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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Does John Kerry Have a Clear Plan for Iraq?

Here’s The Hotline‘s summary of an article by John Harwood and Jacob Schlesinger, based on an interview with Kerry on Iraq, and published in The Wall Street Journal last Friday:
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, John Kerry set a 3-part test for getting the troops out of Iraq if elected, “while warning that” Pres. Bush “might commence a more rapid draw-down this fall to improve his reelection prospects.” The 3 parts are “to measure the level of stability”; “to measure the outlook for the stability to hold” and “to measure the ability … of their security forces” to defend Iraq. He added that “until each condition is satisfied,” he will “provide for the world’s need not to have a failed state in Iraq.” Kerry “isn’t preparing to spell out a timetable for rapid withdrawal, suggesting Bush “was more likely to do so.” Kerry: “I’ve heard [it] said by many people” that the WH “might be gearing up to withdraw” troops before 11/2. More: “I’m prepared for any political move.”….Kerry “doesn’t contemplate ‘an open-ended commitment'” of troops but “nor would he pledge to end the U.S. presence in Iraq.” Kerry: “At the end of my first term I would consider it a failure of my diplomacy if we haven’t reduced the number significantly,” but “I certainly can’t tell you numbers”
Clear? If it doesn’t seem so to you, here’s a link to the full article…but, I warn you, it doesn’t get much more lucid.
No wonder voters can’t figure out what on earth John Kerry actually proposes to do about the Iraq situation. Just-released Annenberg Election Survey data show that, while only 34 percent believe Bush “has a clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion” and 61 percent do not, Kerry fares no better in the public’s estimation: just 25 percent believe he has a clear plan and 57 percent do not. In fact, Kerry’s net negative on this question (-32) is actually worse than Bush’s (-27).
That’s a pity because evidence continues to mount that voters–particularly independent and swing voters–have lost faith in Bush on the Iraq issue and are eager to embrace a clear alternative, if Kerry articulated one.
For example, on whether Bush has a clear plan for Iraq, independents are even more lopsided on Bush not having one (65-30) and “persuadable voters”–those who are undecided currently or who say they could change their mind–are amazingly negative (74-18).
Gallup has also recently released a report showing that the transfer of power in Iraq has had absolutely no effect on public perceptions. The public continues to believe that the war is a mistake, hasn’t been worth it and is going badly. So they’re naturally looking for way out.
Finally, CBS News data show that independents are tremendously negative about Bush’s handling of Iraq and foreign affairs and about the Iraq war in general. They give Bush an abysmal 34 percent approval rating on foreign policy, with 59 percent disapproval, and, on Iraq, give him an incredibly negative 32/63 rating–almost 2:1 disapproval! Independents in this poll also say, by 55-42, that we should stayed out of Iraq in the first place and, by a stunning 68-26, that the result of the Iraq war hasn’t been worth the associated loss of life and other costs.
Does this sound like a group of voters who will be satisfied with a lot of studied vagueness about how the US will get of Iraq? I don’t think so. But if they do get what they’re looking for–“a clear plan for bringing the situation in Iraq to a successful conclusion”, to use Annenberg’s locution–John Kerry can have them eating out of his hand.
So what is he waiting for? He should remember what happened in 2002, when voters hated what was going on with the economy, but the Democrats never offered a clear alternative. The Democrats, as a result, never really benefitted from the terrible economy in that election and that contributed (among other things) to their dismal performance that November.
Kerry, of course, is in a much better situation generally in 2004 than the Democrats were in 2002, but he can’t afford to be complacent. He shouldn’t assume that the negative situation in Iraq will automatically redound to his benefit. If he does, he could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

37 comments on “Does John Kerry Have a Clear Plan for Iraq?

  1. poetaster on

    But Ruy, Kerry cannot offer a “clear plan” for getting the troops out of Iraq, since no clear plan can possible exist, given the current instability. For Kerry to offer such a plan would be both irresponsible and almost inevitably impossible to carry out. That’s why they call it a quagmire, after all.

