It may have the ring of cliché, but America’s next presidential election will be among the most crucial events in contemporary history. Rarely in the modern era has the world seen such unchecked power exercised so ignorantly, arrogantly and with such profoundly counterproductive results as the Bush Administration’s bait-and-switch invasion of Iraq. As Al Gore told an audience at NYU recently, “The unpleasant truth is that President Bush’s utter incompetence has made the world a far more dangerous place and dramatically increased the threat of terrorism against the United States.” The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Gore noted, has reported that the Iraq conflict “has arguably focused the energies and resources of Al Qaeda and its followers while diluting those of the global counterterrorism coalition.” Al Qaeda now boasts an army of more than 18,000 potential terrorists, with the Iraqi war “swelling its ranks.”
The horror is slowly dawning on everyday Americans. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, almost three-fifths of the people questioned disapproved of Bush’s handling of the war–the highest level the survey has ever recorded. Meanwhile, a CBS survey revealed that just about two-thirds of those asked responded that the country was on “the wrong track,” also the top level CBS has ever reached in the twenty years its pollsters have been asking the question.
Yet John Kerry remains roughly even with Bush in a straight-ahead matchup. There are many reasons for this. The Massachusetts liberal comes across as stiff and uncharismatic, and in America’s personality-driven political culture, that matters far more than it should. Bush, moreover, has spent far more money on advertising than Kerry and has succeeded in casting him as an opportunistic “flip-flopper” among people who believe political ads. Much of the media, moreover, remain in thrall to Bush, having embedded themselves in this Administration’s flight of ideological fancy and, like the New York Times‘s Judith Miller, published its spoon-fed propaganda as gospel.
(Miller recently escaped any censure from the Times for passing along untrue stories about Iraq’s weapons program, which is only fair, since it was the editors’ job to rein in her uncritical embrace of convicted embezzler and possible Iranian spy Ahmad Chalabi. In a more recent example of the same type of shameless shilling for the Bush Administration, CNN’s Kelli Arena reported “speculation that Al Qaeda believes it has a better chance of winning in Iraq if John Kerry is in the White House.” This was arrant nonsense, as the IISS had just reported that Al Qaeda was using Bush’s Iraq invasion as a recruiting tool, having been allowed to fully reconstitute itself owing to this Administration’s criminal neglect.)
Kerry’s primary problem is that he has so far failed to distinguish himself in a fundamental fashion from Bush on the one issue that has destroyed the President’s credibility. Bush & Co. fooled Kerry into voting to give them the authority to go to war back in 2002 on the basis of falsified evidence and meaningless promises, and Kerry has found himself in a straitjacket ever since. As the Los Angeles Times‘s excellent Ron Brownstein notes, the Kerry campaign’s foreign policy focus is “less on criticizing the president’s policies than on questioning whether he could provide the international leadership to implement them.” Brownstein quotes a Democratic foreign policy analyst worrying that “the best he will be able to say is that Bush is finally doing what I said to do all along.”
The election’s dynamic is further complicated by the unwelcome presence of political kamikaze bomber Ralph Nader, whose uncured self-delusion is leading him once again to convert the genuine idealism and narrow-minded narcissism of his supporters into another victory for the reactionary Republican right. With his hypercautious position on Iraq–“measured,” in the opinion of the New York Times–Kerry risks leaving many of those who rightly see the war as a catastrophe with nowhere to go to express their outrage. As with the election of 1968, an increasingly antiwar electorate is being offered only prowar choices for the presidency. It is just possible, therefore, that Nader may once again insure Bush’s “victory” in the election, dooming the world to four more years of a neoconservative imperialism and rogue American militarism.
How can this be avoided? Quite easily, if Kerry could only admit to the entire country what he told me and a bunch of other reporters back in December in Al Franken’s living room: Like so much of the country–and its elite media–he made a terrible mistake in trusting George W. Bush. He underestimated both the fanaticism and incompetence of the President and his advisers and their willingness to mislead the country into war. He thought George Tenet’s CIA reports were on the level. He imagined Colin Powell was more than just window-dressing.
Today Kerry can stake his claim–together with considerable political cover–alongside the truth-tellers of the Bush era: people like John DiIulio, Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke, Joseph Wilson and generals Anthony Zinni and Eric Shinseki, who have seen their characters and reputations attacked for the sin of patriotism and professional responsibility. Without delving into too much hand-tying detail, he could promise America to extricate the nation from its hubristic Mesopotamian misadventure at the earliest possible moment. He could assure Americans that he will reunite our allies and the world community in an intelligent fight against Islamic terrorists whose enemy is civilization everywhere. He could reassure the nation that he will get America “back on track.”
It is a simple, understandable message and one that is already implicitly endorsed by a majority of Americans. Unless the Democratic nominee rethinks his commitment to this neocon nightmare soon, he risks inviting a second Nader/Bush Administration, unshackled from the need to seek re-election, thereby unleashing its most belligerent and fanatical impulses. God help us.