The next two months could determine the next president

Ross Mackenzie
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Posted: Apr 29, 2004 12:00 AM

At the two-month marker of heightened anguish over Iraq and (oddly less so) the war against terror generally, what better time for pulling off to stretch the legs and appraise the situation?

Highlights:

Fallujah and Najaf. Ayatollah Sistani and Islamofascist thug Muqtada al-Sadr with his "Mahdi Army" of goons. The targeting of American troops and the kidnapping of foreigners; IEDs, firefights, riots, charred American bodies. Madrid and the Zapatero tergiversation. Terrorists in Europe calling for jihad and the rule of Islam; swift rejection of the great Osama's attempted manipulation of European antiwar sentiment, wherein he offered a "truce" with European governments withdrawing their troops from Muslim countries.

The 9/11 Commission and its smearing of President Bush's honesty, the loyalty of his secretary of state and the competence of his national security adviser. (The Commission features ideologized partisans heavily responsible for 30 years of pressure and legislation woefully weakening the effectiveness of our intelligence agencies.) The Sharon plan regarding Gaza, and heavy thinkers groaning low about how Bush administration support for it has combined with dubious administration performance elsewhere to reduce American esteem in the Arab world to the lowest point in years. Halliburton, etc. The Woodward book. Say-anything John Kerry and his campaign surrogate Teddy Kennedy trashing George Bush and blaming him for everything.

What was right, what was in-between, what was wrong?

RIGHT: The determination to decapitate Saddam's regime, whether (a) to liberate the Iraqi people and democratize the country, (b) to fight terror, or (c) to ferret out weapons of mass destruction - as well as (d) the determination to get the job done despite the United Nations.

IN-BETWEEN: It is wrong to say the administration had no Iraq end-game for the period following formal hostilities; it is right to say that whatever the end-game, the plans for it quickly would go out the window.

WRONG: The article of faith - stipulated by those who would do nothing or who would have America do nothing (if not lose) - that by failing to maximize international involvement, the administration thereby augmented the risks to the nation and the nation's military personnel. In Iraq, America has done the right thing, the good thing. As Dwight D. Eisenhower reminded: "America is great because she is good. If America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great."

Yet the administration clearly was wrong, as it remains, in not increasing its complement of forces for times precisely such as this. Present military policy, based on (1) extending active-duty deployments and (2) using Reserve and National Guard troops for front-line duty, likely will result in driving down the number of enlisting and re-enlisting Reserve and Guard personnel, in addition to thinning the active-duty cohort. The U.S. commander in the Middle East theater now says he is likely to request more troops in Iraq. Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, has suggested reviving the draft. This space favors one year of compulsory universal service - with about a 12-week front-end military component - for all Americans 18 to 23.

Let us keep our eye on the ball.

- The United States is involved in two wars - the war against terror and the war for liberty in Iraq (Iraq may, in fact, be a major front in the larger terror war; foreign jihadists of every stripe, from al-Qaidists to radical Saudis to minions serving Abu Nidal and Hezbollah, are rumored to have converged in Iraqi locales such as Fallujah). If we mean to prevail against terror broadly, we shall be tested time and again in the grimmest Iraqi backwaters.

- Questions about who knew what (and when) regarding the ambitions and capabilities of al-Qaida prior to 9/11 matter little. The Clinton and Bush administrations did the best they could with the information they had; to suggest otherwise is the province of the malign. Sept. 11 transformed Bush from a tactical thinker into precisely the strategic thinker Kerry, for one, may be congenitally unable to become. Bush now sees and thinks in terms of the bigger picture, the longer term, the larger values of liberty and democracy. Yet.

- The outcome in Iraq - and the outcome of the presidential election - may be decided within the next four to eight weeks, and by forces beyond the ability of either Bush or Kerry to affect. If Iraq dissolves into chaos and sovereignty is not transferred to the Iraqis by June 30, the experiment in liberty and democracy there may never take root. And the remainder of the year is particularly pregnant with opportunities (e.g., Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, the Olympics and the political conventions) for murderous mayhem by determined terrorists.

America has successfully avoided a post-9/11 terrorist attack; it has captured Saddam and is moving Iraq toward an experiment in liberal democracy that could have vast global consequences. The deprecations of neither John Kerry nor the 9/11 Commission may determine who is president next year so much as the successes (or failures) of the meanest of the mean Islamofascists - whether here or in Iraq.