2004 October 26 Tuesday
Bush Or Kerry Worse On Iraq?

I do not see that the Iraq invasion can yield the United States a net benefit. At this point the best we can do is to hope to limit the extent of the damage to our interests. With that thought in mind here is an intuitive take on George W. Bush versus John Kerry on Iraq.

First of all, Bush gets points against him for what he's done so far. The Bush Administration made many miscalculations and mistakes in deciding to invade Iraq and in how the occupation has been handled. Defenders of Bush can argue that some of those mistakes were made by non-partisan government agencies and the Bush defenders can shift some of the blame onto the CIA, DIA, and other agencies. One can argue (correctly) that Bush had support from many Democrats for the Iraq invasion. So Bush had no monopoly on bad judgements. Yet he has to be judged by the quality of his own decision making and too many of his decisions made about Iraq were wrong. There were even people who foresaw in advance that many of the official judgements and expectations about Iraq were wrong.

Some may accept that Bush had made some huge mistakes and yet take the optimistic position that Bush has had 4 years in office to learn from his mistakes. Therefore we should expect better quality decisions from him in a second term. This might be true. Surely I hope it is true if he gets reelected (which continues to be my expectation). But one problem with this argument is that Bush tends not to learn from his mistakes. The guy isn't curious enough to learn. I do not see him getting substantially wiser. Sure hope I am wrong on that one.

Some of Bush's mistakes fit a pattern. The erroneous assumptions the Bush Administration made about the moldability of Iraq were liberal assumptions. Bush and the neocons did not make conservative mistakes about human nature. Will events in Iraq eventually shake Bush from his liberal views about the appeal of democracy and freedom?

The biggest difference between Bush and the Democrats on Iraq is that the Democrats tend not to see the unilateral exercise of US power as legitimate at all. So for that reason a President Gore probably would not have invaded Iraq. Yet he would likely have believed (or at least professed to believe) that Iraq could be turned into a liberal democracy.

As for the WMD issue: I think the Bush Administration wanted too hard to find the answer they expected to find. On top of that there are competency problems in the CIA and other parts of the government that were involved in intelligence assessments. But it is the government after all. We should expect a limited level of government competence (at least we should if we are real conservatives).

What I hold against Bush most of all is that he has put us in a position in Iraq where we might lose. This would result in the diminution of our own influence combined with a huge increase in the morale and motivation of the jihadists. That would then put us under increased risk of terrorist attacks.

This danger of boosting Jihadist morale is our greatest strategic danger in the Middle East. We are in a position where either we suffer still more damage to our interests when we withdraw from Iraq or the best case is that we manage to get out in a few years with a regime change that sticks. We should avoid the outcome that we invaded, failed to put down the insurgency, and then left to have the government taken over by Jihadists or at least openly anti-American leaders.

Whether we manage to withdraw with a positive spin on the outcome or not, in either case we suffer the damage of allies who think we are too reckless to ally with again in future operations, even more tens or hundreds of billions of dollars spent, lives lost, and soldiers coming back who will never be normal again. Plus, we have incurred the cost of a large shifting of public opinion in Muslim countries such as Indonesia against the United States. This has to help Al Qaeda recruitment.

It is hard to guess at Bush's or Kerry's real intentions. Kerry especially is an unknown quantity in an executive position. He's spent about the last couple of decades as a Senator. But it is necessary to make a guess about each of them and what they would do about Iraq in the next 4 years if we are going to come to any conclusions at all on which will be worse.

Note that I said "which will be worse" and not the more typical "which will be better". To me "better" connotates the ways Sears catalogs would label products "Good", "Better", "Best" (haven't seen a Sears catalog for a long time and so I don't know if this is still the practice) to imply that they are all useful products worthy of buying. But my take on Bush and Kerry is that neither belongs in a Sears special catalog of Presidential Candidate Products.

My guess is that Kerry has less will and less determination to exit Iraq in a way that will not seem like a retreat and strategic defeat. I doubt that Kerry sees as much at stake there in part because he didn't put US forces there in the first place and in part because he probably doesn't worry as much about how the Jihadists see the United States.

But is there anything that can be said in favor of Kerry? Well, he'd come with a new crew and that crew would be less wedded to existing policies. So Kerry might fix some policies currently in place in Iraq. Maybe Kerry would be willing to ask for more resources by arguing that he didn't make the mess but he has to fix it (though I doubt this since he will want to increase domestic social spending). It is at least possible that Kerry will be better than Bush in how the actual occupation is managed.

But my biggest concern with Kerry is over exit strategy. We should try to avoid being seen doing a withdrawal that makes it seem we are retreating out of Iraq. Kerry is more likely to retreat and let the Arab Muslim Jihadists think they have won a victory. We are better off exiting under conditions that seem like a US victory to the Arabs and especially to the Islamic Jihadists (in other words, Al Qaeda terrorists and their allies) and would-be Jihadists.