  2. tatere on

    Ah, if only he could get away with saying, “My plan for Iraq? Pretty simple, really. Step #1: Don’t be an idiot. See, already we’d be better off than we are now.”
    Seriously, though, it is more a matter of rhetoric than content. People know that shit happens, that “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” They are looking to get a measure of Kerry’s style, the way he thinks. Putting forward *a* plan, saying “This is one way things could go,” gives people an example to react to.
    Kerry’s a vet. Bush isn’t. I think he absolutely needs to tap into that. Phrase EVERYTHING from the point of view of Sgt. Frank Carey (quoted above). What would that sergeant need to hear to get a feeling that things were in hand?
    And always prepare for and pre-empt Bush. “This President has shown that he will say anything, do anything, to win this election. So when you hear my plans coming out of his mouth, just remember two words: ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’.”

  3. John Mcc. on

    No BT. I did not ask “Why change horses in mid-quagmire?”
    I said that was the natural question that should come to mind if the only difference between Kerry and Bush on Iraq is that between tweedle dee and tweedle dum.
    I believe that there is a difference, which is why I support Kerry.
    But at this point, you’d have to say my position is faith-based.

  4. Maxcat on

    There are two very good reasons why John Kerry cannot give anymore than his general (very responsible) three point plan for Iraq now.
    (1) If he gives anymore details and things go against his plans/ideas, he’ll have problems. You know then he would adapt his ideas (free intelligent thinking person that he is) and they (the repubs) would charge their “flip flop” bs.
    (2) shrub will adapt Kerry’s ideas (in reteric only, shrub’s specialty) and proclaim “Why vote for him I’m already going to do that”.

  5. Mara on

    While I agree that this would be very good to get rid of Halliburton I’m not sure Kerry could do that either. It is a great idea that deserves further exploration. If Iraqis are handling projects themselves it means more jobs for the people and they’ll just naturally have more incentive to address security issues.
    I hope someone from the Kerry camp is reading this!

  6. SimpleRemedy on

    John Kerry can offer a simple remedy that Dubya et. al. cannot do: Fire Halliburton and use their contracts to entice foreign co-operation.

  7. bt on

    Good points, Jason re Kerry’s rhetorical style. One of the problems with taking the stance you’re suggesting, though, is that as soon as we leave the violence is going to remain at least as bad and probably intensify until the government in place is overthrown.
    That doesn’t mean Kerry can’t talk in terms that focus on a decent security situation as a major goal. I hope, though, that he chooses not to put it in unequivocal terms that seem to tell the American people that there will be anything approaching “stability” there once we leave. Stability in Iraq for a long time to come seems likely to be a highly relative concept.

  8. Jason on

    Kerry’s problem is not so much logical as rhetorical. He uses far too many words to explain fairly simple concepts.
    He could communicate the same ideas on Iraq far more effectively if he said: “As President, I’ll pull us out of Iraq as soon as we know three things: Is it stable? Will it stay stable? Can Iraqis keep it stable? The moment the answer’s yes, the troops come home.”
    He could then say: “George Bush might think it’s popular to bring the troops back before the job is done, but I’m not making any promises. The policy of the Kerry White House will be simple: the troops return as soon as Iraqis can keep things stable. In the meantime, the Kerry White House would find us some help from the allies George Bush has driven away.”
    Kerry uses terrible phrases like “I’ve heard it said by many people” all the time. Try “people say,” John.

  9. S Robinson on

    Which military pay cuts are you referring to? Base pay increased in 2003 (see ahttp://usmilitary.about.com/library/weekly/aa120102a.htm) as well as housing allowance. I don’t know of any cuts for 2004.
    Do you have some numbers to back up your claim?

  10. reignman on

    I guess a clear plan would be have elections and then we get the heck out of there, but with all that investment going on…

  11. dean on

    And yet endangering the troops is not a problem for the current office holder. I honestly think he doesn’t care more than a crocodile’s tear for the men and women of the US Armed Forces. That down home, shucks I’m one of you, truly phoney charm never worked on me and I don’t believe a word he says and never have. He pretends to care about them but cuts their pay and benefits. If he thinks it will get him elected, he’ll endanger as many as he has to.

