Mark Danner

The Election and America’s Future

It has been clear for several months that the United States is losing its war in Iraq. What remains to be seen is whether Americans will come to realize this fact before the election or after it.

For what has been called “the most consequential election in decades,” we have asked some of our contributors for their views.
—The Editors

Berkeley, California

It has been clear for several months that the United States is losing its war in Iraq. What remains to be seen is whether Americans will come to realize this fact before the election or after it. The answer may well determine who sits in the White House in late January 2005. But whoever wins on November 2 will be confronted by the stark fact that in a bitter, fragmented country the United States has engaged itself in a guerrilla war that no more admits of a clear and easy resolution than did the war in Vietnam in 1968. And in Iraq, a country poised on the Gulf of Hormuz—the “choke-point” through which more than half of the world’s oil passes, making it the jugular of the industrialized world—the strategic stakes are much greater.

They are greater still because the Bush administration has succeeded in making the Iraq war a recruiting poster for Osama bin Laden’s region-wide cause of Islamic jihad, a rallying point for the Islamic fundamentalist movement that serves as a source of heroic televised images, stirring propaganda, and vital on-the-ground training— serves, that is, roughly the same function that the jihadist struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan did in the 1980s. It was the Afghan struggle that produced Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. And now, during eighteen months of a war that should never have been fought, the Bush administration has managed to create out of Iraq the new Afghanistan.
Among the many reasons that the Bush administration has given for attacking and occupying Iraq—the need to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, the need to remove a “dangerous dictator” from power, the need to transform Iraq into a “shining example of democracy” in the Middle East—we seldom find the one historians may well settle on as closest to the truth: the need for an administration that believed fervently in the unilateral power and world dominance of the United States to act, following a humbling attack on its territory, to reassert that power and dominance. It will be an increasingly obvious irony that the United States acted in Iraq in a way that not only gave the world the specter, for the first time, of what an untrammeled American unilateralism would look like but that demonstrated, at the same time, the stark limits of American power. For the expedition in Iraq has revealed once again an America that is a strange hybrid—a military giant yoked uncomfortably to a political dwarf.

For many in the Bush administration, the conquest of Iraq was a cherished goal long before the attacks of September 11. But when the time came —after the attacks offered them a “window” in which to carry out their war, restoring to Republicans the traditional political advantage in managing national security that had vanished with the cold war—these officials chose to minimize the difficulties of the war and refused to build the political support necessary to fight it with sufficient troops, money, and determination. They clung to a war of the imagination, one fought with high-tech weapons, few troops, and little cost, in which democracy would magically emerge from the Iraqi streets. The lack of troops in particular, and the characteristic stubbornness that has made the administration singularly unwilling to admit a mistake and—much more seriously—unable to correct one, created, in the first weeks of looting and chaos, a fault line under the Iraq occupation that has grown steadily deeper and broader, and undermined every effort to construct a stable order there. Worse—and it is this that the next president will be forced to confront—that political cowardice has created a vulnerability precisely in the spot that the Iraqi insurgents, and ultimately Osama bin Laden, expected to find it: in the American will.

The next president will confront an American public grown tired of a war whose rationale has disappeared along with the weapons of mass destruction their leaders warned them so urgently about, and whose ending has receded into an ever more cloudy future. It is no surprise that the fundamentalist George Bush responded to the cataclysm of September 11 by rallying Americans to a threat he found in the realm not of politics or strategy but of metaphysics. Terrorists were “evildoers” and as such called forth a religious war in which other nations were “either with us or with the terrorists.” Such rhetoric falls easily on American ears and it is no mystery why this land’s leaders have had recourse to it again and again, from the “City on the Hill” of John Winthrop, to the “evil empire” of Ronald Reagan, and, in between, the starkly divided world set out in the Manichaean divisions of the Truman Doctrine of April 1947. The call to arms against “the evildoers,” the beseeching of the country to rise up and defend itself against “the axis of evil”—presidents use such terms because they are simple, universally understood, and persuasive: Who, after all, could object to the need to fight Evil?

The danger has always been that the urge toward metaphysical simplicity eventually obliterates the careful weighing of interests and risks that must guide a great power in its foreign policy. Osama bin Laden, in turning his sights from the “near enemies” ruling in Cairo and Riyadh to the “far enemy” symbolized by New York’s mighty towers, had wanted nothing more than an ideological war; he had the great good luck to choose to attack a born-again president and advocate of “moral clarity” who not only was more than willing to give him one but to subsume under its banner a bloody diversion in a complicated, divided country that had up to then been irrelevant to the jihadist cause.

For better or worse, President Bush has now set the terms of the debate, and the political contest now underway, animated by a kind of fear and political anxiety not seen since the darkest days of the cold war, seems fated to be conducted according to those terms. When the rhetoric of crusade dominates public discourse, political leaders find themselves trapped, like characters in a mythological drama that long predates and powerfully overshadows them; Lyndon Johnson, unable to withdraw from and thus “lose” Vietnam the way his Democratic predecessor had “lost” China, came to understand this; John Kerry, if he manages to gain his place in the White House, may well find himself struggling to escape the same trap, caught in the metaphysical prison his predecessor constructed for him and hemmed in by ideologically fierce political opponents determined to make him suffer for any attempt he might make to break free.

The war in Iraq, launched in the glamorous cause of ideological transformation, has now settled down into something bloody, murderous, and crude, fought on behalf of a people who are increasingly weary of its costs and bewildered by its stakes. There is no safe or easy way out, and the winner of this election, like the winner in 1968, will find his administration dogged by it from first day to last.

Princeton, New Jersey

If there’s one thing that supporters of the current administration insist upon, it’s that George W. Bush “is a man of his word.” After the casuistries of his predecessor—”it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is,” and all that— Americans were promised a man who, at the very least, would mean what he said and would say what he meant. Some of Bush’s defenders have returned to his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention and point to the specific promises he has kept. And to revisit the candidate’s speech, four years later, is indeed an illuminating exercise.

Congress sent him a “partial-birth abortion” ban and, as he promised, he signed it (though, as he must have expected, one of those “unelected judges” found the ban unconstitutional). He has, as he pledged, increased the funds available to pay for prescriptions for some retired people under Medicare (though to get the bill passed he had to conceal how much it would cost). He has proposed in each of his budgets, as he said he would, that younger workers should be allowed to invest part of their Social Security tax for themselves (though without making provisions for the huge shortfall in near-term Social Security funding—estimated at a trillion dollars—that would result).
Most of his promises on education, if we interpret them charitably, were carried out by the “No Child Left Behind” Act (though his commitment to “make Head Start an early learning program to teach all our children to read” did not, as it turns out, mean that he would give the program any more money). He kept his substantial commitment to lower all tax rates and create a new 10 percent bracket; and he has, indeed, tried to abolish the federal inheritance tax and double the child tax credit (though he didn’t acknowledge to the public that trillions of dollars in projected deficits were the predictable consequence of his tax policy).

What’s striking, however, is that when you turn to the largest, grandest promises that the candidate made, the line between words and deeds yawns into a crevasse. Here is what Governor Bush said:

We will strengthen Social Security and Medicare for the greatest generation and for generations to come.

I work with Republicans and Democrats to get things done.

When America uses force in the world, the cause must be just, the goal must be clear, and the victory must be overwhelming.

We’re learning to protect the natural world around us. We will continue this progress, and we will not turn back.

When I act, you will know my reasons. And when I speak, you will know my heart.

President George W. Bush has betrayed every one of these grand promises—often as a result of the promises he did keep. The mammoth deficits he has run up have further imperiled programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Washington has become an increasingly partisan place these last four years. The administration’s goal in Iraq was—and is—extremely obscure and victory correspondingly elusive, while the human costs to both Americans and Iraqis have been appalling. This White House has, moreover, the worst record on the environment of any since the rise of the environmental movement. And much of what the President has said to us on topics ranging from Iraq’s alleged weapons and connections with al- Qaeda to affirmative action and gay rights has involved speaking insistently out of both sides of his mouth.

