Certainty and debate

September 30, 2004

PRESIDENT BUSH exhibits a moral certitude toward the war in Iraq, and it serves him well. If the war is about fighting "evil," it doesn't much matter what the evil looks like; it could be found in weapons of mass destruction or dictators' torture chambers or fanatic beheaders or roadside bombers. If evil is the target, Iraq must surely be the right place to fight it, because there's plenty of it there.

The president strips aside the little things, and concentrates on the one big thing -- what we advisedly would call the American crusade in the Middle East. Maybe it's this distinctive quality that allows him to perceive success blossoming in Iraq -- even though the press, the secretary of state and many of the officers in his own military paint a dark picture of spreading rebellion and hatred, while government consultants and CIA analysts say that dark picture is actually too rosy by half.

Mr. Bush and Sen. John Kerry hold their first debate tonight, and the topic is terror and security. Look for the president to be unshaken. Plenty of Americans have qualms about Iraq, yet his confidence -- bordering on righteousness -- seems to play very well, if the polls are accurate. In troubled times, he looks like a leader.

This is the task, then, for those, such as Mr. Kerry, who argue that the war was a colossal mistake: to make it as clear as possible that the little things do matter. Fighting evil, establishing democracy, building freedom -- all of these are fine and noble goals, and unarguable. But a country can have exemplary objectives and yet pursue them in a misguided and self-defeating way. Good ideals don't necessarily make for good tactics, and this is the point.

The United States is in a fix in Iraq because Mr. Bush decided to pick a fight there, and his administration's unbroken record of mistakes just makes things worse and worse. Attacks by insurgents have increased all summer, and since June each month's death toll of Americans has been greater than the one before. Rebellion is not confined to a few cities, but is widespread. Entire cities are out of American control, and there are strong indications that the military plans to launch offensives to recapture them sometime in November -- offensives that are sure to be difficult, inflammatory and bloody.

A rational person would look at Iraq and see that the fury unleashed there makes the country more dangerous today -- more dangerous to America itself -- than it ever was before. Mr. Bush dismisses that as pessimism and argues that if Americans just stick to it they'll build a safer world. He may be speaking out of genuine conviction. But if so, that says more about his obliviousness to reality than it does about the likelihood of a successful conclusion to the Iraq project.

If Mr. Kerry is to succeed tonight, he has to make the distinction clear -- the distinction between what Mr. Bush says is happening and what in fact is the ugly deterioration of Iraq. Mr. Bush's certitude is appealing, but unfounded; can Mr. Kerry connect the dots for his audience?

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