  12. Howie on

    The problem for Kerry is that the responsible answer will lose him votes. The truth is that because Bush messed it up, we now have to stay until there is a stable outcome or firm evidence that there will never be one. The three point plan may be vague, but it actually has merit and outlines Kerry’s thoughts on the matter.
    Has the current officeholder ever truly made his reasoning on this issue known?
    Randomly drawing down the troops, as some think Dubya will do this fall, is irresponsible and dangerous to the troops who remain.

  13. Mara on

    “Why change horses in mid-quatmire?”
    Because it was the current administration that got us into the mess in the first place, and have lost ALL credibility with the American public that they are capable of stabilizing the situation (read: Abu Ghiraib, Halliburton, etc.). The first rule when finding yourself in a ditch is to stop digging. This administration is tainted; voting them into power again is the equivalent of continuing to dig. The American public senses that. A new administration may be able to get the ship of state moving in the right direction again.
    Every poll shows that the vast majority thinks going into Iraq was a big mistake, and that they are also committed to keeping troops there until it is stable. The public is, actually, capable of keeping two seemingly opposed views in their head!

  14. bt on

    John Mcc, you asked why change horses in mid quagmire?
    Rule #1 when you’re in a hole is stop digging, no? The people who’ve been doing the digging don’t even seem to realize they are in a hole. Why would we think the people who got us into this mess are the ones able to get us out on the best terms for the country (as opposed to Bush’s re-election campaign)?
    Also, aren’t there issues besides Iraq that could affect the outcome of the election which are at least as pressing–the economy, health care, how we are losing the fight against al qaeda to name three–which should more obviously favor our side?

  15. Paul C on

    What Kerry has to do is articulate for the voters how and why he will manage the situation differently than Bush, without spelling out a concrete plan. For example, he needs to state that he will be willing to ceed more control both to the Iraqi people and international institutions, because he is not tied to Halliburton and the oil industry. He will take a pragmatic approach, because he is not tied down by a rigid ideology. He will have more success in attracting international cooperation and participation, because he has not pissed off three-quarters of the world. He will demonstrate more insight into the situation, because he is a veteran who has seen actual combat experience. And, most significantly, he will exercise better judgment than Shrub, because [fill in a thousand reasons why Kerry is a better man than Bush.]

  16. Mimikatz on

    Kerry just needs to be sure he isn’t boxed in so that when Bush DOES call for a pullout before Nov 2, Kerry isn’t left saying that we have to stay for years more. Kerry needs to say that we need to help stabilize the situation, but if our continued presence is NOT helping, or the Iraqi gov’t asks, we should begin a phased withdrawal. If we really said we would leave beginning Jan 20, I think other countries would step up to the plate. He can also say that with a new Admin a fresh start is possible, with more help from other countries with whom Bush has such deteriorating relations.

  17. John Mcc. on

    Perhaps Mara.
    Perhaps though the American people who overwhelmingly do not believe Bush has a clear plan might be looking at Kerry’s accemptance speech to see if he has one dontcha think?
    Otherwise, why change horses in mid-quagmire?

  18. Mara on

    I also think the American public as a lot more understanding of these basic facts (as posted above) than Ruy is giving them credit for. They realize it was a mistake to go into Iraq, but now that we’re there they also realize it won’t be easy to get out. Bush will be punished for this realization in November. Kerry doesn’t have to come up with some phony plan. He just has to keep saying we’ll do whatever we can to stabilize the country and get out as soon as we can. Period.

