The New York Times
September 2, 2004
Vice President Dick Cheney reverted last night to the simple, bold declarations of how America should exercise its power that were often heard in the first year after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Iraq had not yet been invaded, intelligence reports had not yet proved false, and 17 months of insurgency had not yet raised the question of whether George W. Bush had taken a wrong turn in the fight against terror.
Instead, Mr. Cheney jettisoned the complications of the past year, honing the central argument of the Republican campaign: that the country could not trust Senator John Kerry to strike decisively in the defense of American interests. "Senator Kerry began his political career by saying he would like to see our troops deployed 'only at the directive of the United Nations,' " Mr. Cheney said.
He added: "He declared at the Democratic convention that he will forcefully defend America - after we have been attacked. My fellow Americans, we have already been attacked.''
On the convention floor, the delegates broke into cheers of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A." Mr. Cheney went on to declare that the nation could not be safe without a president who was instinctively ready to go on offense to eliminate threats to the United States.
To some it may seem an overdistilled message, discarding much of what the Bush administration has learned, often the hard way, over the past year. It largely ignores discussion of the value of alliances, the need to treat the roots of terrorism, or the requirements of slow, patient diplomacy in places where there are no real military options. Mr. Bush's critics will say it sidesteps the problems of murky intelligence and deeply festering resentments of American power around the world.
But as Mr. Bush's and Mr. Cheney's advisers have repeatedly said in recent weeks, campaigns and the subtleties of national security policy do not easily mix. So they have settled on a strategy designed to sow doubts about their opponent's character, while hoping that some bold declarations about taking the fight to the enemy would overwhelm memories of the missteps of the past year.
It is an argument that Mr. Bush has been making with increasing ferocity on the campaign trail. He draws huge cheers when he derides Mr. Kerry's "new nuance'' on whether it was right to invade Iraq. The president usually follows with this explanation of his own philosophy: "The world is working together and I'll continue to build our alliances,'' Mr. Bush said in Perrysburg, Ohio, on Saturday. "But I will never turn over America's national security decisions to leaders of other countries.''
It is a line he frequently delivers. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have turned pre-emption from a post-cold-war doctrine of American defense strategy into a campaign theme. In that process, a lot has been thrown overboard. Washington may still be talking about missing unconventional weapons, or whether the occupation of Iraq is aiding the battle against terrorism or fueling it, but little of that debate has been acknowledged at Madison Square Garden.
At the convention, Iraq and the war on terrorism are rolled into one, and the only alternative to an assertive United States is described as a world run by the United Nations.
"There's no question that the war in Iraq is, if anything, reducing the number of terrorists,'' the chairman of the New Mexico Republicans, Allen E. Weh, said on Tuesday, fresh from a tour of duty as a marine colonel in Iraq.
Campaigns, of course, are about simple slogans, not policy debates. Richard M. Nixon finished off George McGovern, a decorated World War II veteran, by questioning whether he had the guts to stand up to the North Vietnamese.
Mr. Cheney's speech last night may remind the rest of the world of the "with us or against us'' language that Mr. Bush used in the wake of Sept. 11, language that the president had begun to modulate earlier this year.
The reversion to such simple precepts and harsh language may be in part a response to polls that show growing doubts about how Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have conducted the country's national security policy. While they consistently say Mr. Bush is doing a good job of handling terrorism, Americans are less certain about his handling of foreign policy in general, and Iraq in particular.
In a CBS News poll conducted just before the convention began, 41 percent of the respondents said they approved of the way Mr. Bush was handling foreign policy, while 49 percent disapproved. Similarly, 40 percent of the respondents said they approved of the way Mr. Bush was handling the situation in Iraq, while 54 percent disapproved.
Mr. Bush's response has been two-pronged. In recent days, he has begun to admit to some errors of judgment in Iraq, or "miscalculation" as he put it in an interview last Thursday with The New York Times. But he describes those as minor failures to anticipate the swiftness of American military victory and its aftermath, and argues that it is a problem already on its way to solution.
"So the fundamental question is, what are you doing about it?" Mr. Bush asked. "And what we're doing about it is dealing with it. We've got a flexible plan."
But the second element of the strategy is to insist that the Iraq war is part of the broader war on terror, even in the face of doubts that Saddam Hussein had a working relationship with Al Qaeda or other active terror groups. And at nearly every campaign stop Mr. Bush emphasizes the military response to terrorism, rather than the steps to understand its causes and enact a strategy of prevention.
That kind of talk is intended to contrast sharply with Mr. Kerry's line about waging a "more sensitive war on terror," and that is exactly where Mr. Cheney was attacking Mr. Kerry last night. Mr. Kerry, he said, talked "as though Al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side."
The reality, said Richard Haass, who left a senior post in the State Department last year, is that "we've finally put on the agenda the need for a strategy not only for dealing with today's terrorists, but with future terrorists." Yet it is an agenda Mr. Cheney, the voice of the hawks in the administration, did not spend much time addressing. Instead, he described Mr. Bush as a man who knows where to strike because he sees a world of good and evil.
"In the great divide of our time," he said, "he has put this nation where America always belongs: against the tyrants of this world."