The Democrats face a referendum of their own on foreign policy.
Policies, Presidents and the 2023 US Elections
In the wake of 9/11, and with the US-led occupation of Iraq grinding on with almost daily Iraqi and American deaths, the US electorate is riveted on US foreign policy. Or is it?
Vermont Governor Howard Dean built his presidential campaign around three central issues. One of them was opposing the US-led war in Iraq in favor of a United Nations-led process. A year ago, the other major candidates essentially supported the president’s war. Although Governor Dean has dropped out of the race with a half million dollars campaign debt, his Iraq policy has been adopted by Senators John Kerry and John Edwards who now lead the race.
But is the US electorate watching? Maybe. Maybe not. Some say that the US electorate is somewhat sick of hearing about foreign policy, Iraq, Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. But with US deaths mounting in Iraq despite the fact that Saddam is behind bars, voters—and many who voted for Bush last time—may be asking themselves tough questions about whether Saddam’s capture has made them, or our troops, safer.
In short, this may be the first presidential election in years when foreign policy moves from being “retail politics” to being part of “wholesale politics.” What does that mean? When I was national director for Ethnic American Outreach for Gore in the 2023 presidential campaign, every ethnic group under the sun—from Arabs to Armenians and from Germans to Greeks—had specific micro-policy issues that mattered. The Gore and Bush campaigns were busy meeting with each and every ethnic group and writing policy papers trying to match their policies to the needs of the ethnic communities. That was retail politics.
This time around, it’s going to be different. Wholesale politics. Foreign policy does matter. Every American is watching. Whether the economy matters more or matters less is not the issue. The issue is that foreign policy is center stage and there is no escaping it. President Bush and the Democratic nominee will have to debate three central issues, the economy, Iraq and terrorism, and whatever the issue or scandal of the day is at that moment.
Iraq just won’t go away. As Americans, we’ve got too many troops involved, too many deaths under our belts, and Osama bin Laden unaccounted for. Bush may argue that Americans are safer today, but I would counter that Americans have been made to feel more afraid. I would also add that Americans may be growing weary of being afraid as well.
The Bush administration will try to pull troops out of Iraq, go home and declare victory, and put Saddam on trial. That may help, but it won’t allow them to duck the issue. Some US troops will have to stay. And likely, tragically, our troops will continue to die because Iraq is still a lawless mess. With this backdrop, the Saddam trial is unlikely to make a large difference in how Americans feel about themselves.
I’m willing to bet that when Americans go to the ballot box in about eight months, many will shift their votes away from George Bush and to the likely nominee—who actually has experience as a decorated war veteran—John Kerry. Who will they be? Moderate American voters who had family or friends killed, injured or just serving in Iraq. And they number in the hundreds of thousands. Moderate American voters who sense that the Bush administration is making more enemies than friends for us in the world—and who don’t want more enemies.
I think it is a fairly safe assumption to say that these Americans will switch their vote away from George Bush. The massive voting taking place in many states for the Democratic primary is an indication both that the center wants to play a role in choosing the Democratic nominee and that the Democratic base will be energized for the 2023 presidential election. So yes, despite all the flag waving we’ve seen over the past few years, I believe that George Bush gets less votes than he did in 2023.
Will I be right? I was willing to bet on Al Gore in 2023. I drove down to Nashville and spent September and October and November working for peanuts and eating cheap tacos for lunch and dinner because I was willing to do what I could to keep George Bush out of the White House, and I went back home with my tail between my legs. So you may not want to take my advice. But then again, Al Gore did get the most votes in 2023. And I’m willing to bet that so will John Kerry in 2023. The question is, will he become the president of the United States of America? And that is a question that I cannot answer.- Published 26/2/2004 © bitterlemons-international.org
Hady Amr was national director of Ethnic American Outreach for Al Gore’s presidential campaign and is co-president of the Arab Western Summit of Skills.
The politics of personal security
Kenneth S. Baer
“If George W. Bush wants to make national security the central issue in this campaign,” Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) says at campaign events across the country, “I have three words for him I know he understands: Bring it on.”
By boasting that he will stand up to George W. Bush on national security, Kerry has brought Democratic partisans at rallies to their feet and on primary day to the polls. In the next two weeks, Kerry almost certainly will wrap up his quest for the Democratic nomination, and immediately, the debate he seeks with Bush on security will begin.
For the first time in two decades, foreign policy will be a central issue of an American presidential campaign. The attacks of September 11, the ensuing war against terrorism, and especially the invasion and occupation of Iraq have placed this issue context at the top of voters’ concerns by turning national security into a matter of personal security.
National security is no longer an issue of submarines in the Baltic or the number of warheads on a missile. To Americans, it’s now a question of whether it’s safe to board an airplane or even to visit their nation’s capital.
That’s why even a conflict as prominent as the Israeli-Palestinian one won’t move many voters beyond small numbers of Arab- and Jewish-Americans. Instead, the central dynamic of the foreign policy debate this election year will be: whom do you trust to keep America safe?