  19. John Mcc. on

    Certainly it is possible to have a clear withdrawal plan. Zbig Brhzezinski (sp) has one….
    The premise is the longer we stay the worse the insurgency gets. That appears to be a sound premise no?
    The plan is to set a timetable – not a matter of years but a matter of months. This will give the Iraqis incentive to get their sh-it together and if, in the course, things go awry, then the rationale for any extension of time is clear.
    And a good answer to Sgt Butler, quoted in today’s Washington Post:
    Sgt. Frank Carey went over with the 3rd Infantry Division. At first, he was “excited. It was like ‘Red Badge of Courage.’ ” That feeling lasted through the initial invasion. “There was just elation, that we’d been bombed and we were still in one piece. That it had gone pretty smoothly.”
    But then came the occupation. “I didn’t know what the plan was and I was hoping someone two grades above us knew and wasn’t telling me for some reason.
    Then it dawned on me: I don’t think there is one. It was a very uneasy realization.”

  20. Marcus Lindroos on

    A plan about Iraq? I don’t know what Kerry could do at this stage. Maybe propose a deadline for bringing home the troops, while proposing to give the new Iraqi government a bigger say in _their_ internal affairs? Or would he immediately be attacked for “going wobbly” on Iraq?
    In any case, I note that the British attempt to impose democracy on Iraq failed miserably in the 1920s. Obviously, it is up to the locals to make it work. The cold, hard truth right now seems to be the Sunnis dislike the American presence while the Shiites are sort of neutral, as long as they think they will benefit. The Kurds tend to be relatively pro-American, but Kurdistan may yet explode since there is ethnic hatred between Turkmens, Arabic speaking Iraqis and Kurds…
    I think Iraq is a mess, and probably not a very good platform for a presidential candidate to run on! Kerry could try to woo experienced GOP foreign policy wonks who oppose the neocons/Rumsfeld, promising to bring them on board as cabinet members. But maybe the best thing he could do is to keep talking about the countless things “Shrub” has NEGLECTED because of the Iraqi black hole that’s been sucking up money and troops. Like, what are we doing about Iran? Or Karzai’s Afghanistan? Or homeland security? $200 billion+ have been spent on a war that seems increasingly useless, considering the _real_ threat posed by Al Qaeda and other players in the Middle East.

  21. Mara on

    Your post today is almost (but not quite) too annoying to respond to. Bush took us into an ill advised war based on trumped up evidence, screwed up the occupation, and now you expect Kerry to come up with a simple solution. Hello! There is no simple solution! Iraq is the Yugoslavia of the Middle East, only held together by a strong man who kept the lid on the ethnic tensions. Now Hussein is gone, and the simmering tensions have come to a boil, nicely exploited by foreigners who have their own agendas. What a &$%*# mess! What next? You’ll be asking Kerry to walk on water?
    We’ll have American troops based in Iraq for years to come. Maybe he should lie and tell the American public “hey, we’ll be out by Christmas”. Get real. There is no simple solution. Iraq will end up split into three sections: northern Iraq (Kurdish), the Sunni triangle, and the Shiites (who will automatically align themselves with Iran). Weren’t
    any of the neocons aware of history? Where was the media?
    Now, excuse me while I wipe the froth off my monitor.

  22. goethean on

    How’s this for a plan?
    * I will not appoint people to the administration merely on the basis of party loyalty.
    * I will not use traitors that are actually working for Iran as intelligence sources.
    * I will not needlessly suppress the free speech rights of popular Iraqi leaders.
    * I will not reduce international policy to domestic political goals.
    In other words, I will be competant. That should be sufficient to ensure major changes in policy and success.

  23. dean on

    The twin dilemmas of outlining a clear plan are: 1) the plan will immediately be attacked and 2) Kerry does not want to delineate a plan only to have to change it again, either during the campaign or once in office. In other words, he is being too honest when he provides a three-part test but not a specific determination.
    If it really becomes necessary to outline a plan for withdrawal, I hope he says the heck with both dilemmas and does it. It is more important that he win the election than that he stick with a plan he outlined during the campaign. I don’t want another Liar in Chief after four years of Liar in Chief George Bush, but I don’t expect that to be the case with JFK. If a clear plan will help win the election, then go with it. It is a simple matter to rely on your three-part test and point to changing circumstances once you are in office. You can’t pull any troops out of Iraq if you don’t win the election.

