- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

The opening salvos of the 2004 elections were fired in the Iowa caucuses on Monday and in the Capitol rotunda last night with the president’s State of the Union address. Current polling indicates that President Bush’s handling of foreign policy in Iraq and the war on terror are generally supported by the public. It is at home where polls show the presidentis most vulnerable. But, as the Iowa caucuses again remind us, polls “ain’t always right.”

Despite the reality that foreignpolicy rarely sways the electorate, foreign policy could prove to be the president’s undoing. The issue is Mr. Bush’s geostrategic vision for the greater Middle East. So far, this vision has been obscured by the controversy surrounding how the administration made the case for war in Iraq, failure to find Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and a postwar transition that has not gone as the administration planned.

The Bush administration went to war for several reasons. The most powerful reason was the belief that bringing democracy to Iraq would transform the strategic landscape of the greater Middle East, making it more stable and peaceful, while also striking a decisive blow against terrorism. Hence, democratizing Iraq was a vital strategic interest in itself beyond removing the threat of Saddam.

The administration saw this as a unique strategic opportunity and a calculated risk worth taking. The bet was that democracy in Iraq would spread, changing the Middle East for the better. The risk was that this aim could prove unworkable and explode in our face. Rather than contain the terror, failure in Iraq could have the opposite effect. A future Iraq, fractured among Shia, Sunni and Kurdish factions, would be only one of the problems. An invigorated al Qaeda — with its sights set on toppling Pakistan and Saudi Arabia — is a more frightening prospect.

The president promised that the United States would stay the course in Iraq in what is likely to be “a long, hard slog.” None of the viable Democratic candidates has advocated abandoning the commitment to rebuild Iraq. No clear policy alternative has emerged, and the contenders prefer to rest judgment and criticism on how well, or badly, the occupation is proceeding, rather than on the basis of the larger geostrategic vision.

If successful in implementing this vision, the Bush administration will have advanced the interests and security of the United States as much as any presidency in history. This would be an extraordinary achievement. If it fails, the downside could be of Vietnam proportion, but with profoundly more negative strategic consequences. For the time being, the administration seems set on this path. The public is largely unaware of the stakes involved, and foreign policy is not the dominant issue that carries elections.

Taxes, health care and other domestic issues so important to voters supercede it. Foreign policy is always a tough electoral sale. In 1940, with war raging in Europe and China, that election turned on post-Depression economic recovery and whether voters would return Franklin Roosevelt for an unprecedented third term as president. In 1952, beyond the pledge to go to Korea and end that war, it was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s immense popularity that carried him to victory.

In 1972, Richard Nixon’s rout of Sen. George McGovern had little to do with the momentous decision to open a strategic dialogue with Red China as leverage against the Soviet Union. In 1980, double-digit inflation and interest rates, rather than the Iranian revolution and seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan, defeated Jimmy Carter. In 1992, the geostrategic consequences of winning the Cold War and the first Gulf War did not give the first President Bush a second term. Ross Perot’s 19 percent of the vote was a far more decisive factor.

The battle for the presidency will predictably move to more politically digestible national security questions aimed at chipping away at the president’s public support. Are Americans safer and securer? Has the United States placed too little attention on the global war on terror by concentrating on Iraq? Did intelligence fail, was it manipulated and how do we fix it? What happened to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction? Was Saddam linked to al Qaeda? Where is Osama bin Laden? And does constantly raising and lowering threat levels at home prevent new attacks? These are important questions. They are not crucial.

2004 is not 1940, 1952, 1972, 1980 or 1992. Ironically, it may prove closer to 1860, the year before the Civil War started, if the danger posed by Islamic radicals and extremists is as grave as many knowledgeable observers fear. Under these circumstances, the old Clinton economic war cry applies in different form. “It’s foreign policy, stupid!” and it must be taken seriously.

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