George W. Bush took a terrible pummeling in Thursday night’s debate, as John Kerry took off the gloves and let him have it on the issue of the war. But was it a knockout punch?
Kerry only fumbled around for a few minutes as he got his bearings after Jim Lehrer’s uninspiring initial question: "Do you believe you could do a better job than President Bush in preventing another 9/11?"
After explaining that we needed to rebuild our alliances, reach out to the Muslim world, and isolate the radical Muslims, proposing a "summit," and averring that we had to step up our training of Iraqi soldiers and police, it was clear that even Kerry realized he had never gotten around to even addressing the question, let alone answering it.
Bush was quicker out of the gate, and his answer was brief and to the point: September 11 had changed the way we must look at the world. In Iraq, we saw a "threat," and we had to take preemptive action before Iraq became a threat. And just look at the wonderful results: Libya has disarmed, the Afghans are holding elections, and we’re pursuing our strategy of implanting freedom around the world.
Bush up one, but it was all downhill for the President from there on in. When Lehrer asked Bush if he thought there would be another 9/11 if he didn’t win, Bush looked a little puzzled (as if he hadn’t heard what the vice president has been saying), and reiterated his "spread the revolution" neo-Jacobin line about how "we must spread liberty," which is quite clearly the only thing he feels really passionate about.
Kerry then lit into him like there was no tomorrow, and I almost felt sorry for Bush as the networks broke the "rules" against pointing the camera at one candidate while the other was talking: the look on the president’s face was most unpresidential. Invading Iraq, said Kerry, was "a colossal error of judgement," and so was the decision to "outsource" the job of getting Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora to Afghan warlords. The crowning touch was the mention of Afghanistan, the supposed "model" along with Iraq for the rest of the region, being the opium capital of the world.
A knockout blow? Bush, at that point, must’ve been seeing stars, because his response – Oh, but you voted for the war – seemed perfunctory, and vague, even a little woozy. Moreover, the president looked stunned: he was reeling, if not on the ground quite yet.
Lehrer’s question to Kerry about what he would do to increase homeland security gave the Democratic candidate yet another opportunity to lay into his opponent, and the Happy Warrior took full advantage of it: They’re sending cops to Iraq, when we don’t have enough here. Firemen too. If you go down to the ports you can see that the containers that come in off the ships are not inspected. Cargo holds of airplanes are not inspected, either. "I believe in protecting America first."
Another split-screen shot: Boy oh boy, the president sure looked peeved. And he stumbled through his answers, giving an adolescent shrug of the shoulders. The best way to protect the homeland is to stay on the offense – i.e., more war – and, oh, by the way, "we’ve changed the culture of the FBI. We’re communicating better." The PATRIOT Act "is vital." We must "stay on the offense" – he reiterated this last phrase at least three times in a single answer, and repeatedly after that.
Kerry just stood there, waiting to pounce, and when he did he reminded the president of those many hundreds of hours of surveillance tapes that have gone untranslated and that could contain the key to preventing the next terrorist attack – "Reformed the FBI?" said Kerry, his voice dripping disdain.
At that point it looked to me as if the President of the United States was going into a state of at least partial meltdown. He seemed to wilt, physically, swaying back and forth as if hearing Kerry’s words had the power to inflict real pain on him. Finally, he managed to sputter: "It’s my JOB to protect the American people," and then he bellowed: "and you better have a president who goes after the terrorists, and goes on the offensive…." Trailing off into incoherence.
Question: how and when do we bring our soldiers home from Iraq?
Bush reacted weirdly, with a strange sort of hand gesture, as if he were warding off his opponent, Lehrer, and the television audience with some sort of magical gesture. He clearly didn’t have an answer to the question, because, in his mind, we aren’t ever going to leave Iraq. He essentially evaded the question by saying that we would pass if off to the Iraqis, and his own generals: he’d depend on their advice. But we mustn’t have "artificial deadlines. You can’t do that and expect to win the war on terror." A free Iraq, he told us, will help secure Israel. It will inspire the Iranians. Yes, but why do Americans have to die – for Israel, and for Iranian "freedom" (something that has never existed in that country)? No answer.
This is where Kerry really began to clean Bush’s clock: he cited Bush Senior’s book, in which the former President explained why, during Gulf War I, he decided not to occupy the country and U.S. troops didn’t go beyond Basra. The president’s father said that we’d be occupiers, that we would need hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Iraq indefinitely to keep the peace, and that we’d wind up hated – and that’s exactly what’s come to pass.
In short, Kerry was scolding the Frat Boy who had just gone on a wild spree, indulging in a prank that had gone a little too far, in effect saying: You should’ve listened to your father!
Now that was very close to a knock-out punch!