  24. Tim H. on

    You presuppose that there is some way to stabilize Iraq short of pulling out, which I doubt. In this case I think being vague is a winner.

  25. bt on

    I don’t get it with Berger, either. It’s not as though the Dems have a really deep foreign policy team.
    Check out Paul Krugman’s remarkable (even for him) column yesterday. Consider showing it to some wobblers or fence sitters you know. He’s just speaking truth to power. I wonder if bodyguards are an employer-covered benefit at the NYT?
    Anyone (?) reading Anonymous’ new book, Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror. It created quite a buzz in DC when it came out a week or two ago and has been flying off the shelves. Not the sort of stuff we’re getting on our evening news. He says there is zero chance the Karzai government will succeed in Afghanistan–that the Taleban will retake power. The only questions are when and what name they will give themselves. He also gives some information on the presence al qaeda has established in Lebanon and among the Kurds, among many other places. He is a senior CIA intelligence officer who had earlier published an anonymous book on al qaeda called Through Our Enemies’ Eyes.

  26. Mimiru on

    Sandy was investigated by the FBI in October, they gave the case to Justice in JANUARY.
    WHY DIDN’T HE STEP ASIDE THEN?! What an idiot. I guess its Sec. of State Holbrooke now. Bah.
    I don’t believe he stuffed them in his socks, i can’t even fathom how you’d do that inconspicuously. No, pants and jacket and did wrong so of course, he’s out.

  27. Sara on

    Kerry should begin any statement about Foreign Policy by reminding the audience and voters of the consequences of leaving behind failed states.
    He could begin with mentioning the Bush-One and Baker disengagement from Yugoslavia in 89. Just saying “we have no dog in that fight” and not using diplomacy to press for conflict resolution led to Bosnia and Kosovo. Likewise, the cut and run strategy we persued in the post Soviet years in Afghanistan — well read Steve Coll’s recent book, Ghost Wars for a detailed description of the (non) virtues of cut and run approaches. Then — having set the context, Kerry’s three conditions make great sense. But he needs someone who can reduce them to punchy soundbytes that folk can remember.
    At the same time, Kerry needs to criticize Bush’s decision process that led to the invasion. He needs to load all the intelligence errors, all the bureaucratic mish-mash on to Bush’s approach to policy — and then contrast that with his own more rigorous approach. This is where the independents will move toward Kerry — the promise of a more open decision making arena, where those who doubt can also get a hearing.

  28. Allan Bartlett on

    What does everyone think of Sandy Berger over here? Kerry was smart to drop him like a bad habit. By the way Ruy, for whatever it’s worth(not much), Bush has been up by two over at Rasmussen.

  29. bakho on

    Bush has placed all his hopes on democracy coming to Iraq without doing the work to make it so. The situation is already SNAFU. Bush does not have a plan (other than faith-based victory through prayer). So Bush is toast in the eyes of the pundits. Bush only cheerleads. He never gives details of what will happen next.
    Right now Kerry has to convince the punditocracy that he has a grasp of the situation. He does not yet have to convince the voters. If Kerry uses the complexity to satisfy the pundit wonks, then he can simplify the message for the masses without getting dinged by the pundits. Plus, Kerry needs some dry ammo for the debates. Certainly one question will be a “light at the end of the tunnel”. If Bush cannot answer it, then Kerry can slam dunk him. Bush is already following the path Kerry laid out months ago, but months too late.
    Kerry will pull a Nixon and state “I have a plan to stabilize Iraq.” Once Iraq is stabilized, US troops will be out of there.
    Don’t panic. Kerry has done elections before. He will have a simple post-convention message once everyone is paying attention. Labor day is still 6 weeks out.

