- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 6, 2004

The good news in Sen. John Kerry’s four-point Iraq plan is its goal to win, not lose, the war. The Democratic presidential candidate is not talking of “peace” as he did in 1971, as a function of a U.S. withdrawal that allowed the enemy to win in Vietnam. Instead, he is talking about an expanded war effort involving more allied troops and greater international financial support. He has also called for expanding the U.S. Army by two new combat divisions and doubling the number of special operations troops.

Sen. Joseph Biden, New Jersey Democrat, has said Mr. Kerry authorized him to tell visiting Prime Minister Iyad Allawi that if Mr. Kerry is elected, Iraq “will continue to have the full support of the United States of America in order to be able to establish a representative republic.” In the first debate, Mr. Kerry said: “I believe that we have to win this. The president and I have always agreed on that. And from the beginning, I did vote to give the authority, because I thought Saddam Hussein was a threat.” Thus, the Bush administration has won what could have been the most divisive argument in this campaign.

The left wants to see President George W. Bush turned out of office for having gone to war, and Mr. Kerry still has to play to this major constituency in his party. It is a core attribute of the left to see their own country as an unjust actor that deserves to fail. But there are also some in the center-right of the spectrum who want President Bush punished for botching the war effort. Most Americans want their country to be a success and will not tolerate failure. This is the sentiment at which Mr. Kerry’s plan aims.

The left has never been able to sway a majority of Americans to its defeatist outlook. No one understands this better than the Democratic Party establishment. They remember President Bush’s popularity was at its height when U.S. tanks advanced on Baghdad. They cut off Howard Dean at the knees to avoid a repeat of the 1972 landslide against antiwar candidate George McGovern.

What has given Mr. Kerry his chance is not just the failure of the Bush administration to plan for the immediate post-invasion period in Iraq, but its slow reaction to the insurgency.

Criticism of the Iraq campaign is not just a matter of hindsight. Iraq is bordered by Syria and Iran, two states hostile to U.S. policy with strong ties to terrorist groups. U.S. failure in Iraq is as imperative to Damascus and Tehran as to al Qaeda. If a liberated, democratic Iraq is to be the prototype for a modernizing Middle East, it should have been expected opponents of this model would seek to make Iraq the graveyard of such “imperialist” ideas.

Yet, when testifying before the House Armed Services Committee last February, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was still talking about reducing troop strength in the face of bipartisan congressional calls for more ground forces. “The increased demand on the force we are experiencing today is likely a ‘spike,’ driven by the deployment of nearly 115,000 troops in Iraq. We hope and anticipate that spike will be temporary.” The insurgencies that exploded soon after led instead to an increase in U.S. forces in Iraq. Yet, even 135,000 troops is a modest number — or should be for a nation with the United States’ size and wealth. Iraq has created such a strain on Army manpower and the budget because of bad planning, not any inherent American weakness.

The Bush administration has had three years since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, to rebuild the downsized military it inherited from the Clinton administration. It has stubbornly refused to do so. Not only is the Army stretched thin, but the Navy and Air Force continue to see their inventories of warships and aircraft shrink.

The vigor Mr. Rumsfeld put behind the drive on Baghdad has been lacking in fighting the insurgency. The pull back from Fallujah last April was an unimaginable strategic blunder. Marines, backed by Army tanks and precision air strikes, had proven their superiority over the ragtag militia of Ba’ath loyalists, Islamic extremists and al Qaeda terrorists. The U.S. retreat gave the insurgents what they needed most, confidence America was a paper tiger.

The same mistake has been made repeatedly with Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. American casualties have been heaviest when on the defensive, as convoys are ambushed and facilities bombed by enemies operating from sanctuaries U.S. inaction has tolerated.

Polls show the public evenly divided on how well the war is going. President Bush still holds a lead on the question of who can best handle national security issues. Mr. Kerry’s dovish record in the Senate undermines his credibility. He claimed in the first debate it “was necessary to transfer authority and to transfer reconstruction” to the United Nations after the fall of Baghdad. But that would have been a recipe for instant disaster. He seems to forget the U.N. set up a mission in Iraq, only to run away after its first terrorist attack.

The ball is in the president’s court. The new offensive spirit shown in Samarra must be expanded to convey to any doubters that the Bush administration has a real plan to crush the insurgency and will carry it out.

William Hawkins is senior fellow for national security studies at the U.S. Business and Industry Council.

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