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 31/2 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."
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.
Questions: How would you make sure that there was sufficient planning for both the war and the peace? What aspects would you want to be personally involved in or aware of as president?
6. On June 1, 2002, President Bush announced his preemption doctrine.
Questions: Do you agree with it? What are the acceptable conditions for preemptive war? Bush has said that he believes the United States has a "duty to free people," to liberate them. Do you agree? Under what circumstances?
7. In July 2002, President Bush secretly ordered that some $700 million be spent on 30 major construction and other projects to prepare for war. Congress was not involved or informed.
Questions: How would you seek a relationship with the leaders of Congress so that they would be informed of such secret work? Should congressional leaders have an idea where you are heading? What should be the overall role of Congress in preparing for war?
8. In August 2002 (about seven months before the start of war in March 2003), Secretary of State Colin Powell told the president over a two-hour dinner that an Iraq war would have consequences that had not been considered or imagined. He said that an invasion would lead to the collapse of Iraq -- "You break it, you own it."
Questions: What would you do after receiving such a clear warning from a senior cabinet officer or other person with comparable experience?
9. On Nov. 8, 2002, the U.N. Security Council unanimously (15 to 0) passed Resolution 1441 on new weapons inspections in Iraq. Powell thought it was a critical victory, putting the United States on the road to diplomatic success.
Questions: What did this mean, now that Saddam seemed isolated and friendless in the world? Was strategic victory -- getting Saddam out of power -- possible through diplomacy or by continuing diplomacy and weapons inspections?
10. In November-December 2002, major U.S. force deployments began but were strung out to avoid telling the world that war was all but inevitable and that diplomacy was over. Rumsfeld told the president that the large U.S. divisions could be kept in top fighting shape for only two to three months without degrading the force.
Questions: How might a President Kerry have handled this? What is the role of momentum in such a decision-making process?
11. On Dec. 21, 2002, CIA deputy John McLaughlin gave a major presentation to the president on the intelligence evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The president was not impressed and asked where the good, strong intelligence was. CIA Director George Tenet twice assured the president that the WMD case was a "slam dunk."
Questions: What might a President Kerry have done when he smelled weakness in an intelligence case?
12. On Jan. 9, 2003, the president asked Gen. Franks: What is my last decision point? Franks said it would be when Special Forces were put on the ground inside Iraq.
Question: Had the president already passed his last decision point when he ordered such a large military deployment and such extensive CIA covert action to support the military?
13. Around this time, in January 2003, Rumsfeld told the president that he was losing his options, and that after he asked U.S. allies to commit forces, it would not be feasible to back off. Rumsfeld asked to brief the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Vice President Cheney, Gen. Richard Myers and Rumsfeld briefed Bandar on Jan. 11, 2003, telling him "You can count on this" -- i.e., war.
Questions: Do you agree with Rumsfeld's assessment? Andy Card, the Bush White House chief of staff, thought the decision to go to war was not irrevocable, that Bush could pull back, though the consequences would be politically expensive. How does a president credibly threaten force without taking steps that make the use of force almost inevitable? Should foreign governments be briefed in this way?
14. On Jan. 13, 2003, the director of the National Security Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, issued a formal director's intent on how to support Gen. Franks in a war with Iraq. Previously, on his own, Hayden had reallocated some $300 million to $400 million of NSA funds to Iraq-specific signals intelligence programs to support a war without the specific knowledge or approval of either Rumsfeld, Tenet or Bush.
Questions: Was this good planning? What would be the procedures for such decisions in a Kerry administration?
15. On Jan. 20, 2003 (two months before the war), the president signed National Security Presidential Directive 24 to set up the office for reconstruction for Iraq.
Question: What do you think of the timing of this?
16. On Feb. 7, 2003 (six weeks before war started), French President Jacques Chirac called the president and was very conciliatory. He said, "If there is a war, we'll work together on reconstruction. We will all contribute. I fully understand your position is different. There are two different moral approaches to the world and I respect yours." Bush was optimistic but took no action.
Question: What would a President Kerry have done about this conciliatory statement?
17. On March 17, 2003, concluding that Saddam was stalling and lying, Bush ordered war while U.N. weapons inspectors were still in Iraq.
Questions: Was this decision right or premature? Was there any other action, short of war, that would have effectively increased pressure on Saddam?
18. On Sept. 30, 2003 (six months after the start of the war), British Prime Minister Tony Blair told his annual Labor Party conference that he had received letters from parents whose sons were killed in the Iraq war, saying that they hated him. "And don't believe anyone who tells you when they receive letters like that they don't suffer any doubt," Blair said. President Bush has said emphatically that he has no such doubts.
Questions: Can a president afford to have doubt in a time of war? What is the role of doubt in presidential decision-making?
19. Secretary of State Powell has said that he believed Cheney had a "fever," an unhealthy fixation on al Qaeda and Iraq that caused him to misread and exaggerate intelligence and the threat. In Powell's view, Cheney and others -- Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, vice presidential chief of staff Scooter Libby and Douglas J. Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy -- were part of "a separate little government."
Questions: Your reaction? What should or could a president do about this discord among top officials of his administration?
20. Powell also had said he believed that the Bush administration had become "dangerously protective" of its decisions on Iraq and was unable to consider changing course.
Question: How does a president set up a system or process to enable his administration to alter course or get a clear-eyed evaluation of its actions and its consequences?
21. President Bush has said on the record that he did not directly ask Powell, Rumsfeld or his father, former President George H.W. Bush, whether he should go to war in Iraq. He did ask national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and his senior aide, Karen Hughes.
Questions: Your reaction? What sort of consultation process would you have on major national security decisions? Would you consult former presidents, even former President Bush?
22. Asked in December 2003 how history would judge his Iraq war, Bush suggested that history was far off. "We won't know. We'll all be dead," he said.
Questions: How do you judge his Iraq war? What do you think history's verdict is likely to be?