However, it is by no means certain that a withdrawal that is not a strategic defeat is an attainable goal. Such a withdrawal requires that we succeed in building up at the minimum a new authoritarian dictatorship in Iraq that simulates the outer form of a democracy well enough (or that at least can keep itself in power) that we can declare victory and leave. But it is by no means clear that we can put a government in power that can stay in control after we withdraw. If that is the case then having Kerry in office might actually be an advantage since he'd be more willing to accept the inevitability of the bigger loss and cut our losses sooner.

As I see it at this point we are screwed. If Kerry gets in he has less will to win than Bush does. But if Bush gets reelected will it be any worse? With Bush reelected we will have the idiot who put us in this risky position in the first place by invading and who then was unwilling or unable to build up enough political support to get the resources needed do a proper large scale occupation from the outset.

The other wild card in this analysis is Congress. If Congress undercuts the US occupation in a year or two then a President's own will may not matter. Will Congress be more willing to cut and run if Kerry or Bush is elected? If Congress does pressure for a withdrawal that allows a collapse of the pro-US regime will US interests be more harmed than if we stay longer to try to ensure a friendlier regime after we leave?

On the issue of Iraq as a way to choose between Bush and Kerry ot is hard for me to see who makes the most sense to choose. So I don't have a final answer for you. I would only argue that what is possible for us to accomplish in Iraq is somewhere between modest and disastrous and that Kerry and Bush are a pretty awful pair to choose between.

Note to people who are visiting ParaPundit for the first time: As you can see from the above this is not the place to visit if you want a partisan Panglossian view of politics. There are plenty of cheerleader blogs for Democrats and for Republicans. I lean right. But I have a pretty dismal view of political leaders and the human condition.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 October 26 02:51 PM  Politics Grand Strategy

Derek Copold said at October 26, 2004 3:31 PM:

Since the question is framed in binary terms, I have to say Kerry will do the better job of extracting us. Being a senator, he is by nature willing to give and take. A retreat is the most difficult manuever to execute and one needs a flexible mindframe to do it. His open-minded attitude will help secure more foreign assistance. I know people mock him for this, but I actually think it's a solid point in his favor. He'll work to include as many players as he can by ensuring that they have an interest in a good outcome, something Bush seemed unable to do with unnecessary contract bidding exclusions. Given some, any patina, of international approval, the U.S. will be in better moral shape to fix things as best as they can. One of the best arguments the insurgents now have is that the U.S. is there to plunder their oil. Bringing in uninterested international players, even nominally, will help dissipate that notion.

Secondly, Bush having lost on this issue (as well as others), Kerry will know that Iraq has to be resolved, and resolved fairly quickly, so he'll start the withdrawal process after the January elections are declared a great success (regardless of whether they actually are a success). This is a healthy incentive, IMO, because it won't lead to yet another interminable occupation, as we have in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Finally, Kerry will be far less beholden to both the neocons and the Israeli government than Bush. He'll still be far too solicitous of Israel, as indeed all U.S. politicians these days must be, but he'll be in a stronger position as he doesn't have to appease the Rapture Cultists. Moving somewhat away from Israel will help tone things down in the Middle East, where we've already needlessly made far too enemies as it is.

If Bush wins, alas, none of this will happen. He'll take it as God's blessing and a vindication over us peasants from the reality-based community. He may try to withdraw after the elections, but his neocon advisers will keep prodding him to take on some new project, either in Syria or Iran. In fact, I doubt he'll truly withdraw and will try to the last to maintain those fourteen permanent bases.

gcochran said at October 26, 2004 5:06 PM:

Think about incentives affecting future actions. If we kick out Bush and all his little pinhead minions, future polticians (for the next twenty years or so, until people forget) will think twice before doing anything quite this stupid. You have to punish stupidity, really you do. Reward it and you'll get more.

As for cutting and running encouraging jihadists: you know, I don't think it would. I guarantee you that > 99% of the people fighting us in Iraq would settle down to blowing up each others gardens.

Next, think of the sheer fun we'll have watching the Democrats deal with this tar baby. Nixon inherited Vietnam from Johnson: it's _their_ turn now.

Randall Parker said at October 26, 2004 5:24 PM:


I'm less concerned about the reaction of the Iraqis than about that of all the other Muslims who are watching.

As for having the Democrats deal with the mess, It would have another beneficial effect as well: The Democrats would get to fail at the task of democracy building. We need both the neocon liberals and the left-liberals to fail at democracy building so that some amount of reality sinks into both groups.


I do not expect Kerry will have any success in getting international partners to deal with Iraq. Why would they want to? Why would Germany or France want to get the least bit involved? Regardless of whether Bush or Kerry wins the number of partners we have in Iraq will go down, not up.

gcochran said at October 26, 2004 5:27 PM:

One other point: a lot of people somehow end up equating what someone thinks will happen - typcailly someone who has never been right about anything in his last three incarnations - with what we _know_ will happen, or even what has already happened. Like, we have to pulverize an indefinte number of Iraqis in the name of things that in fact strike me as very unlikely to happen - a tidal wave of jihadism within Islam combined with a mysterious inability to stop giving them visas, for example. Or a contagious form of Iraqi democracy - I mean is that very likely? While Iraq is today a funhouse of car-bombings and assassinations, and the war costs a billion a week, while immobilizing most of the US Army. Those things are real. They exist. Why do so few people take such dubious predictions so seriously? How often have these sorts of predictions turned out to be accurate? Look at the record - how often do anyone's geopolitical predictions come true? How often do people initating a war get what they expected? It's like opening a door into a dark room.
The same people made a lot of predictions as to the course of events in Iraq, and as far as I can tell, every single thing they said has turned out to be wrong. Why then should anyone take them seriously? Intellectually seriously, that is: Bush is the Prez, Rumsfeld is the Secdef, and they can make certain things happen: but why should anyone think that they have a lick of sense? They said, IN PUBLIC, that Saddam wa a strategic threat: that's just silly. Either they're really egregious liars or utter damn fools.
Tommy Franks thought we'd be able to pull out 100,000 troops in the first six months: Franks was wrong. I said it then and I'll say it now - Franks is stupid. Operationally speaking, the overwhelming majority of people talking about this war have no predictive value.
Think hard before trding real deaths and real dollars for possible future morale effects on your enemies.

Luke Lea said at October 26, 2004 7:55 PM:

If Kerry wins, I predict that he will get a lot of European support to save the situation in Iraq. Why? Because it will be their way of ratifying the American electorate's decision to repudiate Bush, and, at the same time, to re-establish a Western alliance that is in everyone's interest from almost every point of view. We all depend upon Mideast oil, and we are all threatened by the instability that would result if we just walked away from the mess in Iraq. It may be under UN auspices, but I can foresee large numbers of Germans and French helping to police the situation inside of two years -- and Egyptians too, if there is credible movement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Anybody want to make a small bet?

gcochran said at October 26, 2004 8:12 PM:

Luke, you want to put any money on that notion of the Europeans supporting Kerry?

I like money.

Randall Parker said at October 26, 2004 8:33 PM:


You say:

If Kerry wins, I predict that he will get a lot of European support to save the situation in Iraq.

Define "support". A French or German army division? Give me numbers.

and Egyptians too, if there is credible movement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Credible movement?

Derek Copold said at October 27, 2004 6:23 AM:

Let me be clear, I don't think Kerry will get a lot of tangible help, certainly not at first. However, as I noted above, he's far more likely to get moral support and an international imprimatur to whatever withdrawal plan he puts into place. That'll make our leaving a lot cleaner. I wouldn't discount psychological factors. Indeed, once we leave, it is in Europe's interest to have the area stabilized. If it isn't, they're more likely than us to see international blowback, in the form of refugees, unstable oil markets and terrorists. The neighboring Arab countries also have an equal stake in seeing to it that Iraq doesn't descend into civil war. So really, once it's clear that we've fired the idiot who got us into this mess and that we're trying to get out of it, I do expect a bit more help. However, that help is going to be damned tough to secure and Dubya is certainly not up to the task.

Luke Lea said at October 27, 2004 6:35 AM:

Ok, Greg, how about a $100 gift certificate or equivalent to amazon.com? As for numbers and timing, to make it easy, let me say that there will be "substantial" support (measured in the $billions) promised by the end of 2005 by both France and Germany, leaving open what form it will take; e.g., the ideal would be to cover the expenses of Arab speaking troops from neighboring countries, but that may not be possible.

Randall Parker said at October 27, 2004 11:32 AM:


There are "psychological factors" in Iraq that matter for what will happen in Iraq. But I seriously doubt that there are any such factors in the UN or in the EU that will change what happens in Iraq.

I do not think the Euros look at Iraq the way you do. They probably figure that whoever ends up coming out on top will want to sell oil. Also, the Euros are happy to deal with Iran in spite of it being run by Mullahs.

Randall Parker said at October 27, 2004 11:34 AM:

Luke, You need to be more specific. Kerry gets elected. By what date will, say, Germany have spent even a single billion dollars of aid in Iraq? Or France? Make the date an end-of-year date so that we can prove the result from budget news.

Derek Copold said at October 27, 2004 12:50 PM:

Well, Randall, here's the catch. Will the mullahs, or anyone else in Iraq for that matter, have control enough to pump the oil? You've got three hostile camps in that country, and each wants a slice of the oil revenues. Further, the violence in Iraq could spill over into Saudi Arabia and possibly even Kuwait. So that means both the neighboring countries (Turkey, Iran, S.A., Kuwait, Syria and Jordan) and the E.U. do have an interest in stabilizing things. For now they're not doing it because they understandably do not trust the Bush Administration to pick up and leave. That is, if they extract us from Iraq now, the feeling is thatBush and his band of loonies might be tempted to change some more regimes in the area. Kerry won't bring that baggage with him.

To be sure, I don't want anyone to think that I believe this will magically bring about goodness and light to the area. No matter what, things are going to end very badly. However, given a bit of help, they may not end as badly as they otherwise might have. We'll still need to do most of the heavy lifting. We'll still have to do most of the grunt work and fighting. Nothing is going to change that, and I think Kerry knows that, too. Still, we're better off doing that grunt work with a patina of legitimacy than without.

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