As the president stood there, a look of consternation and growing anger clouding a face otherwise untroubled by thought, Kerry rubbed Bush’s nose in it, launching a devastating attack on the chaos that followed the "liberation." He reiterated his idea for a summit, and used two very important phrases – "fresh credibility" and "a new start" – to reassure the troops and their families on the home front that "Help is on the way."
Bush, by this time, was clearly on the verge of losing his temper, and for the first time things got ugly when the president said Kerry is "undermining the troops." But he didn’t say how, or why: if telling the truth undermines them, then doesn’t that reflect badly on Bush’s leadership and his prosecution of the war? A weak response from a cornered rat, who can only hiss impotently and skitter about, looking for an escape route. The president sounded petulant, and forced, while Kerry sailed into his opponent with all the ease of a practiced windsurfer gliding onto the shore. He brought up the warning of Richard A. Clarke, and the forcibly retired General Shinseki, who told Wolfowitz and Bush’s neocon advisors that we’d need several hundred thousand troops to pacify Iraq and was told to shut up and get lost for his trouble. Kerry brought up Halliburton, as the winner of no-bid contracts from which countries that didn’t support the war were excluded. Punch, punch, punch – jab jab jab. If this had been a real prize fight, there would have been blood on the floor, and lots of it.
Bush’s answer to the next question – essentially "Did you make any mistakes in Iraq?" – was more bizarre posturing. We won too quickly, according to the president. The Ba’athists "disappeared." But "we’re fighting them now." He again reiterated his "we can’t send mixed signals" mantra, mentioned (inaccurately) that "NATO is helping," endorsed Kerry’s idea of a "summit" by claiming to be already implementing it, and, in what must count as the understatement of the year, if not the entire Bush presidency, declared that "it’s a hard task to go from a place where people get their hands cut off to a democracy."
You got that right, Mr. President. But little else.
Kerry was relentless: even knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction, no al-Qaeda in Iraq, no links to 9/11, the president has said he would still go into Iraq, knowing what he knows today. For the first time, Kerry comes out and says: I wouldn’t have gone to war knowing all that. He then brings up North Korea as an example of a real security threat that festered while we played "liberation" games in Iraq. Wham! Bam! Wham!
Lehrer, at this point, basically asked Kerry: is Bush a liar?
Oh, let’s just say he has not been candid with the American people. (Chuckle, chuckle). Kerry then launched some of his most effective arguments yet, bringing up the president’s state of the union speech in which he claimed that Saddam was seeking "nuclear materials that didn’t exist" – this is the infamous Niger Uranium Hoax that I’ve been covering in this space (and that was about to be exposed by CBS before they decided to pull back). Kerry’s relentless barrage seemed to go on forever: There was no coalition. Bush ignored the UN. They rushed to war without planning for what happens afterwards. We did not go to war as a last resort. And what of Osama bin Laden? He’s running around loose, using the invasion of Iraq to credibly claim the U.S. has declared war on Islam.
Wham! Bam! Whammo!
Bush picks up on the reference to Osama, and declares that OBL "isn’t going to determine what we do." He sticks his chin out in a show of belligerence, and squinches up his forehead so that the wrinkles make him look like a Klingon. But he is all bark, and no bite, as he lazily segued into his "Kerry is a flip flopper" routine. He must’ve said "We both looked at the same intelligence" three or four times in as many minutes.
Question: is the war worth the cost (as of this moment) of 1052 lives?
Bush told some sappy story about how he comforted a grieving widow of one of our soldiers, relating how he had told her that he thought her husband’s sacrifice was noble and worthy. We must find al-Qaeda, we must deal with threats before they materialize, and we must spread liberty, because in the long run the best way to win is by spreading freedom. Yes, he declared, I think it’s worth it, Jim, because a free Iraq will set such a powerful example that it will "change the world" – a task which, by the way, is nothing less than "our duty."
Kerry can be eloquent, and here he proved that once again: I understand, he said, because I was in combat. "It reminds me that it is vital not to confuse the war with the warriors." Yes, the sacrifices of our soldiers are noble, and "I want to make sure the outcome [of the war] honors that nobility."
Fine words, even stirring. But what he said next was, from my perspective, profoundly disturbing. We have a choice, he averred, reiterating his usual mantra of "better training" of Iraqis, bringing in the UN, helping them rebuild. But he also said "they can’t have elections right now."
Uh, excuse me, Mr. Not Quite President, but don’t the Iraqi people have any say in this? Talk about unilateralism! You cancel those elections now, and you’ll have to answer to the real leader of Iraq: not that clown, Allawi, a smalltime thug who is just Saddam Lite, but the Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s majority Shi’ite Muslims who has been demanding speedy and direct elections all along. Sistani went up against Paul Bremer and the neocons, who thought they were going to "remake" Iraq into a neocon utopia, and who had no plan for direct elections. The U.S. was to rule by fiat, with the help of local Quislings, such as Ahmed Chalabi. Sistani nixed that plan, and insisted on moving the election schedule up – and he won. Is President Kerry prepared to take on the Grand Ayatollah – and lose the moderate Muslim majority?
That was very stupid, and it showed, I think, that he just doesn’t know enough about what’s going on in Iraq to lead on this issue. His advisors are apparently similarly uninformed, or else he would never have said it to begin with.
Another blooper: "winning" the war in Iraq, or at least having a better outcome than is now imaginable, would be a good thing because "it’s important for Israel." Yeah, you bet it is. So was this war "important for Israel" – so important that their amen corner in the White House, and in the neoconservative media, made a relentless effort to drag us into it.
Okay, said Lehrer, so what about a timeline for getting out of Iraq?
Kerry used this question to deny that he ever said he would bring the troops home in six months, and then made an excellent point: We have to prove to the Iraqis and the entire world that we have no longterm plans to stay. He brought up the issue of our building what seem to be permanent bases. Carrying on what is by now a long tradition of marring his critique of Bush’s war with counterintuitive and contradictory remarks, thrown in to make himself look "tough," he then said he wanted to "change the dynamics of the ground." How would he do that? "Don’t back off in Fallujah."
Does he think we should’ve flattened Fallujah? Should we have gone in there and killed every man, woman, and child using airstrikes, the coward’s way to slaughter everyone, rebels and noncombatant civilians alike? Is this Kerry’s "plan" to "win the war"?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Anyone looking for Kerry as some sort of antiwar hero, someone who challenges the interventionist consensus, is in for a big disappointment. He promises to start withdrawing troops from Iraq by the end of his first term. But if by that time we aren’t out of Iraq, the war will have gone regional.
If you look at this debate as just a purely political event, however, you can appreciate how Kerry has appropriated the anti-interventionist narrative and used it for his own advantage. My favorite part was when, in his answer to the question about the preemptive war doctrine adopted by this administration, Kerry reminded Bush that Saddam didn’t attack us, on 9/11 or at any other time. Osama bin Laden attacked us, and when we had him "cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora," we blew the opportunity to get him. Again with the "outsourcing" metaphor, and, by the way, it’s not true that Saddam would have been stronger today if we hadn’t conquered Iraq: with sanctions, with no fly zones, with continuing pressure, he would’ve been far weaker.
More split-screen shenanigans on the part of MSNBC, and you could see Bush getting madder by the moment, and the president was straining visibly to get at his opponent, but when his answer came it seemed strangely schoolboyish: "Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us!" he cried. Calming down a bit, he reiterated his view that Saddam "would have made weapons," and "he was hoping we’d turn a blind eye" (another phrase he kept mindlessly repeating).
Bush, at one point, went off on a tangent about the International Criminal Court, and he made a good point – the only problem is that that had nothing to do with the subject they were discussing, which was Iraq.
Both agreed that Darfur is a shame, and that the African Union should deal with it: we don’t need to send troops. Well, that’s a relief, but I think Kerry would do it, anyway, no matter what he says now. The question of bilateral versus multilateral talks with North Korea (Kerry is for the former, and Bush is pursuing the latter) is an arcane one, and I don’t believe the general public understands the nuances of it, and so they must have found that episode quite baffling.
Ominously, both condemned Putin, Kerry quite vociferously – as if Russia’s form of government is any of our business. Physician, heal thyself! Kerry got in a few more good lines, such as his example of the level of proof we offered to the world during the Cuban missile crisis, versus our credibility on Iraq.
In the end, Kerry signaled how he would betray us, saying, "We have to get the job done, and win the peace." Hmmmm…. How do we do that, exactly? Well, he said, "I have a plan for Iraq. I believe we can be successful. I’m not talking about leaving. I’m talking about winning."
In the end, after all the ostensibly antiwar rhetoric, about how we "rushed to war," and all the phony "evidence" of Iraq’s aggressive designs that turned out to be unreal, he still believes we can be "successful." But what does "success" look like? What is "victory"? And at what cost?
Kerry beat the tar out of the President of the United States, and that was a grand sight to see. But if and when he gets into the Oval Office, it will be Kerry’s War – and watch out, because he will flatten Fallujah in a vain attempt to "win" a war that we should never have fought to begin with. In some ways – many ways – this is worse than George W. Bush’s position: Bush, at least, believes in the justice of this war, as monstrous as it is. Kerry knows it’s an unjust war – and intends to pursue it until "victory" anyway.
Verdict: Kerry by a near knockout. But watch out for the victor. For he, too, is a killer.