Iraq they could unintentionally boost his chances of reelection.
Kerry must reject that logic. His line should be that he wants success in Iraq and will do everything he can, as candidate and as president, to make it happen. He needs to make clear that failure isn't an option for him any more than for Bush -- and that a Kerry presidency would never embrace a Spanish-style policy of cut and run.
In that sense, Kerry needs to take Iraq off the table as an issue. His advisers may say that's crazy -- to throw away their biggest weapon against Bush. But that understates the gravity of this election. Kerry's best shot is that he would be a stronger, smarter leader in wartime. On Iraq, he should tell the truth: Now that we've gotten in, we have to stay and support the Iraqi people in rebuilding their country. Period.
Here, by contrast, is what Kerry had to say this week about Iraq: "To leave too soon would leave behind a failed state that inevitably would become a haven for terrorists and a threat to our future." At the same time, he cautioned, "the answer is not a stubborn pursuit of the same arrogant policies." What that two-sided statement really meant is unclear.
Over the next several months, Kerry's advisers need to lay out policies that establish him as a credible wartime president, with a veteran's prudent regard for what military power can and can't do. He might start by explaining how he will help the Arabs create a new order -- rather than trying to impose it on them as Bush has.
I'd love to hear a Kerry speech, for example, that cited the surprising poll released this week by the BBC. The survey of 2,500 Iraqi adults found that 70 percent said things were going well or quite well in their lives; 56 percent said things were better now than before the war; 85 percent said regaining security was a major priority. How will Kerry keep faith with these Iraqis?
Kerry's challenge is to avoid falling into the trap set by Osama bin Laden. What drives bin Laden is a conviction that the West, with its wealth and seeming decadence, is weak. In his 1996 declaration of war, bin Laden stressed that America had fled Lebanon in 1984 after it lost several hundred soldiers there and left Somalia after a few dozen were killed there in 1993. He concluded: "The extent of your impotence and weakness became very clear."
The terrorists who this week are killing Americans, Iraqis, Spaniards and scores of others are counting on that weakness. If John Kerry hopes to be president, he must make clear that it's a losing bet.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company