Warring visions for Iraq

With Bush's speech to the UN and Kerry's stern rebukes, candidates turn to the future of US involvement.

For US voters, the good news is that President George W. Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry are finally engaging in a concerted argument about what the nation's next steps in Iraq should be.

The bad news is that their descriptions of Iraq's current situation are so far apart they sound as if they're talking about a different country.

In any case, debating whether the US needs to send more troops, or ask for more NATO involvement, may be somewhat beside the point. It's true that the next president, whoever it is, will have important choices to make in regards to US policy. But in Iraq the US may now simply be riding a tiger. The most important American actions to come may be those taken in response to events which have yet to occur.

"There is a real question whether the course of events there can be influenced by anything the US does," says Ivo Daalder, senior fellow in foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

With election day now less than six weeks away, it seems increasingly likely that Iraq, and the general issue of terrorism and security, will be the hinge on which the vote swings.

Senator Kerry will undoubtedly make forays into the territory of domestic issues, particularly healthcare and jobs. But with his pointed speech Monday, in which he judged Mr. Bush's policies harshly, Kerry served notice that he will try and reframe the Iraq debate on his own terms.

President Bush has "misled, miscalculated, and mismanaged" virtually everything about the conflict in Iraq, Kerry charged.

Bush himself, on the other hand, continued with his "steady as she goes" message in his speech to the UN Security Council on Tuesday.

"Today, the Iraqi people are the path to democracy and freedom," Bush said.

To some extent Senator Kerry has already tried, without notable success, to attract more voters with comprehensive Iraq critiques. The difference this week is that he used notably stronger language, and all but said that if he had been in charge in 2003 he would not have invaded Iraq when Bush did.

In addition, Kerry combined criticism of Bush's past actions with his own prescriptions for the future. As he has previously, Kerry said that Bush should immediately take steps to repair alliances, accelerate the creation of Iraqi security forces, move faster on reconstruction, and ensure elections.

But for Kerry the problem here is that to some extent these are all things that the Bush administration is trying to do.

For instance, it's possible that NATO allies would be amenable to sending troops to Iraq in support of a President Kerry, but at this point, given the opposition of their own publics, that still looks unlikely. And President Bush has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to cobble together a UN security force to guard the election infrastructure for Iraq's scheduled January vote.

Furthermore, the administration is already trying to accelerate the creation of Iraqi security forces - witness this week's proposal to Congress to switch $3 billion from reconstruction to security programs.

Kerry has provided some details about how he might achieve his broad goals. He proposes to open up redevelopment of Iraq's oil industry to other nations, for example, as a way of winning more security and reconstruction aid.

But on the whole his critique lacks specificity, according to Anthony Cordesman, an expert on military affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"The difficulty is that Senator Kerry's criticisms have not as yet been translated into one meaningful suggestion as to how to solve the problem," said Mr. Cordesman in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Bush administration, for its part, has replied to Kerry with something of a pincer attack. It has hit him on the issue of what happened in 2003, charging him with flip-flopping as to whether he supported the original invasion. It has also in essence charged him with an overly dark vision of Iraq's future - saying the nation continues to make progress every day.

"I have faith in the transforming power of freedom," said President Bush in his UN speech on Tuesday.

In general, however, President Bush and his surrogates in the Republican Party have not grappled directly with Kerry over what to do right now.

"The problem is they never tell you what they're going to do in part because they don't really know," says Ivo Daalder of Brookings.

Kerry has talked about the need to keep a large US military presence in Iraq for four years or so, for example. The Bush administration has been less specific, saying instead only that US forces will stay there as long as necessary, and no longer.

The Bush team's vagueness has led to criticism even from within the President's own party. The maverick Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona said this week that he would never have allowed insurgents to retain control of such sanctuaries as Fallujah. That simply gives them a base from which they can continue harassing US troops, while building support, he said.

And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina said Sunday that he believes the situation in Iraq may get worse before it gets better. He called for the US to send in more troops.

"We do not need to paint a rosy scenario for the American people," said Senator Graham in an interview broadcast on CNN.

It seems unlikely that the administration will significantly increase the Iraqi force, given that it has held fast so long to the current level. To all appearances, the strategy is one of shouldering through: building Iraq forces as fast as possible, while avoiding all-out war with insurgents.

That said, there are some experts who favor a US withdrawal within a relatively short time. The Cato Institute in Washington has published "Exiting Iraq" in which a number of analysts argue that the US effort in Iraq is draining troops and attention for the pursuit of Al Qaeda. The solution, they say, is to tell Iraqis that the US military is leaving in January, or whenever the first round of real elections is held.

Knowing that the US will soon leave will prod current Iraqi leaders into a true acceleration of the creation of its military. It might also give the leaders themselves more legitimacy, argues Chris Preble, Cato's director of foreign policy studies.

"Absent a commitment by the US to leave it is possible for the terrorists and other insurgents to claim that the people in Iraqi who are truly trying to take control of their country are the agents of foreign powers," says Mr. Preble.

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