Hunting the Tiger

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times

October 22, 2004

I'm sure that experts would tell us there are many reasons that the presidential race is too close to call, but I would argue that it all comes down to this one simple point: We still don't know which man used the debates to overcome his biggest liability.

Let me explain. I believe there are two things troubling the soul of America today. One of them is: We really do have enemies out there. The other is: We are really on the wrong track.

Whether they are watching the news from Iraq, where hooded men are sawing off the heads of Americans and blowing up Iraqi civilians who are standing in line to join the Iraqis' own police force, or they are contemplating the suicide bombings from Bali to Istanbul, or they are merely reflecting on 9/11 and the applause that attack still receives in certain quarters, nearly all Americans do feel in their gut that we really do have enemies out there.

John Kerry's most important challenge in this election campaign is to connect up with that gut fear in the American soul and pass a simple threshold test: "Does this man understand that we have real enemies?" Mr. Kerry, wrongly in my view, tried to use his heroic Vietnam War record to pass that test by implication. He did not make the sale.

In the debates, he tried to both criticize the Iraq war and to look voters in the eye and say: I know we have enemies and I will confront them, albeit in a different and wiser manner than George Bush has.

How did that go over? I believe that Mr. Kerry presented himself as an articulate, informed and credible commander in chief - but did he make the sale to the great American center? Not clear. My own free advice to Mr. Kerry is if he is unsure about this, he should drop everything else - health care, deficits and middle-class tax cuts - and focus on this issue. Everything else is secondary.

President Bush has a different problem. The threshold test that Mr. Bush had to pass was: "Does this man understand that we are on the wrong track?" Even though the situation is still salvageable, right now Iraq is a terrible mess because of the criminal incompetence of the Bush national security team, and we are more alone in the world than ever.

Conservatives profess to care deeply about the outcome in Iraq, but they sat silently for the last year as the situation there steadily deteriorated. Then they participated in a shameful effort to refocus the country's attention on what John Kerry did on the rivers of Vietnam 30 years ago, not on what George Bush and his team are doing on the rivers of Babylon today, where some 140,000 American lives are on the line. Is this what it means to be a conservative today?

Had conservatives spoken up loudly a year ago and said what both of Mr. Bush's senior Iraq envoys, Jay Garner and Paul Bremer, have now said (and what many of us who believed in the importance of Iraq were saying) - that we never had enough troops to control Iraq's borders, keep the terrorists out, prevent looting and establish authority - the president might have changed course. Instead, they served as a Greek chorus, applauding Mr. Bush's missteps and mocking anyone who challenged them.

Conservatives have failed their own test of patriotism. In the end, it has been more important for them to defeat liberals than to get Iraq right. Had Democrats been running this war with the incompetence of Donald Rumsfeld & Friends, conservatives would have demanded their heads a year ago - and gotten them.

Did the president, in the debates, answer these concerns? He barely tried. His strategy is to focus all his energy on fanning doubts about whether Mr. Kerry understands that we have real enemies, so voters will not focus on how much we are on the wrong track - with virtually no friends in the world and an Iraq that is now so insecure our own soldiers are afraid to drive certain roads.

In British politics there used to be a standard test for candidates for prime minister: Would you want to go on a tiger hunt with this person? That is, would this candidate kill the tiger or try to reason with the tiger? Graham Allison, the Harvard international relations professor who just published a book called "Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe," said to me the other day that the tiger hunt is even more relevant in America today.

"The big question about Kerry is, Will he pull the trigger?" Mr. Allison said. "And the big question about Bush is, Can he aim? With Bush, we know he can pull the trigger, but it's like he shot himself in the foot - and the tiger is still out there. It's the tiger who needs to be shot, not us."