by Eric Alterman
The Nation magazine, June
It may have the ring of cliché,
but America's next presidential election will be among the most
crucial events in contemporary history. Rarely in the modern era
has the world seen such unchecked power exercised so ignorantly,
arrogantly and with such profoundly counterproductive results
as the Bush Administration's bait-and-switch invasion of Iraq.
As Al Gore told an audience at NYU recently, "The unpleasant
truth is that President Bush's utter incompetence has made the
world a far more dangerous place and dramatically increased the
threat of . terrorism against the United States." The International
Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Gore noted, has reported
that the Iraq conflict "has arguably focused the energies
and resources of Al Qaeda and its followers while diluting those
of the global counterterrorism coalition." Al Qaeda now boasts
an army of more than 18,000 potential terrorists, with the Iraqi
war "swelling its ranks."
The horror is slowly dawning on everyday
Americans. In a recent ABC News / Washington Post poll, almost
three-fifths of the people questioned disapproved of Bush's handling
of the war- the highest level the survey has ever recorded. Meanwhile,
a CBS survey revealed that just about two-thirds of those asked
responded that the country was on "the wrong track,"
also the top level CBS has ever reached in the twenty years its
pollsters have been asking the question.
Yet John Kerry remains roughly even with
Bush in a straightahead matchup. There are many reasons for this.
The Massachusetts liberal comes across as stiff and uncharismatic,
and in America's personality-driven political culture, that matters
far more than it should. Bush, moreover, has spent far more money
on advertising than Kerry and has succeeded in casting him as
an opportunistic "flip-flopper" among people who believe
political ads. Much of the media, moreover, remain in thrall to
Bush, having embedded themselves in this Administration's flight
of ideological fancy and, like the New York Times's Judith Miller,
published its spoon-fed propaganda as gospel.
(Miller recently escaped any censure from
the Times for passing along untrue stories about Iraq's weapons
program, which is only fair, since it was the editors' job to
rein in her uncritical embrace of convicted embezzler and possible
Iranian spy Ahmad Chalabi. In a more recent example of the same
type of shameless shilling for the Bush Administration, CNN's
Kelli Arena reported "speculation that AI Qaeda believes
it has a better chance of winning in Iraq if John Kerry is in
the White House." This was arrant nonsense, as the IISS had
just reported that Al Qaeda was using Bush's Iraq invasion as
a recruiting tool, having been allowed to fully reconstitute itself
owing to this Administration's criminal neglect.)
Kerry's primary problem is that he has
so far failed to distinguish himself in a fundamental fashion
from Bush on the one issue that has destroyed the President's
credibility. Bush & Co. fooled Kerry into voting to give them
the authority to go to war back in 2002 on the basis of falsified
evidence and meaningless promises, and Kerry has found himself
in a straitjacket ever since. As the Los Angeles Times's excellent
Ron Brownstein notes, the Kerry campaign's foreign policy focus
is "less on criticizing the president's policies than on
questioning whether he could provide the international leadership
to implement them." Brownstein quotes a Democratic foreign
policy analyst worrying that "the best he will be able to
say is that Bush is finally doing what I said to do all along."
The election's dynamic is further complicated
by the unwelcome presence of political kamikaze bomber Ralph Nader.
whose uncured self-delusion is leading him once again to convert
the genuine idealism and narrow-minded narcissism of his supporters
into another victory for the reactionary Republican right. With
his hypercautious position on Iraq "measured," in the
opinion of the New York Times-Kerry risks leaving many of those
who rightly see the war as a catastrophe with nowhere to go to
express their outrage. As with the election of 1968, an increasingly
antiwar electorate is being offered only prowar choices for the
presidency. It is just possible, therefore, that Nader may once
again insure Bush's victory in the election, dooming the world
to four more years of a neoconservative imperialism and rogue
How can this be avoided? Quite easily,
if Kerry could only admit to the entire country what he told me
and a bunch of other reporters back in December in Al Franken's
living room: Like so much of the country-and its elite media-he
made a terrible mistake in trusting George W. Bush. He underestimated
both the fanaticism and incompetence of the President and his
advisers and their willingness to mislead the country into war.
He thought George Tenet's CIA reports were on the level. He imagined
Colin Powell was more than just window-dressing.
Today Kerry can stake his claim-together
with considerable political cover-alongside the truth-tellers
of the Bush era: people like John DiIulio, Paul O'Neill, Richard
Clarke, Joseph Wilson and generals Anthony Zinni and Eric Shinseki,
who have seen their characters and reputations attacked for the
sin of patriotism and professional responsibility. Without delving
into too much hand-tying detail, he could promise America to extricate
the nation from its hubristic Mesopotamian misadventure at the
earliest possible moment. He could assure Americans that he will
reunite our allies and the world community in an intelligent fight
against Islamic terrorists whose enemy is civilization everywhere.
He could reassure the nation that he will get America "back
It is a simple, understandable message
and one that is already implicitly endorsed by a majority of Americans.
Unless the Democratic nominee rethinks his commitment to this
neo(con nightmare soon, he risks inviting a second Nader/Bush
Administration unshackled from the need to seek re-election, thereby
unleashing its most belligerent and fanatical impulses.
God help us.