Politics & Policy

A Foreign War

John Kerry takes another position on the war he knows not much about.

Yesterday John Kerry took a new position on the war in Iraq. This is to say, yet another new position. In a speech at New York University, he took President Bush to task for waging an unnecessary war. But wait a sec–that’s not the new position I want to write about, even though it’s worth noting. And I’m not going to do a comparative retrospective on Senator Kerry’s various stances, shades of opinion, positions, postures, and attitudes with regard to Iraq because that has been covered exhaustively elsewhere–and besides I only have about a thousand words. No, I want to address the core of the speech, in which Kerry announced a four-point plan to win the peace in Iraq. Moreover, I want to get this column out fast before some points are subtracted, others added, and still others explained to mean the opposite of what we think they mean, if they mean anything at all.

Kerry’s first prescription is to internationalize the burden in Iraq. Internationalism is something of an idée fixe in the Kerry camp, yet at the same time, it is a conceit of the Left to minimize the contributions of the 31 countries that have already joined the United States to help create a free and stable Iraq. “This is not a grand coalition,” Mr. Kerry intoned. England, Japan, Australia, and the rest do not count for much without France on board. And the Democrats can mock the contributions made by the 45 Tongan Marines currently in-country, but for a nation of 110,000 people that is a major commitment, so I say bravo Tonga. The Kerry plan will bring more nations into the Coalition through the magic of the summit meeting. This plays to the belief that somehow, by virtue of Kerry’s charisma, his Gallic mien, or some other imponderable, countries that have heretofore been reluctant to play a part in Iraq will reverse course and become willing participants. Apparently, if only the leaders of the world hear Kerry explain patiently to them why they should be in Iraq they will come forward with help, their national interests notwithstanding. He will also ask NATO to get more involved, as it is already in Afghanistan (a fact which also belies the “unilateralist” charge, but I digress). That is an excellent idea, and it may come as a news flash to Team Kerry that at the Istanbul summit last June the NATO military committee resolved to assist the Iraqi government in training its police and security forces. The Kerry plan would also open the contract bidding process to more countries, that is, to more than the over 60 currently allowed to bid to be prime contractors with no country limits on subcontracting. The plan is silent on issue of whether energy-development contracts and options concluded under Saddam’s regime should be honored by the new government. Kerry should clarify his position on this issue, which has not surprisingly hits France and Russia hardest.

Secondly, Kerry would beef up the Iraqi security forces. He said that only 5,000 soldiers and 32,000 police have been put in service. He neglected to mention the 34,000 Iraqi National Guardsmen who have been trained and assigned duty, but the Democrats do not usually count service in the National Guard so it is easy to see how that group escaped his notice. He also discounts the almost 12,000 border police, the 74,000 facilities protection service personnel, not to mention the 52,000 additional police who are training on the job. Beyond the numbers, Kerry underrates the important contributions the Iraqi cops have been making to their communities. The police are the most important civil institution in the country. According to several polls (for example the August survey done by IRI) the Iraqi police enjoy levels of public trust that rival those of religious leaders. They score the highest result of any group in response to the question, “Within your community, who has been the most active trying to improve the quality of life?” (Note that human rights organizations, political parties, women’s and youth organizations all score at the bottom end of the scale.) A September 16, 2004 poll by the State Department’s Office of Research showed confidence levels in the police in the 80- to 90-percent range. Another measure of the effectiveness of the security program is the fact that the terrorists are targeting the police and have been for some time. Kerry may want to have an argument over how many classroom hours a policeman in Iraq requires to be effective (his answer: twenty four), or what his universal training template would look like, but the Iraqi people have concluded that it is more important to have cops on the beat keeping neighborhoods safe right now.

The third point is the obligatory “big government” plank, bringing more benefits to the Iraqi people. Kerry called for countries to forgive the debts owed them by Iraq, which total as much as $164 billion. These “odious debts” were assumed under Saddam’s regime, and it would be unjust to force the free Iraqis to finance their own oppression after the fact. It is a great idea, and Senator Kerry has stumbled on it a year after President Bush began pursuing the same thing. Kerry also urged that more contracts be given to Iraqi contractors instead of “big corporations, like Halliburton.” Of course, companies like Halliburton, and Bechtel, and Siemens, and scores of others, already subcontract to 310 Iraqi firms, employing over 76,000 people. Then there are the over 500 smaller vendors doing business with the Iraq Project and Contracting Office. But of course this adds complexities that are harder to demagogue.

The fourth point deals with bringing democracy to Iraq–which strikes one as ironic since this is the same speech in which Kerry said he would not have removed Saddam from power. But that aside, he calls for things like investing in civil-society groups and helping establish a constitutional process for power sharing, activities that have been underway since Iraq was liberated. He also called for discussions with Iraq’s neighbors to discuss border security, kind of like Assistant Secretary of State William Burns’ recent meetings with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

Throughout his speech, Kerry invoked the sense that the situation in Iraq is spiraling out of control, that the Iraqi people see things as hopeless, that democracy is imperiled unless drastic changes take place. He was assisted in projecting this image by the well-timed disclosure of a classified CIA report discussing the possibility of an Iraqi civil war erupting. However, the view within Iraq is very different. The IRI poll revealed that three quarters of Iraqis are hopeful for the future, that 80 percent believe things will slowly get better, two-thirds think life will be better a year from now and seventy percent would not leave Iraq if given a chance. Eighty-seven percent plan to vote in the upcoming election (much greater than US voter participation), and only about 1.5 percent are concerned that the security situation makes things too unstable to vote. Fifty-eight percent believe democracy is either very or somewhat likely to succeed. Moreover, a Pew Center poll released September 17, 2004 shows a majority of Americans still believe invading Iraq was the right thing to do, even if Mr. Kerry does not.

Today the president addresses the United Nations and makes some of the same points Kerry made. I am certain that the Kerry team will quickly take credit for shaping the agenda; some phrases in Kerry’s speech seemed to be setting up that ploy. But that should not fool anyone who is paying attention. The bottom line is Kerry largely proposed to do what the United States and its Coalition partners are already doing. Maybe the senator should stop obsessing about Vietnam and familiarize himself with the course of the current war. After all, he voted for it. I think.


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