Letter to a Democrat

The case against a vote for Kerry

Also in Politics & Prose:

"Letter to a Republican" (October 20, 2004)
The case against a vote for Bush. By Jack Beatty

During the long run-up to the Iraq war, we heard a lot of Democrats say that it would be "Karl Rove's war"—something the White House had cooked up for partisan gain. We have heard rather less of this line in recent months, as the war has come to threaten Bush's re-election. The president may have taken an overly optimistic view of postwar Iraq, but he always knew that he was risking his presidency on the war. Now he must stand or fall on it.

I think you ought to stand with him.

The Ba'athist regime in Iraq was a threat to American interests. Its expansionist ambitions had drawn us into a war before. Enforcing an uneasy "peace" with the regime still in power (and still firing on our planes every week) was undermining our position in the Middle East. It required us to station troops in Saudi Arabia. Over the course of the decade before 9/11, the international coalition for sanctions on Iraq had grown weaker. If President Bush had not threatened war with Iraq, and then followed through on that threat, Saddam Hussein would before too long have slipped out from the sanctions.

What would he have done then? He had gassed the Kurds. He had tried to assassinate a former American president. His regime's official ideology was explicitly expansionist and anti-American. It was reasonable to worry that he would reconstitute his weapons programs, and unreasonable not to. What would he have done if he had gotten weapons? Sell them, perhaps; or maybe use them to intimidate his neighbors. (Imagine assembling the allied coalition of 1990-91 against a nuclear-armed Saddam.)

As President Bush was preparing to go to war, the Iraqi threat looked more imminent than it appears to have been. The case for going to war in March 2003 looks less urgent. But if we had not acted when we did, we would still eventually have had to deal with Iraq—and probably under worse circumstances. September 11 had also changed the calculus. It made it harder for a president to ignore or downplay threats to America emanating from the Middle East. It also made the case for a dramatic intervention into the political culture of the region more compelling.

That Bush has made mistakes in Iraq is an understatement. Defense and State blame each other for the initial botch of the occupation, but it is a president's job to impose coherence on his administration. The Fallujah climb-down in April sent a worse message to the Iraqis than even Abu Ghraib did. But successful war leaders make mistakes, even big ones. The political evolution of postwar Iraq has gone better than we could have expected, and we have a good shot at democratic elections in January. Libya's agreement to defang itself has been an important side-benefit of the war.

John Kerry, too, thought Iraq was a threat. He voted for regime change in 1998, and he voted to authorize war in 2002. He says that Bush should not have exercised that authority without more allies. You do not have to be an unqualified fan of this administration's diplomacy to find the critique unpersuasive. Would a few more months at the U.N. have bought us many more allies? Does their absence undermine the case for the war by substantially reducing the threat from the regime, the strategic value of changing the regime, or the likelihood of success? I think the answer to these questions is no.

What would John Kerry do in Iraq now, and in future crises we can only dimly perceive? We know that much of his base, and an increasing number of foreign-policy intellectuals, wants to cut and run in Iraq. We know that he is very attentive to that base: He voted to deny funds for Iraqi reconstruction, just weeks after saying that such a vote would be "reckless" and "irresponsible," because he was afraid of Howard Dean in the primaries. We know that his general instincts are dovish: He voted against the first Gulf War and seems (understandably if misguidedly) to view all foreign-policy questions through the prism of his interpretation of the Vietnam War. And we know that his election would be a stunning American repudiation of the Iraq war and a warning that no American president should risk another foreign intervention—at a time when the difficulties in Iraq have already increased our inhibitions in this regard to a dangerous degree.

Kerry recently said that "we have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance." Republicans jumped on the word "nuisance," but it is not the most disturbing element of the comment. Going back to the 1990s, when the terrorists were paying more attention to us than we were to them, is not desirable, and it is hard to believe that Kerry really means it. But to the extent he fights the war on terrorism, he will also have to fight his own instincts. I would prefer to re-elect a president who does not labor under this burden.