New York Times
September 22, 2004
UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 21 - To hear President Bush and John Kerry argue bitterly in the last two days about the American mission in Iraq is to wonder if they are talking about the same war, or even the same country.
At the marble podium of the United Nations, Mr. Bush on Tuesday morning described an Iraq that "has rejoined the community of nations" and is well on the way to being "secure, democratic, federal and free" if the world, and America's allies, do not lose their nerve. It was the kind of declaration that prompts cheers at campaign rallies; at the United Nations, it was greeted with the General Assembly's customary silence.
The day before, just two miles to the south, Mr. Kerry spoke of an invasion of Iraq that "has created a crisis of historic proportions," and warned that "if we do not change course there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight." He went on to describe a country that bore no resemblance to the one Mr. Bush portrays, one of bombings, beheadings, rampant unemployment and few allies sharing the burden.
It is no accident. These diametrically opposed images reflect diametrically opposed strategies for the final six weeks of the presidential campaign.
Mr. Bush and his aides are determined to focus the campaign debate on the decision to liberate Iraq from Saddam Hussein's brutal rule and make the argument that if Mr. Kerry had been in office for the last four years, the dictator would still be in his palace.
Mr. Bush moved from the vast hall of the General Assembly, where the wounds of his decision to go to war without explicit Security Council approval are still raw, to the first of three days of meetings with Ayad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, whose success or failure at converting Iraq to a working democracy may shape Mr. Bush's own legacy.
Mr. Kerry is equally determined to take the Iraq debate in a different direction - one that focuses on the here and now, on the "arrogant and incompetent" management of the war since Mr. Hussein was ousted.
His campaign has decided that its last hope of undercutting the image of Mr. Bush as a competent war leader is to return relentlessly to the questions, as Mr. Kerry puts it, of why "terrorists are pouring across the border" into Iraq, why so few of America's allies have joined the effort and why Iran and North Korea have advanced their nuclear programs while the administration has been preoccupied with Iraq.
"The president wants to shift the topic, and I'm not going to let him shift the topic," Mr. Kerry said Tuesday afternoon in Florida, responding as quickly to Mr. Bush's speech at the United Nations as Mr. Bush did to Mr. Kerry's speech on Monday.
"The president needs to get to the world of reality," Mr. Kerry concluded, a line he is repeating often these days. He is trying to nurture an image in the voters' minds that Mr. Bush has begun to believe his administration's own spin about how well the war is going.
Beyond the mutual accusations, something has changed in the last 48 hours. The question is whether it lasts. Finally, after months of arguing over their Vietnam-era service and their competing plans for taxes and health care reform, the two candidates are arguing about a war that has taken more than a thousand American lives.
With their first debate, devoted to foreign policy, little more than a week away, they are now engaging the question of who has a better plan to make Iraq stable and democratic enough to pave the way for an American exit.
For both men it is a strategy filled with risks.
Until the past few days, Mr. Bush's team insisted that any day spent debating Iraq was a good day for the president, because even given bad news, Americans would get the message that this was no time to gamble on an untested commander-in-chief.
Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, insists that the administration is still confident of its strategy to transform Iraq. In an interview last week, she insisted that Mr. Bush had a winning plan for Iraq and said that "the terrorists have nothing to offer the Iraqis."
While Ms. Rice stands by the assessment, the president's political team is no longer so sure how the argument will play out. The campaign leadership was shaken by recent assertions by three senior Republican senators - Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Richard Lugar of Indiana and John McCain of Arizona - suggesting that the United States is facing deep trouble in Iraq, and that the White House may be in denial about the need for a new approach.
"They are clearly worried that this could take a nasty turn," said one senior Republican strategist who joined a conference call on Monday about how to respond to Mr. Kerry's counterattacks. "The headlines are getting to them."
But it is far from clear that Mr. Kerry is going to succeed at changing the terms of the debate, or that even if he does, he will overcome Mr. Bush's charge that he has flip-flopped on the wisdom of the invasion.
After all, it was Mr. Kerry, on the edge of the Grand Canyon last month, who declared that even if he had known what the world knows now about the absence of weapons of mass destruction, he would have voted to authorize the president to go to war. For Mr. Kerry the key word is "authorize" - he insists he would never actually have pulled the trigger with such skimpy intelligence and absence of international support.
But Mr. Bush has scored points by repeating, at every campaign stop, that his opponent is a morass of "new contradictions on old positions on Iraq." And now Mr. Kerry may have given him new ammunition, with his argument - different from the one he offered at the canyon's rim - that no president in his right mind should have sought that authorization.
"Is he really saying that if we knew there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to Al Qaeda, the United States should have invaded Iraq?" Mr. Kerry asked in his speech on Monday.
Mr. Bush's answer to that question is a resounding yes.
For Mr. Kerry there is another risk, one wrapped in his own personal history. In his speech on Monday he evoked his return to the United States from Vietnam. "I saw firsthand what happens when pride or arrogance take over from rational decision making," he said, suggesting that Mr. Bush was heading off the same cliff that several of his predecessors went over during the defining conflict of his youth and Mr. Bush's.
He dissented then, he said, "because I believed strongly that we owed it to those risking their lives to speak truth to power. We still do."
The last time Mr. Kerry tried that, it launched his political career. He is betting that lightning will strike twice. Mr. Bush has taken the other side of that bet, believing that in the end voters will reward him for standing tough, even if chaos and mayhem fill the television screens between now and Nov. 2.