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Lindsay: Tough Road Ahead on Iraq for Bush or Kerry

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 21, 2004

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James M. Lindsay, the Council’s director of studies and a long-time student of American politics, says that John Kerry’s September 20 policy speech on Iraq and President Bush’s September 21 address to the United Nations General Assembly have made clear the differences between the two men over Iraq. “For President Bush, it’s to argue that Iraq was the right thing to do, that it’s working, that we will all be better off for it. For John Kerry, it’s to argue that Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time, and we are worse off for it.”

Lindsay, a Council vice president and the holder of the Maurice R. Greenberg chair, says that besides criticizing Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, Kerry has yet to decisively come up with a plan for prosecuting the war differently. A major Kerry appeal—to widen allied participation in the war—is difficult to envisage happening. “The reality is, making Iraq work is going to be very difficult whether the next president is George Bush or John Kerry,” he says.

Lindsay, whom Council rules prohibit from working on U.S. political campaigns because he is an officer of the organization, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on September 21, 2004.


What are the candidates trying to accomplish with their back-to-back speeches?

Both men are trying to make the case for their positions on Iraq. For President Bush, it’s to argue that Iraq was the right thing to do, that it’s working, that we will all be better off for it. For John Kerry, it’s to argue that Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time, and we are worse off for it.

What was Bush trying to do in his speech to the General Assembly?

Here you see what President Bush does very well: mixing up his tone. This was a speech that didn’t focus on Iraq per se, but put Iraq in a broader context: the commitment of the United States and of the United Nations to promote human dignity. Bush made it clear in his speech that it isn’t sufficient to talk about human dignity; that it’s important for countries to take a stand, to be counted at the decisive moment; that that is what his administration had done; that it is what his partners in his coalition of the willing had done; and that they were ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century; and that those challenges were terrorism and also issues like AIDS and, ultimately, spreading democracy, hence the president’s talk of creating a democracy fund.

The stress on a U.N. democracy fund surprised me, considering that the current animosity toward the United States will make it difficult for any Bush proposal to generate international support.

The president’s speech has an impact abroad and it has an impact at home. I doubt anyone on the Bush team thinks that a U.N. speech is going to change the political order in the Middle East. Indeed, I’m sure we will soon see a flurry of commentary talking about the hypocrisy of the administration policy as it talks about democracy on one hand and then relies on governments in Riyadh and Islamabad to accomplish its foreign policy objectives.

The clue to what we see from the president, ever since the summer of 2003, is a greater rhetorical commitment to the notion of democracy. Once it turned out that the administration wasn’t finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, democracy has become a much more central part of the president’s rhetoric and much different from the way the president talked about foreign policy four years ago in his campaign with Al Gore. The key thing here, of course, is how one spreads democracy and how one promotes it, and I think on that square the administration is discovering in Afghanistan and in Iraq that it is one thing to toss out the evil dictator, but that it is very difficult to create stability—meaningful stability—in its wake.

Kerry’s speech was largely about Iraq. Will Democrats regard Bush’s discussion of democracy as empty rhetoric?

Senator Kerry focused on what he called the administration’s “stubborn incompetence.” His effort is to show the president has made the wrong choices consistently and will continue to make the wrong choices. Senator Kerry is not taking issue with the president’s claims about democracy, so we’re not talking about the end goal but, rather, whether the administration has a game plan for getting Iraq right. Most Americans think democracy is a good thing, for obvious reasons, so there’s little to be gained politically by arguing about the merits of promoting democracy. Rather, Kerry’s speech focused on what the administration has done in Iraq and attempted to argue that Kerry had a strategy for succeeding in Iraq.

How would you describe Kerry’s strategy?

Senator Kerry’s strategy, in essence, says it is important to internationalize forces in Iraq, bring in more troops from outside, train Iraqi soldiers, and provide more benefits to the Iraqi people. The administration’s rejoinder to that has been that “Senator Kerry is describing the policy that we have been following for the last several months,” which gets to the heart of the challenge facing Senator Kerry. The easy part is making the case that Iraq is not going as well as the administration had hoped. The hard part is persuading people that he has a policy that is any different from the administration’s, and that it’s likely to work.

We talked about the “internationalization” proposal after the Democratic Convention. It was a major part of Kerry’s convention speech, the idea that he would get the allies to relieve the burden on U.S. troops.

That points again to the challenge Senator Kerry faces. Why is it that we expect that he would be more successful in persuading countries to put themselves in harm’s way than the administration has been? Particularly since, as Senator Kerry has said, and I think there’s sufficient evidence to suggest that his description is accurate, that we face real problems in Iraq.

Senator Kerry, in his [September 20] speech, talked about the mounting American death toll, that certain parts of the country are now “no-go” zones for American soldiers. We’re seeing the videos of Americans being beheaded. When a situation looks like that, why would other countries want to put their forces at risk? That’s the real tension in Senator Kerry’s position; indeed, it’s the problem that the administration faces. I’m sure President Bush would very much like to be able to point to having more countries spending more money, providing more troops in Iraq, but he’s been unable to do it.