  30. bt on

    Suppose Kerry’s people were to do an analysis of what they think are the numbers of Iraqis properly trained and equipped to provide for a basic level of security, and how soon they think they could get that done. Not talking about a level that would prevent attacks by insurgents because there is no level of security force presence that can do that. I’m talking about, say, a Jerusalem level of security and maybe a cut or two below that.
    They develop a plan for how the Kerry Admin is going to assist in the recruitment and training of that level of security personnel, establish a timeline to get that done by, and announce it. Does that help him? Does that “count” as a plan?
    Even if we do a great job of recruiting and training a sufficient number of Iraqis to provide a modicum of security, al qaeda and other groups are going to continue their insurgency there indefinitely. I suspect that when we leave, the people we’ve trained are going to be slaughtered, figuratively if not literally. The opposition is determined and has clarity and passion about its aims. What are the prospects of our training security personnel there who will have anything approaching the motivation and skill of their opposition? It seems highly unlikely to me.
    Is there an outcome in Iraq that is both strategically palatable and doable? I don’t see much discussion in the media of late about the question of whether having some military presence in Iraq long-term is strategically a) necessary b) desirable and doable c) desirable but not doable d) a disaster. I really do not know what either Kerry or Bush’s answer to that is.
    My limited and surely unrepresentative FTF experiences suggest to me that while voters have drawn the 3 conclusions born out by the surveys (war was a mistake, it’s not going well, it was not worth it) that does not necessarily mean they are going to insist on a date certain exit plan.
    People I talk to about this, regardless of their views on the wisdom of the war, are not clamoring for a pullout now or insisting on a date. My take is they just want some straight talk on why we are there, what we at this hope are aiming to accomplish, and how we are going to do that.
    Ruy, you are usually the one who sticks up for the sophistication of the voters more than many who post here do. I guess I’m not sold yet on the aptness of the analogy to the ’02 elections and the Dems inability then to offer a clear alternative on the economy.
    There is such overall foreign policy ineptitude by this Administration that to me it should not be difficult to run rings around Bush on the national security issue by focusing on what a lousy job they’ve done combating al qaeda, in Afghanistan and North Korea, our isolation and disrepute in the world, the combination of a number of these fiascos and what it says about this Administration’s fitness for a second term, the overall aimlessness and awful choice of priorities–whatever among the vast number of things that are true the voters seem most concerned about. Show the public he knows what he’s talking about and is worthy of their trust. Kerry should be able to do that. Just being able to put a couple of coherent sentences together in the debates gives him a leg up on that task. Aren’t elections usually more about which candidate’s judgment voters trust more than any specific policy proposals, anyway?

  31. Paul R on

    Adding to Kerry’s difficulty on an Iraq policy are the recent devastating attacks on two of his foreign policy advisers: Joe Wilson and Sandy Berger.

  32. Mimiru on

    You can always gamble and pander to what voters want to hear, and then keep them there later on.
    Ugh. The thing is Kerry is right. Essentially the thing is one big mess and there is no way out without it blowing up in our faces all at once instead of blowing up in our faces slowly like it is now.

  33. laura on

    I agree with Everett above. I don’t think a responisble person can give a clear simple plan. I’m excluding the “pull out now” plan on the grounds that it isn’t responisble. Having ccreated a mes I do think we have some obligation to help clean the mess up.
    Other than that there are so many contingencies and possiblilities……we need a plan for all out civil war, a plan for the current govenment refusing to allow elections, a plan for Iraqi civilian opposition to our presense, a plan for a Kurdish uprising…
    Kerry has articulated some general principals. That’s about all anyone can do, it seems to me.

  34. Everett Volk on

    My question is: Is it really possible to outline a clear withdrawal plan in Iraq? I think what Kerry has done is outline three criteria upon which withdrawal will be predicated. Considering how many variables are at play there, and how fluid the situation generally is, it seems like there’s a high risk that if Kerry settles on a withdrawal “strategy” events between now and November could make it seem foolish.
    Just a thought, and one articulated from a position of near complete ignorance on what withdrawal from Iraq would really entail.
    Everett Volk


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