September 21, 2004

AMID GROWING calls for redirection on the war in Iraq - a few even from President Bush's fellow Republicans - Democratic challenger John Kerry has offered some suggestions that rely heavily on the international community.

The president could begin today with his appearance before the U.N. General Assembly on a recruitment mission to persuade old friends and allies to assist in any way they can, but particularly, Mr. Kerry said, in providing security to ensure that Iraq's first democratic elections can be held on schedule next year.

The challenger acknowledged the steps he recommended would be very difficult for Mr. Bush to achieve, given that he launched the Iraq war over the objection of many of these friends and allies. Even so, the president has little choice but to try to broaden the scope of commitment to establishing peace in Iraq, Mr. Kerry said, or face the prospect of "war with no end in sight."

Mr. Kerry's recommendations were intended, of course, more for the benefit of campaign debate than actual advice to the president. They are, nonetheless, worthy of thoughtful consideration.

Thus, it was dismaying that the Bush campaign dismissed them out of hand, and particularly so that it chose instead to belittle Mr. Kerry's goal of withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq within four years as "a clear signal of defeat and retreat to America's enemies."

Is four years too soon to hope for? Does setting a goal for departure create the same dynamic as a definite deadline? Are we to believe an administration that once bristled at the word "quagmire" is now resigned to that status for Iraq as inevitable?

If so, all the more reason to be getting about the business of trying to bring order there as quickly as possible.

Mr. Kerry's proposal for using the Iraqi elections as a focus for international cooperation and commitment is one Mr. Bush could carry off. Now, when U.N. officials are beginning to express doubts about the election timetable, the moment is ripe for the president to make an impassioned appeal to ensure that democracy not be delayed.

The effort would require ramped-up training of Iraqi security forces - with international assistance to protect polling places - but that would reinforce the ability of Iraq's new government to stand on its own.

Another Kerry proposal, that reconstruction contracts be written so that a larger share of the profits go to Iraqis instead of U.S. and other foreign contractors, also makes great sense and could be achieved relatively quickly.

So much of the campaign rhetoric over Iraq has centered on which candidate said or did what when - and which exudes the most reassuring level of confidence - that debate over critical questions surrounding management of the war is all but drowned out.

Voters should be demanding better. The election will be over in a couple of months, but the war in Iraq, it seems, may go on forever.

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