Some say other countries won’t join in because they don’t like Bush. But I suspect they’re not joining in because the situation is not very inviting. If everything was going smoothly in Iraq, you’d have more volunteers.

That’s one of the ironies, that if Iraq were going really well, the administration would have less incentive to invite others in. As you recall, when the statue of Saddam Hussein was first toppled in April of 2003, the administration actively discouraged other countries from coming in. The administration wanted to run the show by itself because it was going very well. At that time, other countries were more willing to join in, in part because several of them wanted to heal the rift that had developed before the war, partly because things were going well and if you’re going to get in, better to get in when it’s going well. Now that we’re in a situation where it’s not going well, it’s much more important to the administration, and countries, regardless of what they feel toward George Bush personally, now say, “This would be very hard for us to do.”

Let’s speculate about would what happen if Bush wins re-election or if Kerry is elected. Would there be a shift in the international climate after either result?

Dealing with the specific case of Iraq, having an election obviously moves up the uncertainty as to who’s going to be in the White House and whether or not you’re going to be punished or rewarded for what you did for the current incumbent. But I think what happens in Iraq, in terms of the willingness of other countries to join, will ultimately depend on what happens inside Iraq.

If the government of [Prime Minister Ayad] Allawi can succeed, if it manages to have a semblance of order, if it avoids civil war, I think that creates the conditions where it’s not unreasonable that other countries might go in, death toll goes down, stability comes about, you’re more likely to see foreign troops.

If, however, the trend continues as it had in preceding months, where the death toll of American troops has actually increased since Americans formally handed over sovereignty to the Iraqis, and it’s going to be very difficult to get any other countries to go in, then we’re going to have a real, probing debate in this country over whether to stay or whether to go, and it will, in many ways, echo, not in all the particulars, but echo, broadly, the debate we had in Vietnam about “when is enough enough?”

Do you stick it out a bit longer, because if you tough it out and keep your nose to the wheel, eventually good things will happen? Or is it time to cut your losses? I think you heard in Senator Kerry’s speech at least some ambivalence about how long you should want to stick around in Iraq. The president, on the other hand, has said he intends to see it through but, obviously, if the situation in Iraq worsens substantially, that can change political calculations pretty quickly.

Indeed, we may soon reach a certain point where we begin to wonder if perhaps a solution might be to lower the American presence. I think we are headed, in terms of Iraq, to a much more bitter, if it can be believed, debate over what to do about Iraq, even after the election.

Regardless of who wins the election?

I think it’s important to point out that the president, assuming George Bush is re-elected, is going to have problems in his own party. Over this past weekend, we have seen influential Republican senators—Richard Lugar, Chuck Hagel, John McCain—come out and say, in essence, things are bad in Iraq and getting worse, and unless we have a real change of strategy, we’re going to have very serious problems. I think obviously, for the White House, that’s a potential warning sign.

You mentioned the possibility of lowering the presence, but I also hear talk, mostly from military people, about having to take Falluja back from the insurgents. Do you think a tougher policy would have any benefit?

It’s one of the most lively debates among people who follow the insurgency, and I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that. The problem with the “hit ’em harder” strategy is that we will end up killing a lot of civilians—that’s one of the reasons the insurgents hide among the public, to maximize the collateral damage—and there’s a real question as to how much tolerance there would be for that in the American public.

There’s a real problem the administration created for itself on this war, which was that several months ago, we went into Falluja, and then all of a sudden pulled back, and I think that sent the wrong signals. We can debate whether it would have been wiser to go to completion or not to have begun the operation at all, but I think that’s a very real problem. Indeed, in dealing with the insurgents, you actually have varieties of different groups acting for different reasons, and it’s not clear that taking over Falluja is going to solve the problem with the terrorist groups beheading Americans or citizens from other countries. I think the big fear on the horizon is that what’s really happening in Iraq is a hardening of lines between the major sectarian communities, particularly Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab, and that this could creep toward a civil war, which is the nightmare everyone hoped to avoid going in.

You don’t expect any calming of the waters after the election? Give the best case after a Kerry victory.

When Senator Kerry makes his case, he essentially argues the following: when I am elected, leaders of other countries will know there’s a new man in the White House who will be able to turn the page, in whom they will have greater confidence that his administration will be able to work with them, who will get those other governments to send troops and will commit to training Iraqi soldiers quickly so Iraqis can also take over—and that’s how we’re going to get out. Bottom line: I’ll be able to make it happen because, whereas George Bush is incompetent and incapable of delivering on his promises, I know how to do it—that’s Senator Kerry’s message.

Is it realistic?

That’s a very partisan question. The reality is, making Iraq work is going to be very difficult whether the next president is George Bush or John Kerry.