Four years have rolled around, and we now have a new acceptance speech to consider. At the 2004 Republican National Convention George W. Bush proclaimed: “Even when we don’t agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand.” Do we? This acceptance speech contains far fewer specific statements about domestic policy than the first one did. Topics broached in his 2000 address where he has been obviously in default—such as his pledge to work to “reduce nuclear weapons and nuclear tensions,” or his expressed concern for the environment —receive no mention at all. Unblushingly, a president who appointed John Ashcroft to the office of attorney general and believes that American courts cannot be trusted to try the country’s alleged enemies avows that he “believes in the transformational power of liberty.”

It’s telling, though, how often, when discussing key elements of his domestic policy, a president who confessed (with mock humility) that he sometimes came across as “a little too blunt” resorted to code words. He vowed to “change outdated labor laws to offer comp-time and flex-time”—code, which his corporate supporters will easily decipher, for weakening the Fair Labor Standards Act, and its provisions for overtime pay. On tax policy, he spoke of reform and simplification—words understood, by well-to-do Republican constituents, as code for bringing the country closer to a flat tax. And his centerpiece doctrine of the “ownership society” is understood, by conservative activists, as code for fiscal policies that would, by exempting savings, further shift the tax burden from capital to labor: from those who can save and invest their earnings to those who must spend them. He even spoke in euphemisms on topics where everyone understands the code: “making a place for the unborn child,” “protecting marriage from activist judges.” The words “abortion” and “gay marriage” don’t appear in the speech at all, and for Bush’s purposes, didn’t have to.

Disguising a policy that will reduce overtime payments as a way of making the workplace more “family friendly”; calling regressive tax changes “simplification”; avoiding direct talk about his conservative social aims: these are moves aimed at misleading moderates. But this President has misled not just the centrists to whom he must make this quadrennial appeal, but also the conservatives who are his base. “If you look at the appropriations bills that were passed under my watch,” he declared last February, “discretionary spending” has “steadily declined.” In fact, even when you set aside defense costs, growth in discretionary spending —at over 25 percent—will have been greater in this term than under any other president since Nixon. Though no new money was found for Head Start, Bush did sign a $190 billion farm bill, for example, which hugely increases agribusiness subsidies. That he signed it is not surprising; so far he hasn’t vetoed a single bill from Congress. This puts him on the way to completing the first full term without a veto, for the first time since John Quincy Adams.

In this President, then, we have a self-described “uniter” who has nominated a succession of right-wing ideologues to the federal bench; a man who has invoked his commitment to “fairness” as he continues to transfer the cost of governance to people further down the income scale; a man who has spoken of “humility” and “honesty” even as, by arrogance and false statements, particularly about Iraq, he and his administration have undermined American credibility in the world. And still his supporters avow that George W. Bush is a man of his word.

Maybe it depends, after all, on what the meaning of “is” is.

Leesburg, Virginia

The case against President Bush goes to character. He makes grave decisions on the basis of inadequate or incompetent advice, willfully persists in them though they prove mistaken, and surrounds himself with people careful not to unsettle his rigid views.
He believes steadfastness, which he calls “resolve,” can ultimately ensure the success of his policies, whatever difficulties they may encounter. This single-minded devotion to purpose is absent from his biography until he commits himself to the Christian church to escape an aimless, perhaps alcoholic, existence. Running for president, he states that Jesus Christ is his guiding philosopher. In his inflexibility and pride, in his “resolve,” he is reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, both of whom, each in his own way, let steadfast commitment to bad decisions carry them to personal disaster, doing the country much damage along the way.

The two most revealing moments in Mr. Bush’s presidential career were the dead-heat election of 2000 and the September 11 attacks by al-Qaeda. In both instances he chose responses that were startlingly inappropriate to the political reality of the situation.
Having lost the 2000 election by half a million votes, and finding himself in the White House by the grace and favor of the Supreme Court, another president might have sought a centrist political consensus to reduce the passions polarizing the country. Bush was aware of the nasty division. He campaigned with a pledge to be “a uniter, not a divider.”

Upon entering the White House he immediately started to govern from the ideological right, and not the smiling Reagan right of the 1980s, but the hard, hard right which had spent generations hating everything governmental that could be called “progressive,” including Theodore Roosevelt, who had afflicted Republicans with that abominable word for the past hundred years. Could any policy have been more inappropriate for a minority president obliged to govern an evenly divided country? Normally gentle persons began to talk of hating the President. So much for the “uniter, not a divider.”

Bush’s response to September 11 showed the same tendency to do something astonishingly inappropriate to the occasion. His immediate reaction —declaring “war on terror” and attacking al-Qaeda’s host government in Afghanistan—was sound enough. Its swift success and its popularity at home and around the world promised an extraordinary political triumph.

Yet at this moment, with glory beckoning, he decided to make war in Iraq, thus opening the path to what looks increasingly like a disaster in the making. His purpose in transforming the “war on terror” into a war on Iraq is still unclear. The reasons given for it at the time—Iraq’s connivance in the September 11 attacks, Saddam Hussein’s development of atomic, biological, and chemical weapons—have since proven fictitious.
What was clear from the outset was that the President was determined to have this war. Intelligence that did not support its necessity was pushed aside. News that cast doubt on its necessity was buried inside newspapers when it was published at all. Editors, like intelligence bureaucrats, sensed that the war was inevitable, and all seemed resigned to some obligation to accommodate the President’s desire.

To thrust the United States into a region that has always presented unmanageable difficulties for Westerners, he was willing to damage relationships with important allies of long standing, arouse anti-American hatred across vast stretches of the Islamic world, and divert military resources from the “war on terror” into war aimed at democratizing tribal cultures. This single-minded rush to war was not only an inappropriate response to the global situation, it must also, inevitably, drain away military strength and diplomatic support needed to make the “war on terror” succeed. What drove him?

His responses to both the dead-heat election and September 11 showed a startling impetuosity. In neither instance did he seem to seek the counsel of the wisdom, age, and experience in which Washington, and especially the Republican Party, abound. One is reminded rather of Stephen Leacock’s young swashbuckler who leaps onto his horse and gallops off in all directions. Bob Woodward has written that he asked the President if he talked about the Middle East with his father, who had presided during the first Gulf War, and that the younger Bush said he talked to “a higher father.”

The case against John Kerry is that not being George Bush is an inadequate qualification for being president of the United States. If not George Bush, who is he? Why does he not register as a clearly defined personality? Is it because he doesn’t know who he is, or because he cannot decide, or because he does know, but he is too complicated to be easily identified?

Bush is a willful man of possibly dangerous simplicities, Kerry a man of many complications. Sometimes he seems so confounded by complications that he cannot make it clear to an audience desperate for sound-bite simplicity where he stands at any given moment and where he wants the country to go in the future.
Years ago I heard Morris Udall, a liberal Democrat from Arizona, say that the same people who voted for Barry Goldwater, then the voice of conservatives, also voted for him because Arizonans liked candidates who told them, plain and outright, who they were and what they stood for.

Oxford, England

There is such a thing as Americophilia. It does not have the rich pedigree of Anglophilia or Francophilia, or even Germanophilia. In fact, it is not always recognized as a bona fide philia at all. But it exists. It existed in Europe during the Jazz Age, and in Europe, Japan, and pretty much everywhere during the 1950s. Even the Vietnam War didn’t really kill it, for the center of protest was still in America. Americans had the best lines, and tunes, against the war. It still exists, although it is in danger of going the way of Germanophilia, into the fog of nostalgia, the land of what might have been.

