Wednesday, October 6

"A spoonful of realism will help things go down"

I just had lunch with one of the smartest guys I know, a Mensa member and all that. How, I asked him, could he possibly support George Bush? "I don't support George Bush," he said. "I just don't trust Kerry. I don't believe he'll handle the Iraq situation any better than Cheney, the real power. I may just forego voting entirely." What timing. I came back to the office and read this editorial that should speak to people like my friend. Because subscription is required, I'm printing it in its entirety:

A few days ago, I asked a retired general I know whom he would vote for on Nov. 2.

"I voted for Bush last time, but I won't make that mistake again," he said, launching into a tirade about the administration's mishandling of the Iraq occupation.

Was he going to vote for John Kerry? He shook his head. Then what?

"I'm thinking of writing in Al Sharpton," he said, laughing.

He was only joking. But I recalled the frustration that underlay the joke as I watched the first presidential debate.

Many undecided voters are angered by the mess that the Bush administration has made in Iraq, and they feel it disqualifies that team from a second term. But they have been uncertain about what Kerry would do better that might extricate us without disaster -- and whether he is up to the challenge.

In a race where both choices are unsatisfactory, I think Kerry got a passing grade on the Iraq test Thursday and the president failed.

George W. Bush's message was certainly more comforting. Never waver, he said. Constantly stay on the offensive against terrorism, and constantly spread liberty. The way to win in Iraq, he said, is to send consistent messages, not mixed messages like Kerry's.

The problem with such stirring rhetoric is that it sets up an impossible dilemma for undecided voters.

One isn't supposed to criticize the conduct of the Iraq war because it will send the wrong message to terrorists. But Bush's Iraq policy has been so wrongheaded that it is impossible to trust those who designed it to do better -- especially when they refuse to admit they made any errors.

It's fine to hail certainty of purpose as a value, but as Kerry noted, "You can be certain and wrong."

It was the very certainty of this administration about what Iraq was and what it would be after Saddam Hussein fell that caused the current Iraq mess. Senior administration officials were so certain that Iraq was a nascent democracy, awaiting only the return of the Pentagon's favorite exile, Ahmed Chalabi, that they never planned for a difficult occupation.

The same officials were so certain that the postwar would be easy, and U.S. troops would be able to return home quickly, that they never sent sufficient troops, despite the warnings of senior officers. Nor did they plan what to do if there were chaos and looting after an invasion.

The resulting chaos in Iraq has set back the fight for freedom in the Middle East. The best that can be hoped for from Iraq elections -- if they're held, and if the United States is very lucky -- is a weak government still dependent on U.S. troops. This will not inspire democracy in the rest of the Middle East.

So what could Kerry do better? Let me say up front that I have had doubts about the Democratic candidate. His continued insistence that allies will come to our aid in Iraq, possibly with troops, is illusory.

But where Kerry is a realist is in facing Iraq's future.

He knows that his choices in Iraq will be constrained by the wrong moves made by Bush. Kerry made clear in the debate Thursday that he sees no prospects for withdrawal until Iraqi elections are held and the country is stabilized.

This policy is similar to the president's (though Bush doesn't admit it) -- with an important difference. Kerry, who understands that Iraq is not headed where Bush claims, will try to repair the damage and repair alliances as well.

Such honesty, at this point in the Iraq drama, is preferable to Bush's clarity. Clarity in the defense of disaster is no virtue.


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