Getting into Iraq was a mistake. Perhaps even worse, occupying Iraq has created a volatile, deadly quagmire. Now getting out is becoming tougher to do. That’s the legacy of President Bush’s mishandling of Iraq. It’s a legacy that also poses big political problems for John Kerry.
It might seem that reports of the growing discontent, instability and casualties in Iraq would by themselves weaken Bush’s reelection campaign as the war president. Indeed, the past year has seen rising disillusionment with U.S. policy, reflected in two mid-April polls: 46 percent of Americans said that the war was a “mistake” or “not worth” the losses.
But popular reaction to the occupation is complex. In a CNN survey, 57 percent of those polled supported more troops and intensified military efforts, even though only 37 percent believed the United States could establish a democratic government in Iraq. In presidential preference polls by CNN and the Washington Post Bush gained several points, reversing the lead Kerry had during the late primaries, despite increasing criticism from experts and further revelations of the administration’s deceptions and ideologically distorted decisions. Certainly $70 million in Republican attack ads hurt Kerry’s numbers, but Bush also may have gained support simply as the wartime leader as conflict escalated.
A faltering occupation alone will not elect Kerry. To take advantage of popular doubts about Bush’s conduct of the occupation, Kerry must persuade voters that he can provide better leadership, not simply that Bush has done a bad job. “Kerry can’t hold out forever on what he will do and do better to get us out of the mess,” says polling analyst Ruy Teixeira at the Century Foundation, a liberal think tank. “Given that Bush is commander-in-chief, people want to give him benefit of the doubt, even if it’s not a slam dunk. So Kerry does need to specify.”
But Kerry faces two problems. First, he must propose a credible plan that will advance stability and democracy in Iraq and the region. Second, the plan must unite those who were strongly anti-war — a key but still minority constituency — with those who may have been pro-war but now have doubts. Complicating matters further, what Kerry decides is a winning political strategy may not be the best policy for the Middle East.
Bush war strategists invaded Iraq to remake the Middle East into a region of client states that are open to U.S. investment, not hostile to Israel and more modern in a liberal capitalist way. But the war was sold as a strike against weapons of mass destruction and terror. Even now, despite contrary evidence, 60 percent of Americans think Saddam had WMDs or a major development program, and 57 percent believe Iraq provided substantial help to al Qaeda, according to a poll in late April by the Program on International Policy Attitudes. These misperceptions help Bush, despite worries about the occupation.
On the other hand, although many Iraqis supported Saddam’s ouster, they have a deep distrust of the United States for its past support of authoritarian regimes (including Saddam) and lopsided backing of Israel against Palestinians. The United States also has historically worked to suppress secular, left and nationalist movements in the Middle East that might have been an alternative channel of popular discontent to the Islamist fundamentalists. Any Kerry strategy for Iraq thus confronts two quite different bodies of public opinion: one in Iraq, the other in the United States.
As anti-American sentiment grows in Iraq, most experts express varying degrees of hopelessness about the current situation. Regardless of the merits of invading, the occupation has been handled badly. If the United States had occupied Iraq with a large enough force to maintain stability; had moved within the first year to build security forces employing many former Iraqi police and military; had brought in the United Nations, and quickly transferred sovereignty to a broadly representative interim government, it might have salvaged a bad situation.
On the contrary, the Bush team shifted occupation plans; delayed elections; established economic policies that threatened to take away Iraqi control of their nation; relied on a narrow, weak and increasingly illegitimate interim governing council, and made no serious move to internationalize the occupation or shift responsibility to the United Nations. Now the fig leaf of internationalism is withering as Spain and other countries pull out, and Bush is desperately reversing course on the United Nations. But it may be too late — maybe even for a Kerry alternative.
“There is no good policy alternative for Senator Kerry, as there is none for President Bush,” says conservative University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer, who opposed the invasion. “The Bush administration has gotten us into a real pickle,” making it hard for the United States to stay or leave. “I don’t think most people fully appreciate how much trouble we’re in. The more time passes, the more we look like occupiers. The more we bring in others, we look like occupiers, and they look like our stooges. Secondly, what country in its right mind would put troops in there now? … [But] if we get out, it’s a disaster. The Bush administration is in a no-win situation.” So, he thinks, is Kerry.
Although war critics like Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich argue that the United States can’t withdraw without leaving some stabilizing force, the United States is increasingly becoming a major source of instability. “The key motor of insecurity in Iraq is the United States,” argues Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi, author of Resurrecting Empire. “There will be others if the United States withdraws. But you only increase hatred of America by maintaining forces there. It would have been different if a half million troops had gone in a year ago. But I don’t think any good can be done now[by increasing troops].” Khalidi argues that the United States must make clear it has no plans for future bases and will get out as soon as an interim government asks.
Even if American troops do not leave immediately, the key to a viable exit strategy is speedy transfer to Iraqis of real control over lawmaking, oil revenues, contracts and basic security issues, not the dubious “semi-sovereignty” the administration proposes after June 30, argues Tom Andrews, a former congressman from Maine. Andrews is the national director of Win Without War, a coalition of mainstream church, peace, environmental and citizen groups. “The issue is legitimacy. The United States is acting as, and is indeed, an occupying military power. As long as that’s the case, there’s no solution. If we leave under these circumstances, we’ll be shooting our way out.”
In order to forge an electoral majority on Iraq, Kerry’s best bet is to continue calling for more involvement by the United Nations, Europe and moderate Arab countries, suggests political consultant Don Rose. Ohio-based consultant Gerald Austin argues that internationalization must be combined with a clear plan to get out of Iraq.
So far Kerry has proposed involving NATO troops and making a United Nations mission “the main civilian partner” of the Iraqi people in restoring the government and economy. He says that the United States can’t simply leave and may even have to increase the number of troops. Worried about being attacked as someone who would “cut and run” or not “stay the course,” Kerry has not fully committed himself to a plan to get out of Iraq. Worse, by quickly embracing Bush’s support of Sharon’s plan to keep West Bank settlements, Kerry failed to show that he has an alternative strategy for the region and reinforced a decision that will only contribute further to distrust of America in Iraq and the region.
If Kerry remains too cautious and if Bush tries to involve the United Nations more, there is a risk that many people will see little difference between him and Kerry. As a strategy for politics and policy, Kerry needs to make clear to both Americans and Iraqis that he has a plan to shift control quickly to Iraqis and international forces and get the United States out of Iraq. Indeed, he can argue that only a new president will have the credibility with Americans, Iraqis and the world to extricate the United States from the Bush quagmire.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.