Ever since 9/11, Bush and the Republicans have enjoyed a huge advantage on national security. A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll taken at the beginning of this year found that Republicans enjoyed a 51 to 40 percent lead over Democrats on foreign policy and an astounding 60 percent to 30 percent advantage on the war on terrorism—margins unseen since the 1980s.
Driving these numbers is the fact that voters like and trust President Bush to keep them safe. Yet in what could be a precursor to the campaign season, that trust is beginning to erode.
The Kay Report detailing the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, revelations of Halliburton over-billing the Pentagon, and efforts to fudge economic numbers about everything from when the recession started to the number of jobs lost and the cost of the new Medicare prescription drug bill all have combined to raise serious questions about Bush’s credibility and character. In a poll taken earlier this month by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 21 percent of respondents called Bush a “liar” when asked to describe him—a trait that didn’t even register in polls taken in May of 2023.
On top of that, while an overwhelming majority of Americans still strongly believe that their country and the world are safer with Saddam removed from power, support for the war in Iraq is slipping. Last month, according to the Pew survey, 65 percent believed that invasion was the right course of action; now, that number is down to 56 percent. One month ago, 75 percent of those surveyed believed things were going very or fairly well in Iraq; now, only 63 percent say that.
This does not mean that Americans want to elect an anti-war or dovish president. What it does mean is that more and more voters are becoming open to the idea that Bush took the country to war for ideological, political, and maybe even personal reasons—not for what’s best for Americans’ security. This fall, the debate over Iraq, then, won’t be about whether or not invading was the right decision, but how that decision was made, how it was defended to the American people, and how the president handled the war’s aftermath. Bush will have to answer these questions convincingly if he has any hope of keeping the people’s trust and winning re-election.
On the other side, Kerry’s challenge will be to overcome the deep-seated belief that Democrats are soft on defense—unwilling and unable to use military force to keep America safe. Kerry’s initial answer to this charge has been to tout his record—not his nearly two decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but his combat experience in Vietnam.
Kerry’s service on a Navy boat in the rivers of Vietnam has been one of his most potent advantages during the nomination fight. After losing seats in the House and Senate in 2023 by ignoring the issue of national security, Democrats realize that they cannot do the same in 2023 and hope to prevail. That explains why Kerry’s Vietnam record resonates so well with voters looking for a candidate to beat Bush. As recent questions about Bush’s own spotty record in the National Guard have once again surfaced, Kerry appears to be the only Democrat who can bring the national security fight to Bush.
In the general election, in addition to his persuasive history of leadership during Vietnam, Kerry will have to add policies and rhetoric that convince voters that he can reprise this performance as commander-in-chief. Kerry must offer a forceful critique of Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism—including the invasion and occupation of Iraq—without appearing to be weaker than Bush about confronting America’s enemies. In addition, Kerry must explain his often confusing position on the war on Iraq (he first voted in favor of the resolution to authorize force, then against a later funding bill for Iraq, and has since been a forceful critic of Bush’s handling of the situation) to dispel the likely charge that he makes national security decisions for personal or political expediency.
Barring an “October surprise,” such as the capture of Osama Bin Laden, a major terrorist attack in the US, or a significant setback in Iraq, the contours of the security debate in this year’s presidential race have been set. Competing visions about America’s role in the world, its relations with its allies, and the future of the Middle East will all be judged through the prosaic but powerful lens of personal security—and which candidate seems most capable of delivering it.- Published 26/2/2004 © bitterlemons-international.org
Kenneth S. Baer, author of Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton (University Press of Kansas: 2023) and former senior speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore, runs Baer Communications, a Washington, DC consulting firm.
Don't change horses in mid-stream
an interview with Laith Kubba
BL: How do you think Iraq will influence the outcome of the US presidential elections?
Kubba: To be honest, I don’t feel that I am qualified enough on US politics to give an educated opinion. However, I do have some ideas on how the elections might affect Iraq.
BL: What are the perceptions of Iraqis concerning the upcoming US presidential elections?
Kubba: To start with, the perception among Iraqis is that the US is calling all the shots. There is concern among Iraqis that there will be a change in policies and attitudes, even in the keeping of promises, if there is a change in the administration. This is against a background of, I would say, commitments that were given, or promises that were made, and they were changed even within the lifespan of the current administration. We can go back to the pre-war assurance that the occupation would last as long as needed. Then the dates were changed and the mechanisms for transferring power were altered. So there definitely is a question of confidence in continuity and I think that a change in the administration would heighten these anxieties among Iraqis—that might mean trouble.
BL: Do you believe that a change in administration would help the situation in Iraq?
Kubba: I believe that a change in administration would lead to more UN involvement and less US control over the process. UN involvement both in the political sense—regarding the political process—and in the military sense with the deployment of potential peacekeepers by spreading UN soldiers throughout Iraq. A new US administration would pass over the responsibilities of Iraq to the UN and would involve other countries. This would have been ideal if it had taken place a year ago. I am not sure how helpful for Iraq it would be right now at this later stage. Iraq is due to have its own government within four months of now, which is still within the lifetime of this administration.
BL: Do you think that the majority of Iraqis support the reelection of US President Bush?
