When John Kerry in a recent speech refocused his campaign by targeting George W. Bush's war on Iraq, he pounded Bush for having "misled, miscalculated and mismanaged every aspect of this undertaking." Answering critics who have claimed he has no plan for Iraq, Kerry once again touted proposals he has been pushing for months. His "alternative" essentially calls for internationalizing the mess in Iraq by coaxing or pressuring other nations to participate in an accelerated reconstruction program, to provide more financial assistance and debt relief and to engage in various security functions, such as protecting the United Nations mission in charge of the upcoming elections and patrolling the borders. As President, Kerry said, he would convene a summit of major nations and Arab states to move others to share responsibility for rebuilding Iraq. He would push NATO allies to become more involved in training Iraqi security forces. He would de-Halliburtonize Iraqi reconstruction by employing more Iraqi contractors and by offering companies in other countries greater opportunity to bid on contracts. He would press for long-term power-sharing arrangements among Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.
With this plan, a collection of steps designed to achieve increments of progress, Kerry and his aides signal that they realize Bush has created a predicament in Iraq with no obvious solution. Still, they believe the United States should remain militarily engaged in Iraq and take a stab at producing a reasonably stable country that would not be home to large swaths of uncontrolled territory suitable for use by anti-American terrorists. They argue that a new administration more committed to internationalism would have a brief window of opportunity in which the United States could persuade allies and Arab nations that it is in their interest to assist a US-led effort to avert the further destabilization there. But Kerry's plan is not a bold and daring counter to what George W. Bush has done (invade now and ask questions later--or not). It is not a withdrawal. It is not a six-point program promising peace and democracy in Iraq and the swift return of American troops.
Kerry's foreign policy advisers--including former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke, Senator Joe Biden and former National Security Council aide Rand Beers--are all what one campaign adviser calls "hardheaded internationalists. Their fundamental approach is interdependency." They want to transform Bush's problem in Iraq into one accepted by the entire world, hoping additional support from other nations will increase the odds that the disorder can be contained and perhaps undone. Kerry, one adviser notes, is not obsessed with the war as a project "to bring democracy to the region. A democratic Iraq would be good. But this is not an ideological goal for Kerry. His goal is a stabilized Iraq that is not a threat."
Knowing that a plan for muddling through with greater overseas assistance lacks punch and appeal, Kerry's advisers maintain that the man is more important than the plan, that the crucial point is that Kerry would not have steered the United States into a fiasco in Iraq. They also make the reasonable case that it is difficult for Kerry to present a specific how-to blueprint because it is unknown what a President Kerry would encounter come January 20, 2005. Speaking with reporters after Kerry's speech, Biden noted that Kerry's actions will depend on whether he "inherits a Lebanon" [an Iraq in chaos]. "If things are moving along"--meaning elections and the training of Iraqi security forces--"then there is the probability we can draw down troops likely by the summer [of 2005] and be out of there within four years," Biden says. What if it's Lebanon? Biden is vague. Joe Lockhart, a new Kerry senior adviser, quickly adds, "We'll stay away from answering hypotheticals."
But the hypothetical is the only thing Kerry and his advisers can offer. "With all these steps, he would try to reach the point of the second election now scheduled to occur by 2006," says one adviser. "He would have a year to build up the security forces, and then he could get out. A significant assault from the insurgents may increase pressure to pull out sooner. But it is hard to imagine Kerry leaving that quickly."
In the meantime, Kerry would have to decide how to handle the insurgency. "Bush has decided to leave them alone until Iraqi security forces are trained," this adviser says. "But that day is not coming soon. So now we have possible safe havens for terrorists in insurgent-controlled areas. There is no consensus among Kerry's people on this point. Kerry might go in hard and fast and try to deal with them, with some real downsides, such as much unhappiness among Iraqis. But the longer you let it go, the worse it is for our troops. It's a dilemma." Another adviser adds, "If Iraq becomes even uglier, there might be tension among his foreign policy team between a pull-out-now crowd and a muddle-through crowd. But this has not emerged yet. In terms of the general approach, there is not much disagreement."
Kerry's plan is far from surefire. European nations say they have no desire to send combat troops to Iraq. But Kerry advisers contend that Europeans and others will respond to a Kerry administration and at least contribute a greater number of troops for training and noncombat missions. Can US or NATO troops adequately train Iraqi forces? That's another unknown. The Bush camp argues that the President has already adopted much of Kerry's proposal--a criticism rejected by Kerry, who accurately notes that Bush has been unable to get other nations to live up to their commitments under UN Security Council Resolution 1546, passed last spring.
"This is not going to be simple," says a Kerry aide. "If you want simplicity, vote for Bush." As another Kerry adviser puts it, "There's a chance Kerry's approach won't work and will be a fiasco, and we will end up staying in for a year or so longer than we should have." In that case, Kerry--who as an antiwar leader in the 1970s once famously said, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"--will have done just that. But Kerry's current plan--or intention--is to ask US troops and other nations to confront, not run from, Bush's mistake in Iraq in order to prevent Bush's misguided plan, sold on the basis of a phony threat, from bequeathing to the United States and the world what may well be a true threat.