War Stories

Kerry Takes Round 1

The challenger dominates the foreign-policy debate.

President George W. Bush came to tonight’s debate with the buzzwords that have served him so well in this campaign so far: “strong,” “steadfast,” “resolute,” “keeping our word,” “never waver,” “stay on the offensive,” “lead,” “we cannot send mixed messages.”

Sen. John Kerry was equipped with a different set of words: “judgment,” “the truth,” “smart,” “fresh credibility,” “new start,” “alliances,” and “it’s one thing to be certain—but you can be certain and wrong.”

The contest would be over which candidate could more credibly apply his slogans to the gravest challenges of our time. Kerry had the additional challenge of showing that Bush’s words are not Bush’s sole property—that they apply to him as well.

Let’s go to the scorecard:

Iraq: Kerry didn’t quite show how his four-point plan would really bring stability to Iraq or get our troops home more quickly. The centerpiece of his proposal is to call a summit with our European allies and with the Arab League to persuade them that they have a stake in Iraq’s future and to negotiate incentives to lure them to send troops, too.

A year ago, maybe four months ago, this would have been an excellent idea, and it’s a shame that the Bush administration waved off such notions at the time. At this point—as the reporting of George Packer, Dexter Filkins, and others has suggested—the situation might be such a mess that nothing could get allies to risk blood and money. Foreign firms are pulling back their investments as the rate of kidnappings and beheadings grow; why should foreign governments behave much differently?

To my mind, Kerry clearly explained his reason for voting in favor of the war resolution—but muddied even deeper his case for voting against the $87 billion supplemental.

Still, Kerry gets the win on this one because Bush has no answers either and because it was Bush’s policies—his “colossal errors of judgment,” as Kerry put it—that created this quagmire. (Does anyone deny the word, except on the most literal grounds?) Kerry outlined Bush’s misjudgments well: ignoring his own State Department’s plans for postwar reconstruction, ignoring his own military’s estimates of how many troops would be needed for postwar security, brushing off the United Nations’ initial offerings of help.

Bush’s counter—that the problems exist because Gen. Tommy Franks won the battle for Baghdad too quickly (the Baathists disappeared, now they’re coming back and we’re fighting the war we thought we’d have to fight last year)—is deeply unconvincing. For one thing, most of the insurgents are not Saddam loyalists. Many are Shiites who hated Saddam. Many more are former neutrals who now hate the American occupiers. More to the point, if Bush’s explanation were true, it would only confirm the critique that he didn’t send enough troops in the first place. In other words, if the insurgents were all Baathists, and if they had fought back in the spring of 2003, is Bush suggesting that the fighting would have gone on for a year and a half? If so, it was a lousy war plan.

Bush made one potentially strong point. Noting that Kerry had called the war in Iraq “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Bush said that if he—the president and commander in chief—had ever used such language, “the troops would wonder, ‘How can I follow this guy?’ ” Bush also wondered why allies would help out in a war that the president himself was calling a mistake.

There’s something to this. But Kerry’s counter was more compelling. “I’m just trying to tell the truth,” he said, adding that good policies must be grounded in truth. Mark another point for Kerry. Does anybody—the troops, the allies, anyone—really believe that we’re making progress, turning a corner, skipping along the road to peace and democracy in Iraq? Who would be a more credible leader: someone who acknowledges the mistake and sets out seriously to clean up the resulting mess—or someone who is either too mendacious or deluded even to acknowledge there’s a problem?

North Korea: Kerry killed on this one. While Bush went to war against Saddam Hussein on the false belief that he might be developing a “weapons of mass destruction-related program,” North Korea—another spoke on the “axis of evil”—started to develop real nuclear weapons. When Bush took office, 8,000 fuel rods were locked in a storage pond under continuous monitoring of international inspectors. As Kerry correctly noted, Colin Powell said publicly he’d continue on course—and President Bush publicly admonished him. Within months, the North Koreans kicked out the inspectors, unlocked and carted away the fuel rods, and reprocessed them into weapons-grade plutonium—in the course of which Bush did nothing. Kerry called for opening bilateral talks with North Korea to solve the problem.

President Bush said such talks would be a “big mistake.” If we sat down one-on-one, he said, North Korea would walk out of the six-power talks, which also involve Japan, South Korea, Russia, and China. Bilaterals will accomplish nothing. Kerry replied that just because Bush says they’ll accomplish nothing doesn’t mean they will.

Point for Kerry. But it would have been a more solid point had Kerry noted that all the other participants in those six-power talks want the United States to have bilateral talks with North Korea.

Iran: This was an odd one. Kerry said that the United States should have provided nuclear fuel to Iran to test its true intentions, to see if Iran used the fuel for energy or bombs. If they made bombs, then we should apply sanctions. Bush said we did apply sanctions. Kerry came back that the United States applied the sanctions unilaterally instead of operating with France, Germany, and Britain. Bush replied that it wasn’t his administration that applied those sanctions.

All in all, a remarkably confusing exchange in which both candidates uttered several contradictions and non sequiturs. Kerry’s position, I’d thought, was to offer Iran the nuclear technology while denying them the fuel. Giving them fuel makes no sense.

Still, give the point—slightly—to Kerry, because, as he pointed out, the Bush administration’s policy on Iran, to date, is to do nothing.

Nuclear proliferation generally: Kerry said this is the biggest issue in all foreign policy and noted that Bush has cut spending on the program to secure loose nuclear material in the former Soviet Union, which might be bought by terrorists and rogue regimes. Bush, he said, has secured less nuclear material in the two years since 9/11 than in the two years before 9/11. True—and genuinely shocking.

Bush said he had done quite a bit for the cause of non-proliferation, noting that Libya has given up its nuclear program and that A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear black-marketeer, has been “brought to justice.” This isn’t quite the case: Libya gave up its nuclear program—which was never much to begin with—for reasons quite apart from Bush’s policies. Khan’s operation was shut down, but he wasn’t brought to justice; he’s still quite free (and doing who knows what).

Bush’s strongest argument—that he created a Proliferation Security Initiative, which helped put an end to those operations and to other nefarious transactions—was blunted by his uncharacteristic stumbling through the recitation. If I hadn’t known what he was talking about, I think I would have missed it entirely.

Kerry also noted that, while Bush has been trying to convince other countries to forgo nuclear weapons, he himself has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing a new nuclear bunker buster. Kerry pledged to shut down the program. Bush had no comeback—not even a defense of bunker busters.

Point to Kerry.

General atmospherics: It seems to me that Kerry slammed this thing out of the ballpark, not just on points but also on punch lines, style, and demeanor. I find it unfathomable that anyone would conclude otherwise. But obviously, some people will. Toward the end of the debate, Bush looked uncomfortable, annoyed, startled perhaps that Kerry was all of a sudden speaking so concisely. Bush started saying things like, “I know how the world works.” He also said foreign policy was “hard work”—at least 11 times. Will people find this folksy and hard-nosed—or simply exasperated and imperious? I don’t have the slightest idea. The election may be settled on the potency of those Bush buzzwords at the top of this article. After this debate, will enough people still feel that Bush owns the sole rights to them? Or did Kerry convincingly claim some rights to them himself? “I have never wilted in my life,” he said at one point, firmly—did he convince the undecideds? And did he persuade enough voters that his buzzwords—which Bush, surprisingly, made no real effort to claim for himself—are more fitting for a president?