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Not Much Choice in Plans for Iraq

Times Staff Writers

No single campaign issue has defined the presidential candidates’ differences more clearly than the war in Iraq. Yet it seems that whoever wins Tuesday’s election will steer a remarkably similar course in the troubled country.

Despite their passionate debate on the issue, President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry, offer plans for Iraq that substantially overlap. Both are committed to stepping up the pace of training a new Iraqi security force, holding national elections quickly and broadening international military support for the effort.

The reason for the like-minded strategies isn’t hard to find: The bleak realities that define conditions in Iraq, and the political climate surrounding the conflict leave little room for either candidate to move in a bold new direction.

“Both will follow the same strategy,” predicted Gary Samore, director of studies at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London and a National Security Council aide in the Clinton administration. “They will try to cobble together a new Iraqi government, build up Iraqi security forces and then begin to draw down U.S. forces.”

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With little dividing the candidates’ proposed strategies or goals, the debate has been dominated by differences in style and character.

Kerry has cast Bush as a hard-edged unilateralist whose actions have made it impossible for him to achieve key elements of his plan for Iraq. Bush sketches Kerry as a man who lacks the strength and leadership skills to make the tough decisions at hand.

The debate has also focused heavily on the past -- on Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and his handling of the violent aftermath.

“One of the ultimate paradoxes of this campaign is that the subject that so greatly divides the nation and is the source of such differences between the two candidates doesn’t point to a different path in the future,” said Thomas Carothers, a senior associate and director of the Democracy and Rule of Law project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This is a huge debate, but it is about the past, not the future.”

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As such, the choice on Iraq facing voters Tuesday is far more nuanced than the stark options presented to the country 32 years ago -- the last time America’s military involvement in a far-off nation so dominated a presidential campaign. In that election, an America deeply divided over the war in Vietnam opted overwhelmingly for Richard Nixon’s call for a negotiated “peace with honor” in Vietnam over George McGovern’s pledge to pull troops out immediately.

For Iraq, such alternatives are not part of the debate. Neither Bush nor Kerry advocates a sharp buildup or an immediate drawdown of U.S. military forces as the key to a solution in Iraq, because neither course is deemed viable. With nine of the U.S. Army’s 10 combat divisions either having been deployed to Iraq or preparing to go, military analysts said, American force levels are stretched too thin to contemplate significantly higher numbers.

Conversely, a sudden withdrawal of forces could undermine the struggling U.S.-backed interim Iraqi government, plunge the country into a civil war and destabilize the Middle East.

Although Bush accuses his opponent of wanting to “cut and run” in Iraq, Kerry has talked of an orderly drawdown of forces only after more troops from other nations could be brought in to share a burden that -- as he is quick to assert -- has left the United States with 90% of the forces and 90% of the casualties.

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But political analysts in potential troop donor countries question Kerry’s ability to achieve even this modest goal.

“I don’t think there’s a hope of the Germans or French putting soldiers into combat positions in Iraq,” said Frederick Bonnart, a Brussels-based expert on NATO. “No German government ... is capable of overcoming parliamentary opposition to this idea, so it wouldn’t even try. In France, the reasons are different -- anti-Americanism -- but the result is the same.”

Many analysts, however, believe Kerry could be more effective in winning some support.

“Troops, no, but money, equipment, help with training and reconstruction? It’s conceivable,” Samore said. “This won’t solve the problem, but it will help.”

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Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East specialist at the Nixon Center, an independent Washington-based think tank, also believes foreign governments could be more receptive to a Kerry request for help because he wasn’t the leader who took the United States into the war.

“That’s his edge, but whether he can exploit it is another question,” Kemp said.

Bush administration officials noted a recent agreement by NATO to assist in training Iraqi military forces and the deployment of almost 3,000 South Korean troops to northern Iraq. They argue that there is little more Kerry could do to share the burden.

“When you talk about an international coalition and you cross out the Germans and French, there’s not a whole lot left,” said a senior Bush administration official who declined to be identified.

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Despite the recent escalation of violence in Iraq, both candidates remain committed to holding a national election for a 250-seat national parliament as planned on Jan. 31. But any decision to delay that vote apparently would lie more with the country’s powerful Shiite religious leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, than the American president or the interim government in Baghdad.

With such limited alternatives, the political debate often turns on the interpretation of events in Iraq, rather than the events themselves. Bush calls the conflict in Iraq an essential battle in the administration’s war on terrorism that is hard work but is gradually being won.

“I think security conditions are improving,” a senior administration official said Friday.

Kerry contends that the president is in denial about the disaster unfolding there.

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A recent string of atrocities and assassinations, and simmering questions about possible mishandling of caches of explosives in the invasion’s aftermath have left Bush fighting to counter the bad news from the region.

The insurgents’ reach is widening, and brutality against Iraqis as well as Westerners is mounting. The main population centers of Al Anbar province -- Fallouja and Ramadi -- are virtually under insurgent control. The roads leading west to Jordan and south to Kuwait are often too dangerous to travel. More than 150 foreigners have been kidnapped since the spring. Of those, about a third have been killed.

There has been a sharp increase in the last six weeks in assassinations of low-level Iraqi government officials, apparently part of an effort to scare off anyone working with the interim government.

Attacks on Iraqi police and national guard members have begun to take the form of mass executions. A week ago, about 50 Iraqis in the national guard were shot execution-style. A video released Friday showed the executions of 11 national guardsmen. And the deaths of U.S. troops continue, with nine Marines killed Saturday in a car-bomb ambush near Fallouja.

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The violence usually overshadows gains such as ending Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and establishing a multiethnic interim government.

There is evidence -- at least among undecided voters -- that the chaos has begun to work against the president.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center in Washington, said that a recent survey of 500 swing voters who were undecided in early September found that those who since have committed to Kerry were thinking more about Iraq than those who moved to Bush.

Still, experts say that whoever wins will have little room to maneuver in the short term.

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“There are no attractive alternatives to what’s going on now,” Samore said. “There are just not very many good options.”

Marshall reported from Washington and Rubin from Baghdad. Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.


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