I have always been an Americophile, or at least from the moment, at a very early age, when I received a postcard of the Empire State Building from my father, who was on a business trip to New York. The US, then, was an exotic place, where everything seemed bigger, glitzier, richer, more exciting. Americophilia, in my generation, was nurtured by the sexy allure of popular music. Even the names of the most provincial American cities—Memphis, Tennessee; Flagstaff, Arizona—were turned into desirable fetishes through the lyrics of rock-and-roll.

The sexiness of American pop culture was not such a trivial thing. For it had the ring of freedom, of a country with endless possibilities, where you could do things that would make the lace curtains of old Europe twitch. Much of this was a myth, of course, as the Beatles, Americophiles themselves, found out when they outraged Middle America as soon as they landed on The Ed Sullivan Show. American conservatism, like everything else American, runs into extremes. But it was a potent myth, with some substance. What was beautiful was the idea of America, where man was free to pursue happiness in any way he liked, as long as it was lawful (or, perhaps, even when it was not).

Anybody, in theory, and often in practice, could reinvent him- or herself as an American in a way that was impossible to imagine anywhere else. The fact that many Americans, especially if they lacked the advantage of a pale skin, came nowhere near to fulfilling the American Dream did not destroy the beauty of the idea. It still held out hope to millions who were poor or persecuted, or just restless, that in America it might still be possible to find a better way of life.

Europeans such as myself, born in the aftermath of World War II, also grew up with another, related myth, which had a great deal of substance: liberation from Nazi occupation to the beat of Glenn Miller, the sweet odor of Lucky Strikes, and the broad smiles of guys from Memphis or Kansas City. As this summer’s anniversary celebrations of the Allied landings in 1944 demonstrated, even the French never forgot that blessing.

It was with this fizzing cocktail of images, then, of swinging GIs, rock-and-roll, constitutional liberty, and the Empire State Building, that I first landed in the US with a spring in my step in the summer of 1970. In time the rosy hue of my Americophilia would fade a little. I soon noticed the bleaker sides of American life; American friends were often the first to point them out. And yet I retained something of that Kennedy Airport spring in my step, as though always in anticipation of adventures that could happen only here, in this vast land of promise.

But this, too, has faded. No doubt it has something to do with my getting older. You cannot spring forever. But something else has changed, especially after September 11, 2001. More and more I hear the clichés of my own Americophilia being spouted in ways that sound false, as though I’m listening to a favorite tune being distorted by a faulty player. The rhetoric of freedom, fighting tyranny, and liberating the enslaved peoples of the world speaks louder than ever. But too often it is laced with a fear of foreigners, with a nasty edge of chauvinism and a surly belligerence. The US has always had mood swings from active intervention abroad to sour isolation. What appears to be the current mood in Washington is a peculiar mixture of both: a desire to fix the world alone, whether the world likes it or not.

Revolutionary wars are out of style in the Old World, which, after a century of mass slaughter, has retreated into its own version of isolation. So there is something bracing about the neoconservative talk of liberation and democracy, wherever and whenever. But the aggressive disdain expressed by those same armchair liberators for people who disagree with their strategy, or who take a more skeptical view of violent revolution as a national policy, suggests Napoleonic hubris. And the odd insouciance displayed by the democratic warriors toward the systematic assaults on American liberties in the name of security or patriotism suggests a less than wholehearted commitment to democracy at home.

I am often reminded, in the US today, of Britain during the twilight years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule. Then, too, hard-line Tories talked a great deal about battling for freedom and the like, but usually in a snarling, spitting, fearful rage against “Europe.” The Battle of Britain would be invoked against trade policies hashed out in Brussels. D-Day would be remembered in fishery disputes. And Winston Churchill was regularly trotted out as the spirit incarnated by the first female Tory Party leader.

Going to war against states without any evidence that they are part of the terrorist threat, while invoking Munich, Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill, does not look like a sensible strategy. Turning the US into an armed fortress, making it harder and harder for foreigners to enter the country, is the opposite of defending an open society. Legal sophistry in defense of torture casts a dark stain on the White House. Harassing harmless campaigners for causes not popular with the current administration damages not only the beauty but also the substance of the American idea of freedom.

It is still possible that most Iraqis will come out of the war better off than they were before. Being ruled by Saddam Hussein was about as bad as it gets. The question is whether the US will be a better place after years of fear-mongering, military abuse, erosion of civil liberties, and a constant stream of political propaganda that distorts America’s proudest legacies. If America can no longer offer the hope of freedom, refuge from persecution, or a second chance in the lives of millions, the whole world will be worse off. And we cannot blame al-Qaeda for that.

New York City

This election will decide whether a radical politics succeeds in the United States. We have been governed, for many decades, from somewhere in the broad center of opinion rather than through a winner-take-all contest of extremes. We have kept religion out of politics so that people will not be alienated from their government because of their beliefs; and our foreign policy has, for the most part, been grounded in bipartisan unity, not partisan politics. The Bush administration has replaced every part of that centrist philosophy with a strategy of ideological partisanship aimed at two groups. It subscribes to the principles and causes of the religious right and it is convinced that Bush can be reelected by giving that particularly zealous minority reason to vote in great numbers. It relies, in that hope, on the support it has bought from powerful mass media and business groups by sponsoring huge and economically perilous tax cuts, and by virtually abandoning past bipartisan initiatives to protect the environment and improve public safety.

The alliance with the religious right has already proved a serious threat to America’s commitment to social inclusiveness. Bush urges amending the Constitution to outlaw gay marriage; he calls for federal support for religious projects, and condemns millions of Americans to unnecessary suffering by forbidding stem cell research. Religious fundamentalists want above all to staff the courts with judges who share their views, and he has pandered to that wish by nominating to the federal courts only lawyers distinguished for their intransigence on issues of abortion, race, civil rights, workers’ protection, gay rights, religion, or the environment, many of them embarrassingly unqualified for judicial office. Senate Democrats have so far blocked some of the worst of these nominations by filibusters, but they may not be able or willing to continue to do so if Bush is reelected while protesting that tactic. Bush could and would then fill the federal courts with whatever reactionary judges he thought most pleasing to what he regards as his “core constituency.”

The crucial court, of course, is the Supreme Court. America is very lucky to have survived one Bush administration without a single new Supreme Court appointment, but a second term without more than one new appointment seems unlikely. Even during the last few years, when the Court has been dominated by relatively conservative justices, it has done more than any other national institution to protect American principles of equal citizenship and individual fairness. It has refused to abandon affirmative action; it has insisted on rights for homosexuals; and it has held that even aliens whom the President declared to be enemies of the United States are entitled to the due process of law. But each of these important victories was won by one or two votes, and each was denounced by the fundamentalists Bush has assured of his support.

The three most conservative justices —Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas— voted against each of those decisions and have also made it plain that they would vote, whenever they have the chance, to overrule the Court’s earlier decisions recognizing women’s abortion rights, decisions the fundamentalists hate most of all; and Bush has all but promised that he would appoint new justices who would vote with them.

New justices would presumably also join the conservatives’ campaign to transfer power from the federal government to the states, so that a new Court might conceivably make environmental regulation—and perhaps even, in the worst case, antidiscrimination legislation for local business—matters of state option rather than federal jurisdiction. A Bush Court would probably have an entire generation in which to destroy constitutional rights that the Court has built up over decades, rights that have helped to define Americans’ sense of their own public values. Even if we came to our senses after a second Bush term, that terrible damage would have been done and could not soon be undone.

Of course judicial appointments are not the only danger in Bush’s alliance with right-wing religion, or even the worst. The terrorists want their battle with the United States to be seen as a religious war in which we fight not for justice or safety but for our god against theirs, and almost everything the administration has done since September 11 has helped them to sustain that claim. The administration’s incompetent war in Iraq is not only immoral because it has killed thousands for no legitimate purpose, but it is also stunningly counterproductive because it has convinced much of the world that America’s ideology, not the terrorists’, is the gravest threat to peace. The administration defends its military actions in theological terms whenever it can—Bush once called the war on terrorism a crusade—and America sometimes treats its prisoners with the special humiliation and cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition.