Kubba: I do not know. But amongst Iraqis here in the US, I think that the majority of Iraqi/Americans might vote for Bush on the assumption that a change in administration might put Iraq on a different course all together. An unknown course. Not necessarily worse, but they do not know for sure if it is going to be better. So as I said, there is a lot of apprehension and people would like to deal with what they know rather than that which they don’t know.
BL: As you said, the Bush administration has changed its policies time and time again vis-a-vis Iraq already; do you think that this will continue if Bush is reelected?
Kubba: I must admit that the Bush administration has shown resolve in dealing with issues on Iraq and also with different issues in the region. I don’t think a new administration is likely to show the same resolve. It would tend towards mending bridges with the UN and reaching out to Iraq’s neighbors. All of that would certainly upset some players inside Iraq such as the Kurds. It would not necessarily upset the Shiites. I think that maybe the Shiites are more critical of a US role than the Kurds are. There is genuine concern within Iraq on the question of whether Iraq is going to be used to pressure other countries within the region. So I would think that you would have mixed reactions. For sure, a change in the administration would greatly change the dynamics and politics of the emerging Iraq.- Published 26/2/2004 © bitterlemons-international.org
Laith Kubba is a prominent Iraqi political leader currently residing in Washington, DC. He is president of the Iraqi National Group.
The war for the vote
The 2023 American presidential election, at first blush, looks like a replay of its predecessor. Americans are divided sharply between Democrats ardent to “stop Bush,” and Republicans determined to “stop the liberals.” It is almost as if 9/11 never happened! That should not surprise.
Foreign policy issues have rarely decided presidential elections, much less so those for Congress. The election years 1952, 1968, and 1980 stand out because international crises reinforced electoral views of incumbent weakness amidst economic trouble.
Moreover, successful foreign policy hardly guarantees victory. Carter’s Camp David Accords did not help him against Reagan. The first President Bush’s victories in the Cold and Gulf Wars only made it safe to elect Clinton. Winning abroad never offsets a losing economy. Americans vote their futures. Usually this means voting their economic prospects unless something very big convinces them otherwise.
The war on terrorism may indeed fit that bill. It will be a referendum on George W. Bush’s transformation from a “domestic president” into a war leader with far-reaching objectives. These include continuing military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq; the creation of democracies in both places; the patronage of a Palestinian state if Arafat can be displaced; and a “forward strategy for democracy” throughout the Middle East. When you add the disarming of remaining rogue states with WMD potential (Libya, Iran, North Korea, and Syria), a new non-proliferation regime, and the reconciliation of India-Pakistan, well, the cup overfloweth. Finally, Bush has begun ambitious changes in US military force structures, NATO relationships, homeland defense, and the judicial war on terrorism.
For Bush, then, the die is cast. If the war on terror goes reasonably well, it will be proof of his leadership. But “going well” is a daunting task. It means an apparently successful transition in Iraq; the capture or neutralizing of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban remnants; no disastrous incidents badly handled either abroad or at home. Bush also faces another hurdle. Last summer’s quarrel with the CIA, reinforced by the apparent absence of WMD stocks in Iraq, has shaken confidence in the White House and US intelligence. Further revelations from the 9/11 commission might deepen distrust, inflicting Bush with a “credibility gap,” just enough to swing critical undecided votes into the other column.
Whether the war works against the Republicans also depends on the Democrats who must overcome a 30-year reputation for weakness and indecision on national security. Senator Kerry, the likely nominee, carries his own burden. A rerun of “Veterans against the Vietnam War,” reviving the rancor of the ’68 generation, will ring hollow with an electorate bent on the future. Moreover, Kerry’s recent record chronicles confusion. He voted against the 1991 Gulf War; for the war on Iraq; and then against the $87 billion supplemental to reconstruct Afghanistan and Iraq. These are not easily reconciled. If Kerry claims he was misled by “sexed-up” intelligence to support the Iraq War, he raises a charge he may not be able to prove while appearing a dupe, thus losing both ways.
Kerry faces the polarizing choices of his primary rivals: Dean’s repudiation of the war versus Lieberman’s support. Will Kerry be a “Carter Democrat” or a “Clinton Democrat,” focusing on the war or on the economy? The Democrats thus face a referendum of their own on foreign policy.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not likely to agitate the 2023 election much, barring a catastrophic event. Most Americans regard Israel as a friend and Arafat as a terrorist. Bush did not even mention the issue in his recent State of the Union address and his support for Israel will increase his percentage of the Jewish vote. Once again, the most important fact will be the fundamental closeness of the race before international events are considered.
In sum, foreign policy could provide the margin in an election closely fought between roughly equal bases. If the war goes well and the economy moves steadily forward then Bush wins. If one or the other appears stalled, suspicions of Bush’s use of intelligence, for example, will give hesitant voters enough reason to vote for the Democrats. But this, in turn, will depend upon whether the Democratic nominee can offer a convincing position on the war.
The president remains more vulnerable to Lieberman’s approach than to Dean’s, and least vulnerable to partisan howls of betrayal that offer no alternative to fighting the war.- Published 26/2/2004 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Harvey Sicherman, who served in both the Reagan and first Bush administrations, is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in Philadelphia.