Bush, Kerry differ on war only in degree of delusion

April 30, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - The good news for opponents of the war in Iraq is that President Bush's challenger has finally called for a rapid American withdrawal.

"Every day the U.S. military remains in Iraq," he said, "we imperil U.S. security, drain our economy, ignore our nation's domestic needs and prevent democratic self-rule from developing in Iraq."

The bad news is that the challenger's name is Ralph Nader.

John Kerry, by contrast, sounds as though he thinks the only thing worse than making a mistake is correcting it. He recently asserted his fervent view that "we cannot fail. I've said that many times. And if it requires more troops in order to create the stability that eliminates the chaos, that can provide the groundwork for other countries, that's what you have to do."

That's right: more troops. Apparently he is determined to prove to Mr. Nader and millions of other disenchanted Americans that there really is no difference between Democrats and Republicans.

His Senate colleague, Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, takes heart in the essential uniformity of the two parties. In a speech Tuesday, he said Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry agree on the crucial things - that "America cannot cut and run," that "we should send more troops" and that we should solicit "greater involvement in Iraq from the international community."

Mr. Lieberman warned that any internal dissent on the war only demoralizes our troops and encourages our enemies.

What is probably more demoralizing to our soldiers is the prospect of dying in a war that we lack the resources, the will and the formula to win.

It was probably too much to hope that Mr. Kerry would take a strong stand against this war, since he lacked the nerve to vote against giving the president the authority to start it. But his latest position is even worse than might have been expected. Besides the similarities noted by Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Kerry shares something basic with Mr. Bush on this issue: an adamant refusal to face reality.

How does he plan to cope with the smoking debacle created by the administration? "I will return to the U.N., and I will literally, formally rejoin the community of nations," he said. Giving more authority to the United Nations in Iraq, he says, is "a prerequisite to bringing other countries to the table."

Iraq is sliding out of control, and he thinks other governments can be induced to share our burden? Internationalizing the occupation might have been possible before the invasion, or shortly afterward. But thanks to the expanding chaos, we can't even keep the foreign troops we've got there now. We might as well ask the United Nations to assume our national debt.

Not that Mr. Bush has any more of a clue. He continues to pretend that slogans and swagger can overcome a nationalist uprising in a country where our presence is resented more and more all the time.

In recent weeks, the U.S. occupation authority has managed to turn the once-quiescent Shiites against us, pushing them into an alliance with their longtime Sunni rivals. Even the head of our hand-picked Iraqi Governing Council, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, said this week that the American troops are no longer "an army of liberation" but "an army of occupation."

The administration has a habit of basing its plan on political concerns rather than military needs, but military needs sometimes push their way to the forefront. Instead of reducing troop strength before the election, as he hoped, Mr. Bush has had to keep some units in Iraq long after they were supposed to come home.

Some conservatives grasp the magnitude of the task. The Weekly Standard magazine editorialized recently that 30,000 more troops "are needed just to deal with the current crisis. Even more troops may well be needed to fully pacify the country."

More troops might help, but more troops are extremely hard to come by. Given its other missions - in Afghanistan, Korea, Bosnia, Haiti and elsewhere - the American military is simply not big enough to sustain an extended occupation on this scale.

So here's the predicament: We can't manage an increasingly turbulent Iraq with the forces we have. We don't have many extra troops to send. We can't turn over security to Iraqis because they can't be trusted. We can't get other countries to help us out. And things keep getting worse.

But the option of leaving is thinkable only to fringe candidates such as Mr. Nader. Democrats and Republicans agree that we have to go on squandering American lives because we don't know what else to do.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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