These policies are as divisive domestically as they are in the larger world. Bush has sacrificed shared pride in American values—a unity that was itself a source of protection in danger— for the militancy of fundamentalist religion. His reelection would be frightening not just for the damage a second term would do but because his radical political strategy would then seem, to future Republican candidates, a new template for electoral success.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

With his speech at New York University on September 20, John Kerry finally came up with a position on Iraq. It came late, and no one knows whether it will work, but at least this country will now have the discussion on Iraq that it needs.

It’s a debate, first of all, about the facts, about how bad the situation there actually is. For most Kerry supporters, this is no longer an interesting question. The situation is, was, and always will be a catastrophe, with American soldiers dying daily, Iraqis being butchered, aid workers kidnapped, construction workers beheaded. All these facts are true, and Kerry has begun to win some support simply by insisting on the grimness of the facts and by pointing out that Bush and Cheney’s optimism borders on the delusional.
The problem is what a Democratic administration should do about these facts. A lot of people are voting for Kerry in the expectation that he can extricate America from Iraq faster than Bush. His New York speech addressed these expectations. He said that if the future president would bring in more help from other countries to provide resources and forces…train the Iraqis to provide their own security…develop a reconstruction plan that brings real benefits to the Iraqi people…and take the steps necessary to hold credible elections next year…we could begin to withdraw US forces starting next summer and realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years.
Anyone in his right mind wants Americans out of Iraq as soon as possible; the question is whether the US can withdraw before Iraq becomes more stable. In May of this year, an ABC/Washington Post survey found that 53 percent of Democrats said the US “should withdraw its military forces from Iraq…even if that means civil order is not restored there.” This not-so-secret desire is based, at least for some Democrats, on the assumptions that the American occupation is the principal target of the insurgents and the American troop presence is actually making the security situation worse. If they were withdrawn, the argument goes, Iraqis would have fewer Americans to shoot at and might even stop shooting each other. The problem is that scaling back the American presence prematurely, i.e., within the next year to eighteen months, simply transfers all the costs of our many failures onto Iraqi shoulders. It seems to me most likely that more Iraqis will die if we leave than if we stay on until a democratically elected government can take over.

US troops have not been able to stop the daily carnage, but they have almost certainly prevented outright civil war, and dismemberment of the country into ethnic enclaves, possibly accompanied by invasion or incursions by Turks, Iranians, Syrians, and other foreign forces. A candidate has to do more than dish it out to his opponent; he also has to tell home truths to his own side. It would reinforce Kerry’s position and add to the intellectual honesty of his campaign if he would also make it clear that a troop presence through 2006 will very probably be necessary to prevent civil war.

It would also be candid on his part to admit that as bad as the situation actually is, it could be worse. So far, the Kurds have behaved cautiously. They have not seized Kirkuk and the oil fields, and have swallowed their disappointment when the transitional administrative law acknowledging, albeit somewhat vaguely, their demands for autonomy in a federal Iraq lapsed, and successfully maintaining order in the northern quarter of the country. There is no real prospect of continuing Kurdish restraint if the US pulls out prematurely. As for the Shiites, Ayatollah Ali Sistani has repeatedly given the lie to the view that Iraqis don’t want democratic procedures by using his authority to insist that any political future in Iraq requires real parties and real elections supervised by the UN.

The issue that Kerry has to face squarely is how to honor the American commitment to carrying out free elections in Iraq. There is an opportunity for leadership here, since the Bush administration is taking several positions at once on when and whether elections can be held in the Sunni Triangle. The suggestion by Rumsfeld and others that elections can go ahead without taking place in the triangle cannot possibly result in legitimate national political institutions.

The immediate question is how to make elections possible in the provinces that are controlled by the insurgents. The UN cannot monitor elections without security, and there is no chance, at least in the coming year, that Kerry can actually deliver on his plans to “internationalize” the security problem, by turning it over to UN peacekeepers or NATO troops. “Don’t even ask us,” is how the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, put it when asked whether the Europeans would contribute to stabilizing security in Iraq.

The next-best alternative to an international security force—a negotiated handover of security to local Iraqis— has been tried in Falluja and has only resulted in the insurgents taking over and terrorizing many of the inhabitants. In Najaf and Karbala, similar negotiations allowed the insurgents to walk away with their weapons. As for the national Iraqi army doing the job, General Petraeus has not yet trained enough troops to guard the polling booths in January 2005. The civil order necessary for elections cannot be established, as this administration seems to think, by using air strikes, which often kill or wound civilians while failing to deter insurgents. The only real alternative is a ground operation, if necessary retaking insurgent-held towns block by block, without killing so many civilians that the operation sets off a national uprising that derails the elections altogether. The sole acceptable rationale for such an operation—which would inevitably cost American casualties—would be to retake areas held by insurgents so that a combination of US and Iraqi forces could guard polling stations for a free vote during the first quarter of 2005. If this fails, Iraq’s chance of a democratic transition may slip by. A commitment by Kerry to work to make possible a democratic Iraq is essential if civil war is to be avoided.

As the news from Iraq worsens, Kerry may be tempted to promise an exit from the quagmire and quietly jettison his commitments to a democratically elected government in Iraq. Yet holding firm on his intention to sustain an electoral process is vital. Those who opposed the war have good reasons to feel vindicated by the horrible turn of events in Iraq. Their problem is that if America abandons its commitment to helping Iraqis fight for a democratic outcome, through the end of 2005 and into 2006, this betrayal will transform the occupation’s many failures into an unforgivable crime.

Cambridge, Massachusetts

The election of 2004 matters for many reasons. It may have profound effects on the exercise of American power in the world, on the environment, on national and international economics. But for me the most troubling question that this election may affect is one less noticed: Is this country still committed to law as the foundation of the American idea?

Law has defined our political structure from the beginning. Without the intricate balance of state and federal power devised by Madison, Hamilton, and the rest—and the separation of the federal government into three branches —the United States would not have come into existence. And without judicial enforcement of the Constitution as law, this sprawling, unruly country would not have held together. When the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore in 2000, even those who thought the decision illegitimate—a feeling that remains—accepted it.[1]

But since September 11, 2001, President Bush and his administration have made a mockery of the American commitment to law. Using the threat of terrorism as a reason, they have overridden constitutional rights and treaties to take harsh, punitive action against hundreds of individuals.

Perhaps the most brazen example of disregard for law was Bush’s decision to deny all the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the right to a hearing on their status—a right guaranteed by the Third Geneva Convention, to which the United States is a party. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the President that violating the convention that way would “reverse over a century of US policy and practice… and undermine the protections of the law of war for our troops.” The State Department’s legal adviser, William H. Taft IV, said compliance with the Geneva Convention would show that the United States “bases its conduct not just on its policy preferences but on its international legal obligations.” But Bush found, without any hearings, that all the prisoners were “unlawful combatants.”

At home, Attorney General John Ashcroft swept thousands of aliens off the streets and ordered them held as suspected terrorists—without evidence —for weeks and months. Two American citizens, Yasser Hamdi and Jose Padilla, were imprisoned as “enemy combatants” without trial or access to counsel. They were still in a Navy brig more than two years later when Attorney General Ashcroft decided to send Hamdi home to Saudi Arabia if he would give up his US citizenship—a condition that Hamdi accepted. That happened because the Supreme Court decided last June that Hamdi had the right to challenge his detention in a proper hearing. Ashcroft let Hamdi go rather than let him have his day in court, when the Justice Department would have had to produce evidence. In a statement, Ashcroft still referred to Hamdi as an “enemy combatant”— the claim that he had never been willing to submit to the process of law.

Then there was Abu Ghraib. After the publication of the appalling photographs of naked, humiliated, abused American prisoners in Iraq, we read the memoranda from Justice Department and Defense Department lawyers arguing in elaborate detail that Americans could torture prisoners and avoid criminal charges for doing so. Those memoranda opened the way to the crimes of Abu Ghraib. They argued explicitly that the President was not required to comply with laws passed by Congress, much less treaties, when it came to handling war prisoners.

We have to understand that these were not positions taken casually by low-level lawyers. The authors of the torture memoranda were leading members of the new right in American law. One was Jay S. Bybee, an assistant attorney general who has since been made a judge of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Another was John C. Yoo, formerly a deputy assistant attorney general and now a professor at Boalt Hall, the law school of the University of California at Berkeley.

Professor Yoo defended the torture memoranda in a piece for the Los Angeles Times. He said the memos were right to argue that someone accused of torture could effectively argue self-defense, meaning defense of the country—an argument that could kindly be called preposterous.

What is so striking about these right-wing lawyers is how they have stood the traditional position of legal conservatives on its head. Conservatives used to warn against concentration of power in the presidency. They used to insist on respect for the states and the other branches of the federal government. Today Bybee, Yoo, and their allies want to have a presidency essentially unconstrained by law. They see law as a mere instrument of power.

A major consequence of a change of administration would be a new attorney general, one who would surely return to the principle captured in a motto written on the wall of the attorney general’s office: The United States wins its case when justice is done. In respect for international law, too, there would likely be a return to traditional American positions.

The Bush administration’s disregard for law has been damaging to America’s reputation in the world. For decades this country has urged others to make respect for law a high principle. Many countries around the world have followed the American example in the last fifty years and adopted written constitutions and judicial enforcement of rights. For the United States to put its notion of necessity over law looks, even to our best friends, like hypocrisy.

There is a sense in this election that we are not just deciding who should lead us. We are showing the world, and ourselves, what kind of country we are.

Provincetown, Massachusetts

A victory for Bush may yet be seen as one of our nation’s unforgettable ironies. No need to speak again of the mendacities, manipulations, and spiritual mediocrity of the post”“9/11 years; the time has come to recover from the shock that so abysmal a record (and so complete a refusal to look at the record) looks nonetheless likely to prevail. Who, then, are we? In just what kind of condition are the American people?
A quick look at our movie stars gives a hint. The liberal left has been attached to actors like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. They spoke to our cynicism and to our baffled idealism. But the American center moved their loyalties from the decency of Gary Cooper to the grit and self-approval of John Wayne. Now, we have the apotheosis of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He captured convention honors at the Garden in the course of informing America, via the physicality of his presence, that should the nation ever come to such a dire pass as to need a dictator, why, bless us all, he, Arnold, can offer the best chin to come along since Benito Mussolini. Chin is now prepared to replace spin.

In 1983, during the formative years of spin, 241 Marines were blown up by one terrorist blast in Beirut. Two days later, on October 25, Reagan landed 1,200 marines in Grenada, which is 3,000 miles away from Beirut. By the time that the invasion force grew to 7,000 Marines, the campaign was over. The US lost 19 dead, while 49 soldiers in the Grenadian army perished on the other side, as well as 29 Cuban construction workers. Communism in the Caribbean was now kaput (except for the little matter of Castro and Cuba). After this instant victory over a ragtag foe, Reagan was stimulated enough to accept his supporters’ claim that America had now put an end to our shame in Vietnam. Reagan understood what Americans wanted, and that was spin. It was more important to be told you were healthy than to be healthy.

Bush-and-Rove enlarged this insight by an order of magnitude. They acted on the premise that America was prodigiously insecure. As an empire, we are nouveaux riches. We look to overcome the uneasiness implicit in this condition by amassing mega-money. The sorriest thing to be said about the US, as we sidle up to fascism (which can become our fate if we plunge into a major depression, or suffer a set of dirty-bomb catastrophes), is that we expect disasters. We await them. We have become a guilty nation. Somewhere in the moil of the national conscience is the knowledge that we are caught in the little contradiction of loving Jesus on Sunday, while lusting the rest of the week for mega-money. How can we not be in need of someone to tell us that we are good and pure and he will seek to make us secure? For Bush-and-Rove, 9/11 was the jackpot.

The presidency is a role, and George, left on his own, might have become a successful movie actor. Kerry’s task by now is to scourge Bush’s ham machismo. But how? Kerry’s only real opportunity will come as he steps into a most constricting venue—the debates. Kerry has to dominate Bush without a backward look at his own dovish councils—”Don’t be seen as cruel, John, or you will lose the women!” To the contrary—Kerry must win the men. He has to take Bush apart in public. By the end of the debates, he has to succeed in laying waste to Bush’s shit-eating grin and present himself as the legitimate alternative—a hero whose reputation was slandered by a slacker. That will not be routine. Bush is the better actor. He has been impersonating men more manly than himself for many years. Kerry has to convince some new part of the audience that his opponent is a closet weakling who seizes on inflexibility as a way to show America that he is strong. Bush’s appeal is, after all, to the stupid. They, too, are inflexible—they also know that maintaining one’s stupidity can become a kind of strength, provided you never change your mind.

There is a subtext which Kerry can use. Bush, after all, is not accustomed to working alone in hostile environments. He has been cosseted for years. It is cruel but true that he has the vulnerability of an ex-alcoholic.

People in Alcoholics Anonymous speak of themselves as dry drunks. As they see it, they may no longer drink, yet a sense of imbalance at having to do without liquor does not go away. Rather the impulse is sequestered behind the faith that God is supporting one’s efforts to remain sober.

Giving up booze may have been the most heroic act of George W.’s life, but America could now be paying the price. George W.’s piety has become a pomade to cover all the tamped-down dry-drunk craziness that still stirs in his livid inner air.

These gloomy words were written before the first debate on September 30. They were followed by an even gloomier final flourish: “Through this era of belly-grinding ironies, the most unpalatable may be that we have to hitch our hopes to a series of televised face-offs whose previous history has seldom offered more than a few sound bites for the contestants and apnea for the viewer. God bless America! We may not deserve it, but we could use the Lord’s help. Bush’s first confidence, after all, is that the devil will never desert him in his hour of need. His only error is that he thinks it is the Son who is speaking to him.”

The debate, however, offered surprising ground for optimism. Kerry was at his best, concise, forceful, almost joyous in the virtuosity of his ability. He was able to speak his piece despite the Procrustean bonds of the debate. And Bush was at his worst. He looked spoiled. He was out of his element. He was tired from campaigning. There are times when a man has campaigned so much that he is running on hollow. Even Bush’s face had become a liability. He looked cranky and puckered up. For years, he had been able to speak free of debate, always able to utter his homey patriotic gospel without interruption. Now in the ninety minutes of formalized back and forth, with the camera sometimes catching his petulant reactions while Kerry spoke, he looked unhappy enough to take a drink.

Most of this was seen on a big state-of-the-art television set, and the verdict seemed clear. Kerry had won by a large margin. Bush’s only credit was that he had gone the distance without making any irremediable errors. Kerry’s poll numbers seemed bound to increase.

Only one caveat remained. The first twenty minutes of the debate had been seen on the kind of modest-sized set that most of America would be using. On that set, one saw a somewhat different debate. Karl Rove had scored again. However it had been managed, the placement of the cameras favored Bush. His head took up more square inches on the screen than Kerry’s. In television, that is half the battle. Kerry looked long and lean as he spoke out of what seemed to be a medium shot, whereas Bush had many a close-up.
This advantage partly disappeared on the large set. There, each man’s expression was clear, and their relative strengths and weaknesses were obvious. On a small set, however, some of the cinematographic advantage went the other way.

We will have to wait for the polls. Will they be as skewed as the camera angles? We seem to be living these days in a kaleidoscope of ironies. Is the worst yet to come? If it is a close election, the electronic voting machines are ready to augment every foul memory of Florida in 2000. Perhaps it is no longer Jesus or Allah who oversees our fate but the turn of the Greek gods to take another run around the track. When it comes to destiny, they were the first, after all, to conceive of the Ironies.

New Haven, Connecticut

In the wake of the many scandals that have disgraced our government in the last four years, who is accountable? Will the secretary of defense be dismissed because of what happened at Abu Ghraib? Will the attorney general be dismissed for what is happening at Guantánamo Bay? Will the secretary of the interior be dismissed for handing national treasures to corporate looters? Will the secretary of state bear responsibility for refusal to participate in efforts of the rest of the world to keep the planet inhabitable? Will the President of the United States disavow what his handpicked agents have done on his watch?

We all know the answers. But in the eyes of the world the ultimate accountability lies not with the President or his men. In the end it lies with the sovereign people of the United States. The government is our government, resting on our choices and supported in all its activities by our taxes. We may claim with some reason that the last election was stolen, but we have had to accept the result. In the last analysis people get the government they deserve, and ours, more directly than most, is the product of our choice. We have been credited, rightly, for what it has done in the past, for standing up, however belatedly, to the Nazis, for assisting the recovery of Europe under the Marshall Plan, for containing the threat of imperial communism. We cannot now escape credit for what our government has so shamefully done. We began as a people with “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind,” and we won admiration for it. We have now lost the good opinion of mankind and with it the self-respect of decent Americans.

It may take many years to recover what we have lost. We cannot restore the lives lost in Iraq, the lives of our soldiers, none of whom deserved to die for us, and the many more lives of the people we have professed to liberate in a war fought under false pretenses. But we can dismiss the people responsible for the other horrors committed in our name. Our self-respect, and the respect of the rest of the world for us as a people, hang on the next election. The damage now being done can be stopped. Some of it can be reversed. But the longer it goes on the less reversible it becomes. Seldom has our future as a people been in greater jeopardy. If we continue the heedless destruction of everything the United States has stood for in the past, we will rightly be held accountable, not only by the rest of the world but by our own grandchildren and their grandchildren for generations to come.

South Royalton, Vermont

The big issue in 2004 is Iraq—will voters reject President Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, or will they accept and endorse it by giving him a second term? This question is not complicated, and the answer either way will be clear and crushing. Bush’s defeat will signal to the world, and to the Republican Party, that the President’s decision for war has been rejected by the country as unjustified and unwise. Bush’s victory will signal something roughly the opposite—that the country has accepted and endorsed his decision, thereby transforming Bush’s war into America’s war.

Many other questions will of course be answered at the same time, but the question of Iraq is the one that will have the greatest consequences, because it will have the most to do with how long the war lasts. Mainstream thinking about this war has come a long way since Congress and just about everybody else accepted President Bush’s claim that Saddam Hussein had and was seeking weapons of mass destruction and that this posed a “growing danger” for the United States. But mainstream thinking may not be ready to accept a conclusion that this war, like the intervention in Somalia at one end of the spectrum of pain, or like Vietnam at the other, will be seen in retrospect as a failure. How big a failure, after how much pain, waits on events.

My reasons for thinking the war will end in failure are not complicated either. To me, it seems the inevitable consequence of attacking a country that posed no threat, of trying to create a government of our choosing for people we do not like or understand, of defining those who fight back as terrorists, and of ignoring the elementary fact of war that killing people makes enemies of their relatives, friends, and neighbors. How many Iraqis have we killed so far? Ten thousand? Fifty thousand? Is anyone keeping count?

From the day Saddam Hussein disappeared in Baghdad nothing has gone as the administration expected, and our ability to manage the chaos has grown steadily weaker. In the end the Iraqis will decide what comes next, but not until they have fought it out, and that will be impossible until we quit interfering. When is that likely to happen? Not while Bush remains in office, and I suspect that his successor— Kerry next year or somebody else in 2009—will also find it hard to face up to the failure, but will go on from month to month and year to year hoping that a little more blood and sacrifice will make it all come right. But maybe not. Maybe this time around a quick, harsh dose of pain and failure will be enough to bring a halt.

If President Bush were defensive about his failure in Iraq, American voters might feel safer in calling him to account, but he is not defensive. He is so self-assured, defiant, and determined, and those waging his campaign are so aggressive and insulting in their attacks on Kerry personally, that voters are in danger of being swept away by the drama of the President’s defiance. This High Noon brand of politics is apparently the brainchild of Bush’s chief political adviser, Karl Rove. The idea is to raise the temperature of campaign rhetoric beyond norms of civility, in the hope of driving all the thousand important public issues into the background, and thereby forcing voters to see, and compelling them to accept or reject, only the image of the grinning Texan standing tall in his shirtsleeves, spitting on his hands, and challenging the flip-flopper, as he challenges the world, to step up or run home to mama. Some might describe Rove’s High Noon politics as the gamble of a desperate campaign running on empty, but Rove could quote H.L. Mencken in defense, who said that no man ever lost a nickel by underestimating the intelligence of the American people.

Victory by such means, on a matter of such consequence, is a troubling prospect. But I do not think that voters on election day will forget everything else—the failure to restore lost jobs, a ballooning of the national debt that threatens Social Security, the watering down or outright repeal of regulations on business and the environment, the failure to fund the No Child Left Behind Act, the spreading loss of health benefits for ordinary Americans, above all the blunder of the unnecessary war. I can’t think of any significant category of voters won over by Bush since he squeaked through in 2000, and I can’t see why the country would vote for more of the same. So I think that Rove’s gamble will flicker briefly in the polls before sputtering out, and that Bush will lose.

That is what I think. But what I fear is that a different dynamic is at work—that voters may share a gut sense that the Iraq adventure will end in failure, but are too angry and distracted to admit it, want to feel good about High Noon America for a few moments longer, and will vote for Bush in order to put off the inevitable bitter day.

Oxford, England

I have read in the British press that George Bush will win the November election because the “soccer moms” who voted for Bill Clinton have turned into “security moms” who will vote for the President. The rest of the world shares these mothers’ anxieties, but draws a diametrically opposed conclusion. The British ambassador to Rome summed up the prevailing sentiment when he observed that President Bush is al-Qaeda’s most successful recruiting sergeant.

The claim that reelecting President Bush will make the world safer—any part of the world, including the United States—would be laughable if the Iraqi civilian death toll was not 15,000 and rising, if peace for Israelis and Palestinians was not further away than ever, and if international cooperation on everything from global warming to fighting AIDS had not been deeply damaged by the last four years of a know-nothing presidency. If it is a joke, it is in the worst possible taste.

From almost anywhere outside the United States, it is impossible to understand how Mr. Bush has even a remote chance of reelection. In most of Europe, two thirds of the population has never weakened in its opposition to the war in Iraq—not out of affection for Saddam Hussein, but out of a well-founded understanding that Iraq was irrelevant to the war on terrorism until President Bush turned the country into a terrorist’s playground.

Even in Britain, it was only in the immediate aftermath of the invasion that a majority was in favor of war; support is now 40 percent. Seventy percent want a date set for the withdrawal of British troops; and 80 percent think the United States has no idea how to bring peace and stability to Iraq. These 80 percent of Britons share the global view that President Bush is a threat to world security. Unsurprisingly, so do Americans’ neighbors—Canadians and Mexicans.

It’s not as though President Bush has done anything to offset the idiocies of the war on terror; Tony Blair is as unpopular as his war, but he survives as prime minister because he has presided over a steadily growing economy, rising employment, improving schools, and an improving health care system. And there has been a small but real redistribution of income toward the poorest fifth of the population.

Under President Bush, the US economy has shed jobs; there are fewer Americans employed today than when he took office; fewer Americans have guaranteed health care than when he took office; his tax cuts amount to the organized looting of the public purse for the benefit of his friends and funders; and his fiscal irresponsibility makes Ronald Reagan look a model of prudence.

President Bush says repeatedly that al-Qaeda and its allies wage war on the United States because they hate American freedom. All the evidence is that this is complete nonsense, and that they wage war on America because the United States props up regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere that they detest. All the same, it is true that American freedom is an issue in the election; and it is true that American freedom is at risk from fundamentalists and from out-of-control nationalists.

The fundamentalists in question are Christian and American nationalists, taking in John Ashcroft and a good many of the members of Congress who voted for the Patriot Act as well as those members of the judiciary who have connived in the denial of the constitutional and human rights of Americans and foreigners detained without trial or counsel.

The President announced immediately after September 11 that “those who are not with us are with the terrorists”; his fans’ habit of treating foreign critics as either idiots or terrorists-in-waiting is one more ugly feature of contemporary politics. But it is the friends of America who most fear what four more years of Mr. Bush will do; if you think the United States is the Great Satan, you are unlikely to regard the separation of church and state and attention to the rights of the accused as matters of the highest importance.
Those of us who think that they are, and who think that getting into misguided wars is invariably bad for civil liberties, think that the election is first about bringing the Iraq folly to an end, second about reversing the erosion of civil liberties, and third about restoring respect for intelligence in the formulation and implementation of policy. Underpinning all this, it would help to have a president who could tell the truth—and who could distinguish it from fantasy.

New York City

The present administration has been astonishingly successful in getting the American public to accept its very idiosyncratic version of events—for example, that while the polar icecap is melting and the snows of Kilimanjaro are vanishing, the threat of global warming is not an immediate concern; that Saddam Hussein assisted Osama bin Laden in the September 11 attacks, so that the invasion of Iraq is part of the war on terrorism; that vast increases in the budget deficit and the national debt are unimportant and can best be solved by tax cuts; or that, regardless of an increasingly violent and spreading insurgency, Iraq is well on the way to reconstruction and democracy. Such fantasies, however successful at home, have had the opposite effect abroad.

Like many people all over the world, I had long taken for granted the unprecedented international position of the United States. History’s most powerful state, lacking conventional imperial ambitions, was widely accepted as leader and mentor, and was respected as a generous source of aid and support in times of trouble. Since World War II, in spite of one or two notable aberrations, the United States has been a source of hope and a vitally important contributor to stability and progress for most of the world.
Guided by Franklin Roosevelt’s vision of a world of collective security, justice, and law, his successors, despite the constraints of the cold war, worked with other governments to build a structure of international agreements and institutions that would eventually make such a world possible. This emerging international structure provided a setting for America’s leadership.

With the end of the cold war it seemed, briefly, that Roosevelt’s dream of a working international community might once again be developed systematically. In the new millennium, however, events moved quickly in a very different direction.

In striking contrast to the pragmatic internationalism of FDR, Harry Truman, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and the leaders that followed them, the ideology of the George W. Bush administration is basically unilateralist, exceptionalist, and anti-internationalist. Its worldview first manifested itself in the rejection of important international agreements like the anti-ballistic missile and nuclear test ban treaties, the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, proposed conventions on chemical warfare and the limitation of small arms, and the recently established International Criminal Court. A world accustomed to farsighted American leadership was, not surprisingly, distressed by these tendencies.

The Bush administration, apparently as a matter of policy, did not follow up the efforts of its predecessor on several vitally important issues. Of these the most consequential was the Israeli-Palestinian question. Allowing that situation to sink further into violence and despair while publicly favoring one side over the other has made the prospect of peace far more remote for both Israelis and Palestinians. It has also provided a powerful anti-American boost for the forces of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism that are now our most immediate threat.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, unleashed a worldwide outpouring of support and affection for the United States, a country that had traditionally done so much for others. When the dust cleared away, however, the Bush administration’s exceptionalist approach to international affairs was as rigid as before. In fact, its scope was dramatically broadened by the announcement of a new national security doctrine—unilateral preventive or preemptive war—to replace the longstanding policy of deterrence and containment.

While the world was still in shock from September 11, the United States action against the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the unrepentant host of al-Qaeda, received wide support as a legitimate act of self-defense. However, the evident determination of Washington to attack Iraq, allegedly to deal with Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, revived and intensified international concern and resentment. The fanciful notion that “the road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad” outraged the Muslim world and is proving to be an immensely costly fantasy.

The false rationale for the second Iraq war, and Washington’s openly expressed contempt for those who questioned it, has antagonized international opinion at a time when worldwide solidarity against fundamentalist terrorism is desperately needed. As the former counterterrorism coordinator, Richard Clarke, has written,
Rather than seeking to work with the majority in the Islamic world to mold Muslim opinion against the radicals’ values, we did exactly what al-Qaeda said we would do. We invaded and occupied an oil-rich Arab country that posed no threat to us, while paying scant time and attention to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. We delivered to al-Qaeda the greatest recruitment propaganda imaginable and made it difficult for friendly Islamic governments to be seen working closely with us.

The operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have also shown the practical limitations of the concept of unilateral preventive or preemptive war. They have shown that even the greatest military power in history has neither access to the reliable intelligence needed to provide a sound basis for such a war nor, for the moment at least, the capacity to deal decisively with determined guerrilla and terrorist resistance.

The stature and credibility of the United States are at their lowest ebb at a time when the world is greatly in need of wise and steady leadership on many vital global problems. It is also a time when the United States itself desperately needs the confidence and cooperation of other nations to deal with terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the related threat of rogue or dysfunctional states, and other emerging dangers.

To have drastically eroded, in less than four years, the position of respected international leadership built up by the United States over the past hundred years or more is an extraordinary achievement. With its existing worldview, the current administration cannot hope to restore that position. That would be one of the Herculean labors of its successor—if a successor willing to undertake them can be elected.

Austin, Texas

Anyone speeding down a freeway in the wrong direction will naturally begin to think of turning points. I don’t know if the 2004 election will be a turning point for America, but here are some thoughts about the direction toward which we ought to turn, with emphasis on policies that are abhorrent to Republicans and also rarely espoused by Democrats.

Here in Texas, I meet a good many economic conservatives. Most are nice people, not naturally inclined toward grinding the faces of the poor. But when I argue that we need to elect a president and Congress willing to raise taxes and spend more on searching for nuclear weapons in container ships, decreasing public school class sizes, subsidizing secular education in Islamic countries, rebuilding Afghanistan, expanding scientific research, helping the Russians to control their stocks of fissionable material, and providing universal access to health care (perhaps by offering Medicare to anyone who wants it), my conservative friends claim that we can afford these things only if we first “grow the economy” by cutting taxes. They (and many liberals) are in the grip of an economic fallacy, that a dollar spent on consumer goods stimulates the economy more than a dollar spent on public goods. They actually believe that holding government spending down by not hiring enough policemen and patent inspectors is the way to fight unemployment!


Ironically, cutting taxes on high incomes and large legacies has weakened a unique aspect of American life that conservatives ought to prize. By making the deduction for charitable donations less attractive, tax cuts have hurt private foundations, universities, museums, orchestras, hospitals, and churches, which although indirectly supported by government through tax deductions, nevertheless operate without government control.
We must restore steeply progressive income taxes and cut payroll taxes, in order to reverse the growth of poverty and narrow the gap between the real net hourly earnings of most people and the richest few. Even more important is keeping the inheritance tax and closing its loopholes, to inhibit development of an aristocracy of inherited wealth. To restore the dignity as well as the prosperity of working people, Congress needs to give workers some legal right to their jobs, prohibit the replacement of striking workers, and repeal the worst features of the Taft-Hartley law. No one should imagine that the economy necessarily will be healthy if only unemployment rates can be lowered. No class of Americans has ever had unemployment as low as blacks in the antebellum South.


One other kind of tax needs to be increased, the tax on gasoline. We need to get gasoline prices up permanently without sending more money to the Saudis, to provide an incentive for fuel efficiency and alternatives. The worst possible policy would be to try to hold gasoline prices down by drilling in Alaska. A few decades from now, when the only large oil reserves left in the world will be in the Middle East, the oil in Alaska can be a precious asset, our ultimate strategic reserve.

Part of the cost of the public goods we need can be borne by cutting back on those we don’t need. The President’s vastly expensive “New Vision” for manned space flight serves no economic, military, or scientific purpose. The anti-missile defense now being deployed at great cost will have only a dubious effectiveness against the most unlikely nuclear threats, and concededly no effectiveness at all against the one peril that can destroy our country, a massive Russian missile launch by mistake.

John Kerry’s public statements have not revealed how he would change direction on these issues. Maybe that is good strategy—what do I know about getting elected? Of one thing I am sure: we can look for no help from George Bush.

President Bush’s reelection would be disastrous in another respect. The present Supreme Court has attacked the constitutional powers of Congress, striking down legislation that would protect individuals against unconstitutional state action. The vacancies on the Court that are likely to open soon create an opportunity to reverse these decisions. Four more years of a Bush administration will tip the balance of the Court toward extremist justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, whom Bush especially admires.

After all this, you would think that I would have no doubt about my vote in November, but I have one remaining concern that might keep me from voting for Kerry. Somehow there has grown up a correlation between liberalism and anti-Zionism in both Europe and America: a tendency for the same politicians, academics, performers, and journalists who take a liberal stand on domestic issues reflexively to take the Arab side in disputes between Arabs and Israelis. Kerry’s statements and voting record show no signs of anti-Zionism, with just one exception known to me, his speech at the Council on Foreign Relations naming James Baker of all people as someone he might send to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians—a possibility he subsequently rejected.

Nevertheless, I can’t help worrying about the foreign policy of a liberal administration if Kerry is elected. This concern is deepened by the fear that, as radical Islamic terrorism continues to plague us, there will be a growing temptation to appease Muslims either by withdrawing support for Israel, or by making complete withdrawal from the West Bank a condition for this support, leaving Israel vulnerable to the sort of attack launched by Arab states in 1948, 1967, and 1973. Yielding to this temptation would weaken the cause of secular democracy, and permanently stain our country’s honor. But I probably will vote for Kerry anyway, for on this issue I don’t trust Bush either.

Evanston, Illinois

What was the last election with great stakes in play? I suppose 1968. It was similar to this race, but (as it were) upside down. Both involve the problem of admitting a tragic mistake. The mistake in 1968 was a belief that where the French had failed in a long and committed colonial adventure in Indochina, we could replace them and succeed. We could do so, we thought, because we were not colonialists but supporters of indigenous freedom against world communism. We came with “clean hands.”

The current mistake is a belief that we could enter the Mideast with clean hands as supporters of democratic values in the whole region, in opposition to world terrorism. We would do so with Donald Rumsfeld’s swift military in-and-out operation to put friends like Ahmed Chalabi in charge and withdraw—just as we could use Robert McNamara’s “surgical” and “counterinsurgent” operations to keep friends like Nguyen Van Thieu in charge of Vietnam before withdrawing. Both mistakes reflected an ignorance of the respective regions, a false view of America’s reception by those being “helped,” and an underestimation of American resistance to longer-term commitment than was first proposed.

Our election is an upside-down version of the 1968 one because the incumbent party was then most disposed to admit the mistake of Vietnam, though it had led us into the quagmire. President Kennedy’s closest advisers had egged on President Johnson to sustain the war—but it was proving unsustainable, as Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal, the Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy presidential bids, and Hubert Humphrey’s wobbling demonstrated. Had Humphrey won, his party would not have supported vigorous extension of the war—it had already admitted the mistake. Nixon, by contrast, though he vaguely referred to a plan for ending the war, had constituencies not disposed to that course. The anti-Communist rationale for the war was so strong that even when Nixon achieved his opening to China, Republicans who opposed that move said they would not stay with him unless he continued his commitment to the war—as he did throughout his first term. Only after many more casualties on both sides, and no accomplishment of our war aims, was the mistake finally (indirectly) admitted.
Today it is the incumbent party that refuses to admit the mistake made in the preemptive war on Iraq. Its ideological stake in the venture resembles that of the out party in 1968, while the current out party, despite Kerry’s wobbling of the Humphrey sort, has a cumulative opposition to the war like that of the Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy insurgents in 1968 (their equivalents now being Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, and Dennis Kucinich). What will be done in Iraq remains unclear for both parties; but a sane policy must begin from a grasp of the mistake that was made, an understanding of which the Republicans seem incapable.

Will it take us decades and thousands of deaths to see our error in Iraq, as it did to see our error in Vietnam? It may well do so under another Republican term. No one in it has resigned, been fired, repented, or apologized. The air of rectitude is bolstered as the blunders become clearer. What is generally true of presidential elections is imperatively true of this one—that the part of wisdom is to vote the party, not the man. Whether you like George Bush or John Kerry is beside the point. One must vote for the constituencies that are at the core of the candidate’s campaign and future ability to govern. That means, in the case of the current administration, that a vote for the Republicans is a vote for Halliburton and contractors in the oil world, for a Rumsfeld policy of destroying the military, for a Cheney vision of unilateral action in a world of nations dismissed as cowards or fools, for an economy based on tax cuts, deficits, and resistance to social programs.
Most elections are referendums on the people in place, and that should be the overwhelming criterion this time. What will four more Bush years do to our relations abroad, our armed forces, our environment, our economy, our civil rights, our separation of church and state? Were it not so tragic in its toll of the dead and maimed on both sides of the conflict, our war in Iraq would seem a comedy of endless errors, featuring such Keystone Kops as George (Bring ‘Em On) Bush, Karl (Mission Accomplished) Rove, Condi (Mushroom Cloud) Rice, Tony (Forty-Five Minutes) Blair, Dick (Prague Meeting) Cheney, Don (Stuff Happens) Rumsfeld, George (Slam Dunk) Tenet, Paul (Shinseki Is Wild) Wolfowitz, Colin (Mobile Labs) Powell, Ahmed (Iraqis Love Me) Chalabi, Doug (Oil Will Rebuild It) Feith, Ken (Cakewalk) Adelman, Richard (Ahmed Told Me) Perle, and other supporting players. What will the future say of us if we continue to reward this crew?

K. ANTHONY APPIAH teaches philosophy at Princeton. His new book, The Ethics of Identity, will be published in January.

RUSSELL BAKER is a former correspondent for The New York Times and the author of Looking Back, recently published in paperback.

IAN BURUMA’s most recent book is Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, coauthored with Avishai Margalit. He is Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College.

MARK DANNER’s new book, Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, will collect his recent pieces on Iraq in these pages, as well as the full texts of the recent official reports on American use of torture. It will be published later this month.

RONALD DWORKIN is a Professor at both NYU and University College, London.

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF is Director of the Carr Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School. His latest book is The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror.

ANTHONY LEWIS is a former columnist for The New York Times.

NORMAN MAILER’s latest book is Modest Gifts.

EDMUND S. MORGAN’s most recent book is The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America.

THOMAS POWERS is the author, most recently, of Intelligence Wars.

ALAN RYAN, Warden of New College, Oxford, has taught and written about democratic theory and practice since 1963.

BRIAN URQUHART is a former Undersecretary-General of the United Nations.

STEVEN WEINBERG, a winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, is the author of Glory and Terror: The Growing Nuclear Danger.

GARRY WILLS is Adjunct Professor of History at Northwestern and the author of the forthcoming Saint Augustine’s Conversion.



[1] For the view of a Gore lawyer on the Florida election controversy in 2000, and its ending in the Supreme Court, see the last chapter of Courting Justice, by David Boies, just published by Miramax Books.