The Magazine

Victory or Surrender

From the September 27, 2004 issue: John Kerry has apparently decided the war is unwinnable, and he's for getting out.

Sep 27, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 03 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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LAST WEEK was the week the Kerry campaign, facing the increasingly likely prospect of its own electoral defeat, embraced the prospect of defeat in Iraq. Once upon a time, it seemed possible that a Democratic presidential candidate might (plausibly) charge the Bush administration with errors in its conduct of the war in Iraq, and lay out a more effective plan to win it. No longer. John Kerry has apparently decided the war is unwinnable, and he's for getting out.

Thus last week began with Richard Holbrooke, one of Kerry's top foreign policy advisers, saying on Fox News Sunday that in Iraq we've created "a mess worse than Vietnam." "Wait a minute, Mr. Ambassador. You're telling me that you think that Iraq is worse than Vietnam?" an incredulous Chris Wallace asked. "Yes. It is strategically worse than Vietnam," Holbrooke responded.

Well, if Iraq is worse than Vietnam, the only thing to do is get out. We are back in 1971, and, as Kerry memorably said then, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" You don't. So at midweek, Kerry's allies at MoveOn.org released a 30-second ad, "Quagmire." The ad accuses President Bush of having "no real plan to end the war." "It will take a new president," the narrator concludes, "to get us out."

Get us out. That is in fact the real Kerry position, one might even say the real Kerry promise, with respect to Iraq. This became clear when the Democratic candidate spoke Thursday, in Las Vegas, to the National Guard Association. Kerry of course attacked the president for his conduct of the war--but also for "living in a fantasy world of spin," for not acknowledging that we're basically losing the war.

Apart from a very few broad assertions, Kerry didn't offer evidence that we are in fact losing the war. Nor did he bother to explain a single thing he would do differently, now, on the ground in Iraq--because he's not interested in doing anything differently or better. He wants to get out. He didn't say, for example, that he would fight the counterinsurgency more aggressively, or that he would send in more troops, or that he would act more aggressively to bolster Iraqi civilian institutions. There is much in the way of constructive criticism that can be leveled at the Bush administration on these fronts--but Kerry didn't level it. He did promise to "add 40,000 new soldiers to our armed forces"--but, he hastened to add, "not to increase the number of soldiers in Iraq."

So Kerry has no plan, and indeed no intention, to win in Iraq. Kerry never used the verb "to win" or the noun "victory" when discussing Iraq in his Thursday speech. In fact, a look through his speeches suggests it has been months since Kerry used the words "victory" or "win" with respect to Iraq. In the most positive sentence in the National Guard speech, Kerry did say that "it is not too late to turn things around in Iraq and in our global war on terror." But "turning things around" turns out to mean doing whatever we have to do "so our troops can finally come home." Kerry will "end the war," as his friends at MoveOn.org put it, not win it.

Come home, America! Kerry will bring our troops home from this latter-day quagmire. Yet to come home from Iraq, to withdraw from Iraq, would be to surrender to the terrorists against whom we're fighting.

Now, Americans don't like the prospect of surrendering to terror. That's why Kerry trails in the presidential race. But it isn't over. Kerry could still win the election if he convinces the American people that we are losing the war in Iraq, that Iraq is hopeless. So the best thing the Bush administration can do over the next six weeks is explain the importance of Iraq in the war on terror, and explain that we are on a path--a difficult path--to victory in Iraq.

But the key, of course, is not just to convince the American people that we're winning the war in Iraq. It is to make sure we're doing everything we can to win the war. The terrorists have every incentive to make October miserable for American and allied troops in Iraq, and for that matter for American and other civilians. The administration therefore needs to be on the strategic offensive--and while that can include tactically defensive and operationally quiet maneuvers, it would be good for the strategic offensive to be visible. The American people will accept casualties if we are on a course to victory. They will rebel at casualties taken if we seem to be in a preelection defensive stall. Trying to play it safe in Iraq over the next month is politically and strategically dangerous. Let Kerry make the case for an America that comes home. Let Bush lead an America that fights and wins.

--William Kristol