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Kerry’s Identity Crisis 

Bush’s blunders and Woodward’s book don’t add up to victory for John

Thursday, Apr 22 2004
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The scene: an imaginary conversation in one of the Century City towers.

Thanks for seeing me, Harv.

Well, you are dating my sister’s Pilates instructor. Now what’s the pitch?

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Okay, we start in the jungles of Vietnam. A young American is piloting a Navy swift boat up river. Then . . . incoming. The enemy can’t be seen. Crew members shout, “Get us the hell out of here.” Instead, he turns hard to shore — right into the fire. He beaches the boat, grabs a rifle, jumps off and races into the trees. He spots an armed V.C. The V.C. turns and fires. The captain leaps to the side, firing his rifle. The V.C. goes down. The captain is wounded, bleeding. But he can walk. He heads over to the body of the V.C. He sees a photograph sticking out of the dead man’s pocket. He pulls it out. A woman and two small children. The captain shakes his head slowly.

Okay, I get it, the horror of war —

Next our captain is back in the States. He’s leading the anti-war movement. Speaking at rallies, testifying before Congress. Damn eloquent. You know: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” But everyone around him wants to overthrow the state. He’s not into that. He leaves the movement —A conflicted soul —

Goes into politics. Wants to change things from within. Becomes a success. All the way to U.S. senator. Then he runs for president. And at the time, the nation is at war — another pointless and divisive war. A quagmire. A new Vietnam, some say. Casualties mount. Body bags. A mess. There’s no way out . . . And he wins the election.

And this anti-war war hero figures it all out? When the generals can’t, when the hawks can’t. How to achieve victory and bring the troops home.

Uh, no, not really. He’s stuck. He’s now presiding over the sort of war he once opposed, that he committed his life to preventing. He can’t pull the troops out without making things worse — and that means he has to ask men and women to die for a mistake. It’s a tragedy. It’s O. Henry: Be careful what you wish for. It’s Shakespearean. It’s —

Tell your girlfriend to say hi to my sister.

 

John Kerry has a problem. And it’s not of his making. With the war in Iraq becoming increasingly difficult, he confronts again and again a natural question: What will you do differently? The issue is not what he would have done differently than George W. Bush. Despite his vote to grant Bush the authority to invade Iraq, Kerry certainly would not have followed the damn-the-inspections, full-invasion-ahead course Bush adopted. And Kerry is quick on the campaign trail to blast Bush for a screw-the-allies unilateralism that has left the United States holding a rather big and costly bag in Iraq. But it is not enough for Kerry to say he would have prevented the United States from getting into this jam. He still will continuously be pressed on what he will do in Iraq as president.

Not only does he not have a good answer; there is no good answer.

On Meet the Press recently, Tim Russert asked Kerry, “Do you have a plan to deal with Iraq?” Kerry blasted Bush for having “misled America.” Russert interrupted: “What can you do now, Senator?” This was Kerry’s response: “I’ll tell you exactly, but it’s important to understand why so many countries are unwilling to come to the table now. It may well be that we need a new president, a breath of fresh air, to re-establish credibility with the rest of the world so that we can have a believable administration as to how we proceed. But here is the bottom line: Number one, you cannot bring other nations to the table through the back door. You cannot have America run the occupation, make all the reconstruction decisions, make the decisions of the kind of government that will emerge, and pretend to bring other nations to the table. Now, finally, George Bush is doing what I and others have recommended for some period of time.” That is, Bush was calling in the United Nations to oversee the transfer of sovereignty by June 30 to a caretaker government designed by the U.N.

Bush has cried uncle and asked the U.N. to save his bacon. But U.S. troops will still be there seeking to quell the insurgency — and dying. And the question remains: What will Kerry do after the transition? On Meet the Press, he did not have a meaty reply. Kerry noted that he would “reach out to other nations in a very different way from this administration,” and encourage other countries and the U.N. to share the burden in Iraq.

This qualifies as isn't-it-pretty-to-think-so policy. Will other nations send their troops to engage in counterinsurgency warfare-rather than peacekeeping-in Iraq, just because Kerry approaches them with more respect than Bush? As Russert wondered, "if Iraq is not secure, how can you possibly say the UN and NATO are going to come to our rescue when they don't have the troops or the interest of going in there?"

"Tim, that is the dilemma," Kerry said. "That is exactly the quandary that President Bush and this administration have put the United States of America in." And it's a quandary for Kerry. He cannot promise to withdraw U.S. troops. That could certainly leave Iraq in a worse position and perhaps lead to a failed state that would be of use to anti-American terrorists. (Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.) He can try to be more effective than Bush in bringing in other nations. But he cannot claim other countries will definitely respond to his offer of powersharing. And it could be more difficult for a multilateral force to suppress the insurgency.

 

Bush has left himself and any successor with few, if any, good options. After all, some problems have no solutions. There was no plan for closing Pandora’s box. What Kerry has to offer voters is that he is not Bush. Bob Woodward’s new book, Plan of Attack, makes this obvious. Woodward depicts Bush as a fellow who dismisses critical discourse and who traffics in simplistic judgments. When Woodward asked Bush about public concern over the MIA WMDs, Bush scornfully replied, “You travel in elite circles.” Huh? Bush made false assertions about the fundamental reason for war, and then he pooh-poohed complaints as nothing more than the gripes of the Georgetown dinner-party set. This is not a fellow in touch with the world beyond his blinders.

Of the many tasks Kerry has to perform as a candidate — including coming across as authentic, likable and honest — he will have to define the race not as a contest between plans, but between men. The issue has to be, Who is better able to deal with the mess that Bush created and with the unforeseen challenges that will ensue? And if Kerry succeeds, he’d better prepare himself for looking into the mirror and asking, What do I do now? A victory will not ensure a happy ending.

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