The Magazine

Iraq One Year Later

From the March 22, 2004 issue: Real and important progress has been made in this momentous, and at times trying, year.

Mar 22, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 27 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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That is the key to success in Iraq. This administration did not do a particularly good job of preparing for postwar Iraq before the invasion, and it has not always made the right decisions on how to proceed politically, diplomatically, and militarily in the reconstruction of Iraq. But the mere fact that the White House has not sought an early exit timed to our presidential election has made it possible to recover from these mistakes--many of which, to be fair, are unavoidable in a complex undertaking like nation-building. Also to its credit, the administration has shown enough flexibility to abandon favored plans when they have proved unworkable. But the most important thing the administration has done is to make clear, both in word and in deed, its determination to see our mission in Iraq completed.

For this we believe President Bush deserves enormous credit, and perhaps sole credit. Everyone knew--or thought they knew--last fall that the politically expedient thing was to begin a serious drawdown of American forces. But the president has proven remarkably stubborn on the question of Iraq. He has not decreased troops in an election year. He has not offered the American people a plan for getting out this year or next year or offered any timetable at all. In fact, he has done nothing in Iraq to strengthen his political prospects at home, except perhaps to realize the deeper truth that he is better off in November if Iraq is better off, no matter how many American troops remain. On this question, at least, there should be no doubt that the president has so far put the national interest above political expediency.

We wish we could say the same of John Kerry. The fate of Iraq is so important that we would much prefer to have each candidate this fall trying to outbid the other on who would do the most to ensure success there. On the subject of Iraqi reconstruction, however, Kerry has been, at best, hard to pin down. At worst, he has pandered not only to the left wing of the his party but to Americans' worst instincts.

Kerry has frequently complained, for instance, about the costs of reconstruction. "The bill," he said in December, is "too large." And "Americans are paying it--in resources that could be used for health care, education, and our security here at home." "We should not be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them down in New York City." To be sure, he has uttered these complaints in the context of chastising the Bush administration for not getting more help from the international community. And, of course, in classic Kerry fashion, he has also warned the Bush administration against pursuing a "cut and run strategy." But there is no mistaking Kerry's deliberate effort play to those American voters, across the political spectrum, who want to know why the United States should spend a penny on reconstruction in Iraq or anywhere else abroad for that matter.

That was the audience Kerry played to on the most important foreign policy vote in 2003: the authorization of $87 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq. Rhetoric is one thing, and no candidate's rhetoric is entirely consistent throughout a campaign. But the vote on the $87 billion was real, and it was a test of a politician's willingness to set expediency aside. John Kerry--the man who now warns President Bush against cutting and running in Iraq--failed the test.

Kerry, of course, claims that he didn't like the particulars of Bush's proposal or the way Bush was conducting international diplomacy. In a statement explaining his vote, Kerry also complained that a proposal he co-sponsored with Senator Joseph Biden to repeal part of Bush's tax cut to pay for Iraq had been defeated. But guess what? Biden, who surely liked his own proposal as much as Kerry did, voted for the $87 billion anyway.

And so did 38 other Democratic senators, including Tom Daschle, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Dodd, and Barbara Mikulski. It's safe to say these Democrats did not vote for the $87 billion out of affection for George W. Bush or because they approved of Bush's conduct of foreign or domestic policy. We dare say some of them may have felt as strongly as Kerry about the inadequacies of administration policy. And some of those who voted for the $87 billion had even voted against the Iraq war in 2002--unlike, say, Kerry, who managed to vote for the invasion of Iraq one year and against the costs of staying the course the next.

Those Democrats who held their noses and voted for the $87 billion did so because they believed it vitally important to do something to aid the reconstruction of Iraq, and as quickly as possible. As Biden put it, "for all the errors of the past, we must confront the reality of the present and the imperative of the future." He continued: