Sunday, September 19, 2004

Election 2004 (Issue #6b - Assessing the “War on Terror”- Where do we go from here?)

Part one of this two-part series provided a general assessment of the Bush Administration’s policies with regard to the world’s terrorist “hotspots.” The record is mixed, with successes in some areas offset by glaring failures in North Korea, Israel-Palestine, and perhaps now Iraq. Playing armchair quarterback, however, is always easy and we do not have a record of what a president Gore might have done differently. Nonetheless, whoever wins the presidency on November 2nd will be faced with grave challenges. This article is devoted to what the candidates intend to do (or not do). A large portion of the information for this piece was gleaned from the candidates’ websites.

1. Iraq

Bush’s plans: Just this week the Bush administration decided to shift more than $3 billion in money marked for reconstruction towards security, in an apparent admission that the security situation has worsened over the last two months. There is also talk of a major offensive in the areas surrounding Baghdad, which are now almost entirely under the control of the insurgents. With respect to the longer-term, the administration still believes that elections will be held in January and that this will help to legitimize the current government. The administration also continues to point to the training of new Iraqi police and army officers as part of their solution to stabilize the country.

Assessment: Whether you supported the war or not, there is no doubt that things have not gone as planned. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” stunt in May 2003 was probably the worst moment of his presidency. With the insurgents gaining strength there is a recognition that additional major combat operations will be necessary to defeat them, and that this may end up alienating a larger portion of the civilian population if civilian casualties are high. The U.S. is in a very tough spot with few good options. The Bush administration is committed to “staying the course” and I suspect this means that their threshold for U.S. casualties is high and that they are committed to crushing the insurgency and trying to establish some sort of stable civil society. Whether their strategy will work no one knows, but we can be sure that they will not “cut and run” anytime soon.

Kerry’s plans: Kerry has recently honed his critique of the Bush administration’s failures in Iraq, but he has not offered much in the way of new ideas. He stresses that he will be able to secure additional help from our allies to both finance Iraqi reconstruction and to help train Iraq’s new military. He has also pledged to “stay the course,” recognizing that a failed state in Iraq would be become yet another breeding ground for terrorists.

Assessment: Although at first glance Kerry’s lack of additional insight into the Iraqi situation makes it seems as if he is skirting the issue, the reality is that if he wins in November he won’t have many additional options. Also, it is reasonable to suppose that many of our estranged allies might show their support for a new U.S. president by making additional commitments to the Iraq project. What many on the hawkish side fear is that Kerry will “cut and run,” and they point to his recent statement that he might be able to reduce U.S. troops by the end of his first term. There is nothing in any of Kerry’s speeches to suggest that he will exit Iraq before we have established stability, but it is true that perhaps his tolerance for U.S. casualties is lower than Bush’s. This means that if things were to get much worse for a prolonged period Kerry might be willing to contemplate an early exit. I think, however, that this is unlikely.

2. Iran

Bush’s plans: The Bush Administration continues to pressure the U.N. to find that Iran is in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but has been stymied in its efforts by many of the same European nations who opposed our invasion of Iraq. Recently, the Undersecretary of Defense stated that the administration has not ruled out military force for dealing with Iran.

Assessment: If the U.S. receives credible evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons in defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency it seems entirely possible that the Bush administration might authorize air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. (It is important to note that the administration’s desire to develop a new round of “tactical” nuclear weapons is also in violation of the non-proliferation treaty, and jeopardizes our credibility.)

Kerry’s plans: Again, much of Kerry’s rhetoric revolves around re-building U.S.-European relations and then bringing this unified front to bear on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Kerry has not stated specifically whether military force is an option for dealing with Iran.

Assessment: It is likely that a president Kerry would be faced with a belligerent Iran intent on developing nuclear weapons, and that international pressure might not be sufficient to prevent it. There is nothing to suggest that Kerry would not use force against Iran. This is a question that should be asked of him during the debates. Although Kerry voted against the gulf war, and protested against the Vietnam War upon his return, people who think he will be a dove if elected are mistaken. He may, in fact, choose to use strong arm tactics against Iran to “prove” that he is truly cracking down on the proliferation of WMD. Remember, if elected he will want to be re-elected in 2008.

3. North Korea

Bush’s plans: With reports of a massive (possibly nuclear) explosion in North Korea last week, we have once again been reminded of the danger this country represents. The Bush administration’s policy is to try to get North Korea to agree on a multi-lateral agreement to stop its nuclear program, involving the major nations in the region, including China, Japan, and South Korea. Although this approach has not produced any beneficial results the Administration continue to state that this is the direction it intends to pursue.

Assessment: Military options against North Korea are essentially non-starters since the death toll would be catastrophic. North Korea wants direct bi-lateral negations with the U.S., including a non-aggression pact, and this may ultimately be the “lesser of evils.” It remains to be seen whether the Bush administration is willing to make this compromise given their staunch refusal to engage directly with North Korea up until this point.

Kerry’s plans: Kerry states that a top priority would be negotiations with North Korea, which presumably could include bi-lateral talks.

Assessment: Unlike Bush, Kerry has not staked out an extreme position against bi-lateral negotiations and therefore he could engage in them without losing face. It is reasonable to assume that if he becomes president we will quickly enter high-level negotiations with North Korea. Bottom line: Bi-lateral negotiations with North Korea may be seen by some as a sign of weakness, or even negotiating with “the axis of evil,” but the Bush approach has done nothing but allow North Korea to become more of a threat.

4. Afghanistan

Bush’s plans: The Bush administration is already receiving criticism for supposedly pressuring the Afghan government to hold their first elections before November 2nd in order to score political points here at home. Elections have already been delayed once, and there is widespread fear that the country is still not ready. If the elections are held and are marred by violence, they may not be considered legitimate. The administration continues to say that it will help to stabilize the country and rebuild it, but it has been three years and many U.S. promises have not been fulfilled. Bush has not signaled any plans to significantly increase the long-term U.S. troop presence (about 1,100 additional troops are being sent to protect the elections) or to help secure the large areas of the country controlled by warlords and the resurgent Taliban. On the positive side, Afghanis have expressed a strong desire to take part in the democratic process as millions have registered to vote, including women.

Assessment: Sadly, Afghanistan has faded into the background now that Iraq is on the front burner, and the Bush Administration seems content to sit back and let the country remain in a state in which the central government’s influence is largely confined to the capital Kabul. The drug trade has grown dramatically, reconstruction efforts are stalled, and the administration “forgot” to include any money for Afghanistan in its 2003 budget.

Kerry’s plans: Kerry says that he wants to fulfill our promises to Afghanistan, fight the growing drug trade that is fueling the warlords, and increase NATO’s presence in the country. He appears to be sincere in his belief that we have serious obligations to the country that have yet to be met.

Assessment: Our neglect of Afghanistan is a disgrace. The country is better off than under the Taliban, but given all that the Afghan people have suffered they deserve a greater effort on our part, as well as resources. It is hard to imagine Kerry’s commitment being any weaker than Bush’s.

5. Israel-Palestine

Bush’s plans: The President seems not to have any concrete plans. With the Bush “roadmap to peace” all but dead, the administration is content to let Sharon continue his “unilateral withdrawal” and do essentially whatever he likes. Bush wants to isolate Arafat since he has proven to be almost impossible to negotiate with. Bush also believes that the Iraq War will change the dynamics of the region and make peace easier in the long-term.

Assessment: Many argue that as long as Yassir Arafat remains in power there is no hope for peace in this region. Unfortunately, the perceived U.S. indifference to the plight of the Palestinians and our unflinching support of Sharon is a large factor in the anti-U.S. sentiment that continues to fuel terrorism.

Kerry’s plans: Kerry seems not to have any significant plans, either. However, when questioned months ago about U.S.-Israel relations, Kerry hinted that the U.S. could take a tougher stance with Sharon and that we need not pay deference to everything Israel does.

Assessment: This region of the world has plagued U.S. presidents for decades and there is nothing to suggest that Kerry would have much better luck than any others. However, if he could truly engage Sharon in a more critical manner, it would probably be in our long-term interests. For example, if we could get him to stop expanding the settlements, that might win us a few friends.


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