The Presidential election campaign is in the home stretch. Neither the President nor Senator Kerry has secured a decisive advantage.
Iraq is now the central issue of debate, as one would expect, since the war is going badly, and the economy is reasonably robust. The debate is finally beginning to focus on substantive differences between the candidates after a summer in which they mainly exchanged personal attacks on their respective Vietnam records. Their strategies are now clear: Bush will challenge Kerry's steadiness and consistency; Kerry will challenge the necessity of the campaign in Iraq and the competence of the administration's efforts there. But while their diagnoses of the situation differ, their proposals for dealing with what is clearly a mess are not so clearly differentiated. Both propose to seek additional help from members of the international community; both emphasize the need to train and arm Iraqi security forces; and both are hopeful that elections will enhance the legitimacy of Iraqi leaders, fortify their efforts to dry up the insurgency, and allow American forces to be reduced and eventually withdrawn.
Historically, wars have been unkind to presidents on whose watch they occurred. The Korean War reduced Harry Truman's popularity so dramatically by 1952 that he gave up his quest for a second full term. The Vietnam War drove Lyndon Johnson from office, despite impressive domestic achievements. Victory in the Gulf War of 1991 sent George H.W. Bush's approval ratings soaring, but within a year he was defeated by an obscure Arkansas governor.
Yet President Bush still clings to a narrow lead in the polls. Why?
Senator Kerry has argued that the Iraqi campaign is a "war of choice." Perhaps so. But Osama bin Laden issued a fatwa declaring war on the United States nearly a decade ago. Whatever the outcome in Iraq, war with Islamic extremists will continue. And American voters remain nearly evenly divided as to whether John Kerry has the steadfast character and consistent judgment they want in a wartime leader.
Uneasiness about the financial and human costs of the war is growing. Casualty figures in Iraq are high compared to the numbers killed or wounded in post-cold war American interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Yet, those earlier conflicts involved humanitarian interventions in which Americans perceived little strategic stake. However, military personnel killed in Iraq - now more than 1000 - still number less than a third of the civilians who perished in New York and Washington on 9/11. And ours is a volunteer military that is highly motivated.
When confronted by an attack, Americans have consistently taken the fight to the enemy, engaging them in combat as far from our shores as possible. The president has portrayed the campaign in Iraq as an integral feature of the war on terrorism. To at least a number of voters, the absence of any terrorist attacks in the United States since 9/11 provides evidence that his approach, while not without significant costs, is working.
Victory at the polls may be a dubious prize. Whoever is sworn in on January 20, 2005 will face daunting choices. American options in Iraq range from the "potentially disastrous" to the "extremely distasteful." We cannot simply walk away. And a host of other dilemmas - e.g. nuclear crises in Iran and North Korea, a Middle East peace process that has gotten off track, strains in the trans-Atlantic relations, a multilateral trade round that has lost momentum - demand urgent attention. Beyond this, the next president will be hampered by a gigantic fiscal deficit and a military that is stretched thin. In short, he will have few easy choices. It makes one wonder why politicians yearn for this job.