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Kerry makes election a referendum on Iraq

John Kerry’s speech in New York Monday was an important turning point in the 2004 campaign, signaling that Kerry has decided to push other issues aside and make this election a referendum on Iraq.
A US soldier secures the scene of a car bomb explosion in Baghdad
A U.S. soldier secures the scene of a car bombing near a police station in Baghdad Friday.Akram Saleh / Reuters
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Sometime between now and Election Day — exactly six weeks from Tuesday — there is a chance that a majority of voters may conclude that the U.S. involvement in Iraq has gone to hell in a handbasket. But will voters then decide, "John Kerry is the man to fix things"?

Kerry’s speech in New York on Monday morning was an important turning point in the 2004 campaign, signaling that the Democrat and his strategists have decided to push other issues — gun control, outsourcing, Social Security privatization — aside and make this election a referendum on Iraq.

In tried-and-true campaign strategy, Kerry is going back to Democratic base voters and seeking to draw on the anger and frustration they have felt ever since the summer of 2002 when it became clear that President Bush was determined to topple Saddam Hussein.

But even if the anti-war majority of the Democratic base turns out in large numbers on Nov. 2, the key for Kerry is persuading non-core Democratic voters that he is offering them a credible plan for withdrawal from Iraq.

Kerry warned voters Monday that another war may well be in the offing: “If George W. Bush is re-elected, he will cling to the same failed policies in Iraq — and he will repeat, somewhere else, the same reckless mistakes,” a statement that dovetails neatly with arguments by Kerry surrogates such as former Sen. Max Cleland that Bush will re-instate the draft if voters give him a second term.

In Monday’s speech, Kerry set no deadline for withdrawal of American troops.

He did offer a four-point plan for Iraq:

  • Step up the training of Iraqi police and security forces.
  • Carry out a reconstruction program that puts Iraqis to work and uses Iraqi contractors, instead of Halliburton and other U.S. firms.
  • Persuade other nations to live up to their promises under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546 to contribute peace-making troops and financial aid to Iraq.
  • Convince "our friends and allies" to contribute troops to a U.N. protection force so that elections can be held next year.

Middle East scholars and defense experts at Washington’s think-tanks have said for months that the idea that Kerry could persuade France, Germany and other militarily capable nations to send troops to operate in Iraq was the least credible part of Kerry’s proposals.

Retired Army officer and ex-Pentagon staffer Andrew Krepinevich, who now heads Washington's Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told congressional staffers at a briefing Monday that when he visited France in April he had lunch with the vice chairman of the French joint chiefs of staff.

Frenchman says, 'Get real'
When Krepinevich mentioned the potential of French soldiers helping American troops in Iraq, “he didn’t quite laugh in my face, but he smiled, chuckled and said, ‘Look, you people have to get real. You have the British there; you have the Italians, that’s about all you can do.’”

The French general added, “Even if our policy here changed 180 degrees and the president (of France) came to us and said, ‘What can we do for Iraq,’ I have troops in Haiti, in the Ivory Coast, in the Horn of Africa, in the Balkans, in Afghanistan. I’m having difficulty meeting these commitments. The notion that we or the Germans can give you 50,000 troops, even together, is just not realistic.”

Krepinevich added that Germany is constrained by the fact it relies partly on conscript soldiers and German rules tightly limit where and under what conditions they can be deployed.

Despite some of the difficulties defense experts have pointed to in Kerry’s “persuade-the-allies” mantra, Monday’s speech showed that Kerry had decided he needed to do something prior to next week’s debate with Bush to change the campaign’s momentum.

Recent polls in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other key states showed Kerry in trouble, at best holding his own or slightly behind Bush.

Some states Democrats considered in July as potential pick-up opportunities — Arizona, for instance — now seem very difficult for him to win.

Kucinich's warning
In the snows of New Hampshire last January, the most unabashedly anti-Iraq war candidate among the Democratic contenders, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, told that he feared if the party nominated Kerry that in the first Bush-Kerry debate, once the Massachusetts senator had blasted Bush’s conduct of the Iraq war, Bush would turn to him and say, “But, senator, you voted to give me the authority to go to war.”

That was the linchpin of Howard Dean’s appeal to Democrats last year to choose him, not Kerry. “Sen. Kerry is talking about experience in foreign affairs. His experience led him to give the president of the United States a blank check to invade Iraq,” Dean said last November in debate with Kerry.

Kerry complained in Monday’s speech that Bush had not told Congress back in October of 2002 that Iraq might turn out to be a costly, protracted operation.

“He didn’t tell us that the cost would exceed $200 billion. He didn’t tell us that even after paying such a heavy price, success was far from assured,” Kerry said.

Kerry’s uneasiness with his vote to authorize the Iraq war has led him to spend months adjusting his rationale for the vote and his position on what the next right step is in Iraq.

In September 2003, for example, he said, “we should not send more American troops. That would be the worst thing. We do not want to have more Americanization.”

But on April 30 of this year he said, “If our commanders believe they need more American troops, they should say so and they should get them.”

He quickly added, “But more and more American soldiers cannot be the only solution. Other nations have a vital interest in the outcome and they must be brought in.”

In Monday’s speech he implicitly went back to his September 2003 position that he would send no more U.S. troops.

Bush rebuttal
Even before Kerry’s offensive on Iraq on Monday, the Bush campaign unveiled an ad that attempts to remind voters of the wider counterterrorist war. The ad conspicuously omits any reference to Iraq.

It says that Bush and GOP congressional leaders “have a plan: Enhance border and port security, increase homeland security measures. … Renew the Patriot Act, giving law enforcement tools against terrorists. … Give the military all it needs, find terrorists where they train and hide.”

Use of the word "terror" tends to drive Bush's numbers up in polling. Bush is trying to play to his perceived strength.

He may have his rebuttal to Kerry’s Iraq plan in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday.