Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 2004 / 9 Tishrei, 5764

Carl P. Leubsdorf

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For candidates, Iraq questions should be on future, not past | For months, the campaign debate on Iraq has centered on the wisdom of President Bush's decision to launch the war that overthrew Saddam Hussein.

Now, it's beginning to focus on the more important issue: how the United States can get control of the deteriorating situation there so Iraqis can proceed with January's elections and American troops can be withdrawn sooner rather than later.

John Kerry's latest speech on Iraq, his most coherent delineation to date of the course he would pursue, and the increasingly outspoken warnings from key Republican senators of the potential failure of U.S. policy ought to make it more difficult for President Bush to stick with his persistent optimism about prospects in Iraq.

"The fact is we're in trouble," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., the No. 2 Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Two important coming events - Thursday's visit to Washington of the interim Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, and next Thursday's Miami debate - offer an opportunity to focus even more attention on what needs to be done to keep Iraq from lapsing into a Vietnam-like quagmire.

This does not mean that Bush's judgment and actions in launching the attack on Iraq are not important. His credibility in making what proved to be a misleading case that Iraq posed a danger to the United States and other countries, his miscalculation in refusing to heed warnings a war could create additional problems and his understatement of the financial costs are all relevant in judging his actions.

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So are Kerry's prewar dithering before he voted to support authority for war, his politically driven vote against the $87 billion to pay the tab and his often tortured postwar explanations of what he meant by both actions.

But either Bush or Kerry will have to deal with the existing situation in Iraq, not how and why we got there.

The choice, Kerry said in New York on Monday, is "more of the same with President Bush or a new direction that makes our troops and America safer."

He urged Bush to seek a summit meeting of top U.S. allies to persuade them to "make good" on prior promises to provide security trainer troops and additional funds, noting that, without additional Iraqi security forces and a reconstruction plan providing "tangible benefits to the Iraqi people," the January elections "are in grave doubt."

Bush, who maintains he is already doing those things, said in Tuesday's speech to the United Nations that the choice is whether to retreat or "to prevail," ignoring the fact that much of the criticism centers on his administration's failure to meet its goals for reconstruction, pacification and training Iraqi security forces.

Bush deserves credit for starting a process aimed at leading to a democratic and independent Iraq and meeting his June 30 deadline to transfer power to Allawi. But even some consistent Republican backers worry he has not done enough to ensure success of the crucial next step, the elections set for January.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said on ABC News' This Week that reconstruction funds voted by Congress are not being spent because of "incompetence in the administration."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., urged a greater military effort on ``Fox News Sunday,'' noting "we're not going to have those national elections until we get rid of the sanctuaries." He conceded Bush has "perhaps not (been) as straight as maybe we'd like to see" on Iraq.

And when Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., characterized criticism of U.S. policy as "hand-wringing" on CBS' ``Face the Nation,'' Hagel replied, "to say, 'Well, we just must stay the course and any of you who are questioning are just hand-wringers,' is not very responsible."

A day after his speech, Kerry held his first full-scale news conference in weeks. Bush will take some questions when he meets with Allawi. But next Thursday's debate at the University of Miami offers the best chance to clarify what they would do.

The subject is foreign policy and there will be no more important question for moderator Jim Lehrer to ask than to specify what each man would do now to ensure the goal they both favor: peace and democracy in Iraq.

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Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Comment by clicking here.



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