Portrait of a Futile Election

As the debates ensue, I’m overcome with a stark sense of futility. I’ve already written about the “rigid and unreflective Bush administration and its uninspired opposition”, but that was before a real turning point was reached in the expert assessment of Iraq.

Things have scarcely improved, and now it seems that a maddeningly willing body politic is aiding the Bush administration by keeping the electoral focus on the most trivial matters. As Kevin Drum aptly sums:

It is more and more obvious that George Bush has only one overriding concern right now: to keep a lid on this until November 3. Somehow somehow keep the American public from learning that Iraq has turned into America's very own version of the West Bank until he's safely reelected.

We are told that this perception of Iraq -- its being gripped by an anarchy our politically hamstrung military can't correct -- is the distorted product of a Vietnam-obsessed media. Many mainstream journalists have indeed opted for Oliver Stone over more probing analyses. But the dismal drumbeat is relentless, and more and more credible of late. Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fassihi's recent e-mail about the status of Baghdad is a case in point. The picture she paints is hard to spin positively:

Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest. Forget about the reasons that lured me to this job: a chance to see the world, explore the exotic, meet new people in far away lands, discover their ways and tell stories that could make a difference.

Little by little, day-by-day, being based in Iraq has defied all those reasons. I am house bound. I leave when I have a very good reason to and a scheduled interview. I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news stories, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't. There has been one too many close calls, including a car bomb so near our house that it blew out all the windows. So now my most pressing concern every day is not to write a kick-ass story but to stay alive and make sure our Iraqi employees stay alive. In Baghdad I am a security personnel first, a reporter second.

It's hard to pinpoint when the 'turning point' exactly began. Was it April when the Fallujah fell out of the grasp of the Americans? Was it when Moqtada and Jish Mahdi declared war on the U.S. military? Was it when Sadr City, home to ten percent of Iraq's population, became a nightly battlefield for the Americans? Or was it when the insurgency began spreading from isolated pockets in the Sunni triangle to include most of Iraq? Despite President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a 'potential' threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to 'imminent and active threat,' a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come.

Iraqis like to call this mess 'the situation.' When asked 'how are thing?' they reply: 'the situation is very bad."

What they mean by situation is this: the Iraqi government doesn't control most Iraqi cities, there are several car bombs going off each day around the country killing and injuring scores of innocent people, the country's roads are becoming impassable and littered by hundreds of landmines and explosive devices aimed to kill American soldiers, there are assassinations, kidnappings and beheadings. The situation, basically, means a raging barbaric guerilla war. In four days, 110 people died and over 300 got injured in Baghdad alone. The numbers are so shocking that the ministry of health -- which was attempting an exercise of public transparency by releasing the numbers -- has now stopped disclosing them.

Insurgents now attack Americans 87 times a day.

But spin is what we'll get, with relentless torque. And Kerry, who is continually thrown the softball of Bush's incompetent management of post-war Iraq, continues to kick at arguments that were lost well before the actual invasion took place.

It's bad enough that Kerry and his staffers conspicuously crap on our allies, countries that have sacrified blood and treasure -- not to mention vast political capital in the appeasement milieux of Europe -- in support of a democratic Middle East. What's worse is that Kerry, as seems inevitable, is inconsistent even on this point. Constantly thrumming the vestigial talking point of multilateralism, Kerry assures us that he'll dramatically expand our portfolio of allies, "[making] Iraq the world's responsibility". But as Charles Krauthammer points out, Kerry's proposed coalition is both untenable and tone-deaf to the diplomacy that led to Gulf War II:

Americans Overseas for Kerry is the Kerry operation for winning the crucial votes of Americans living abroad (remember the Florida recount?), including more than 100,000 who live in Australia. Its leader was interviewed Sept. 16 by The Australian's Washington correspondent, Roy Eccleston. Asked if she believed the terrorist threat to Australians was now greater because of the support for President Bush, she replied: "I would have to say that," noting that "[t]he most recent attack was on the Australian embassy in Jakarta."

She said this of her country (and of the war that Australia is helping us with in Iraq): "[W]e are endangering the Australians now by this wanton disregard for international law and multilateral channels." Mark Latham could not have said it better. Nor could Jemaah Islamiah, the al Qaeda affiliate that killed nine people in the Jakarta bombing.

This Kerry spokesman, undermining a key ally on the eve of a critical election, is no rogue political operative. She is the head of Americans Overseas for Kerry -- Diana Kerry, sister to John.

She is, of course, merely echoing her brother, who, at a time when allies have shown great political courage in facing down both terrorists and domestic opposition for their assistance to the United States in Iraq, calls these allies the "coalition of the coerced and the bribed."

This snide and reckless put-down more than undermines our best friends abroad. It demonstrates the cynicism of Kerry's promise to broaden our coalition in Iraq. If this is how Kerry repays America's closest allies -- ridiculing the likes of Tony Blair and John Howard -- who does he think is going to step up tomorrow to be America's friend?

The only thing that distinguishes Kerry's Iraq proposals from Bush's is his promise to deploy his unique, near-mystical ability to bring in new allies to fight and pay for the war in Iraq -- to "make Iraq the world's responsibility" and get others to "share the burden," as he said this week at New York University.

Yet even Richard Holbrooke, a top Kerry foreign policy adviser, admits that the president of France is not going to call up President Kerry and say, "How many divisions should I send to Iraq?"

Nor will anyone else. Kerry abuses America's closest friends while courting those, like Germany and France, that have deliberately undermined America before, during and after the war. What lessons are leaders abroad to draw from this when President Kerry asks them -- pretty please in his most mellifluous French -- to put themselves on the line for the United States?

This may seem like schizophrenia on Kerry's part, but it isn't. It's simply his supreme lack of appreciation of the seriousness of this war. It's his pre-9/11 atavisms -- totemic multilateralism, a law enforcement approach to fighting terrorism -- once again expressing themselves.

This election is enervating. We are caught between a Scylla and Charybdis: A President who recognizes the great danger we face but whose unreflective nature threatens to lose the war and leave us worse off than before; and a patrician pillar of dust who recognizes nothing except the Clintonite braille of yesterday.

These are terrible, nervous years to come.

Posted by John-Paul Pagano at September 30, 2004 11:49 PM