Kerry’s Shaky Take on the War

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Now that he’s decided to close the campaign as Howard-Dean-with-a-Silver-Star, John Kerry is claiming that the war he voted to authorize in Iraq is a “profound diversion” from the things that really matter -- Al Qaeda, Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, even an alleged lack of firehouses in the United States. The implication is that if only we hadn’t gotten involved in Iraq, the rest of the world would be in much better shape. This is a highly debatable proposition, and it is an area where President Bush should try to pin down his slippery adversary.

Part of what Kerry says is sheer demagoguery. He castigates Bush for spending $200 billion (actually $130 billion, but who’s counting?) in Iraq and not spending it at home for schools, healthcare, firefighters and no doubt free treats for good little girls and boys. Yet in the next breath, Kerry attacks Bush for being profligate, period. Which is it? Is Bush spending too much or too little? It’s hard to believe Kerry is serious in any case; this is merely pandering to leftist isolationism.

Kerry is on firmer ground when he suggests that Bush has allowed “the urgent nuclear dangers in North Korea and Iran ... to mount on his presidential watch.” True, and if one advocated a get-tough policy with Pyongyang and Tehran, the fact that 130,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq might be an impediment. (Or they might help boost the pressure on next-door Iran.) But Kerry doesn’t advocate such a policy. He wants to sign a generous deal that would pay these rogue states not to produce nukes. Appeasement hardly requires military muscle.


What of Kerry’s claim that Bush was so focused on Iraq that he let Al Qaeda run wild? Actually, two-thirds of Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has been caught or killed. And the U.S. is getting more cooperation in fighting terrorism now than it did before 9/11, even from states that aren’t fans of the Iraq war. Look at the big roundups of Al Qaeda suspects recently in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. As French Arabist Gilles Kepel argues in a new book, the jihadists are losing their war to gain control of the Muslim world.

It’s true that Osama bin Laden hasn’t been caught, but it’s far from clear that this is due to a lack of trying. NATO forces have been searching Bosnia for war crimes suspects Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic since 1995 and still haven’t found them. For that matter, Eric Rudolph, the prime suspect in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing, was arrested only last year -- and he was hiding on U.S. soil. Kerry is on really weak ground when he suggests that Bush’s focus on Iraq has worsened the situation in Afghanistan. This may have seemed plausible amid the gloom-and-doom reporting of a year or two ago, but recent news is largely positive.

Though Human Rights Watch this week warned of continuing violence and instability, this hasn’t stopped millions of Afghans from registering to vote in the Oct. 9 elections. President Hamid Karzai has sidelined two noxious warlords, Ismail Khan and Muhammed Qassim Fahim. The Afghan army is growing in size and effectiveness. NATO troops are patrolling Kabul and expanding into the provinces. In an Asia Foundation poll, two-thirds of Afghans said the country was moving in the right direction.

All this progress may be occurring not despite our troubles in Iraq but because of them. If jihadists weren’t attacking U.S. forces in Iraq they would probably be throwing more energy into attacking them in Afghanistan.

Also, if the U.S. didn’t have all those troops in Iraq, it would be tempted to send more than the present commitment of 18,000 soldiers to Afghanistan. A greater U.S. presence could help fuel a nationalist backlash and result in greater casualties, as has occurred in parts of Iraq. The Bush administration may have stumbled onto the best strategy for Afghanistan -- a low-key, long-term commitment that relies primarily on building indigenous security forces rather than supplying them ourselves.

In a way, of course, all this is beside the point. Whether or not Iraq was central to the war on terrorism before the U.S.-led invasion -- a point on which reasonable people can differ -- there is no question that it is central today. British Prime Minister Tony Blair (a non-veteran with more political courage in his pinkie than Kerry has in his whole body) puts it well: “I can understand why people still have a powerful disagreement about the original decision to go to war, but whatever that disagreement, surely now it is absolutely clear we have to stay and see it through. Because the consequence of not doing so is that global terrorism will get a tremendous boost.” Bush understands that. Does Kerry?