The great Iraq debate
Two men, two views. This week, finally, they get to go head to head
For a supposedly impromptu debate, this one has already been almost totally scripted. The two sides have dickered over just about everything--a rule preventing candidates from quizzing each other directly, the height of the podiums, you name it. When President Bush and Sen. John Kerry walk onto the stage at the University of Miami in Coral Gables on Thursday, they will even know what kind of pen and notepad they can use. The scripted cordiality even extends as far as the opening-bell handshake. All that's left is what the two men will actually say.
The one thing that's certain is that the subject of Iraq will be front and center. It has been several decades, really going back to Vietnam, since world affairs cast such a long shadow over an American election--and much, much longer since a formal debate on foreign policy has been such a pivotal event in the race for the White House. After months of shadow boxing, the stakes are especially high for Kerry. The debates could well be his best--and perhaps final--chance to reverse his weeks-long slide in the polls.
But the volatility in Iraq makes the issue a gamble for both candidates. The beheadings of two American contractors last week by the most wanted men in Iraq (story, Page 30) were a grisly reminder of the potential for an October surprise that could yet sway this election--in either direction. For Bush, the run-up to the debate was a chance to claim some of the perks of incumbency, starting with his address before the United Nations General Assembly. His appearance afterward in the Rose Garden alongside an Iraqi prime minister who paid homage to his administration was a welcome coda. "I thank you, Mr. President, for your determination to stand firm with us in Iraq," Ayad Allawi told a joint press conference. At the same time, the surging violence in Iraq's festering insurgency has only sharpened Kerry's attack. Accusing Bush of "lecturing" rather than leading at the United Nations, Kerry charged that Bush is living in "fantasyland" and "does not have the credibility to lead the world."
Defining the war. Pivotal, perhaps, will be whether voters believe Bush's contention that Iraq is "central" to the war on terrorism or Kerry's case that it has been a "profound diversion" from the pursuit of Osama bin Laden. "The two sides are taking diametrically opposed views of where we're at and where we're headed," says Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University. "The issue is starting to revolve around which team has the better chance of getting a reasonable outcome." Kerry has developed a detailed critique of Bush's handling of the postwar period that runs from failing to send enough troops to prevent looting to failing to plan for the complex reconstruction in the aftermath. His bottom line: "We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure." Which, in turn, has given Bush an opening to accuse Kerry repeatedly (if inaccurately) of believing "America would be better off with Saddam Hussein in power."