Presidential candidates often make statements on foreign policy that they ignore once they get into office. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, for instance, both promised in their initial campaigns to get tough on China and then didn't. But incumbent presidents don't have this luxury. What they say becomes foreign policy. And in the case of a major issue like the Iraq war, the challenger must also be careful not to make promises he has no intention of keeping. So from a standpoint of future foreign policy, and not merely domestic political success, it is worth looking at what Bush and John Kerry said about Iraq in their first debate last night. What one discovers is not reassuring.
Moderator Jim Lehrer asked Bush "what criteria" he would use "to determine when to start bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq." Bush responded: "So the answer to your question is when our generals on the ground and Ambassador Negroponte tells me that Iraq is ready to defend herself from these terrorists, that elections will have been held by then, that there's stability and that they're on their way to, you know, a nation that's free. That's when."
Bush's answer was noteworthy on several counts. First, he didn't say the United States would leave when an Iraqi government asked it to leave, but only when our military authorities and ambassador deem that American objectives in the country have been met. One reading of what Bush said is that he wants what the United States has traditionally sought in the Middle East--pliant, friendly regimes that suppress their opposition with force and welcome an American military presence. Bush was conspicuously silent when Kerry called on the United States to renounce any "long-term designs" on Iraq, including the establishment of permanent American bases there. And when Bush says he wants to create an Iraq that "is ready to defend herself from these terrorists," that could easily be read not as a regime able to fend off Al Qaeda but rather one able to suppress its radical anti-American opponents.
Bush also appeared to endorse the neoconservative objective of transforming Iraq into a full-fledged democracy that would serve as an example to other states in the region. "A free Iraq will be an ally in the war on terror," he said. "And that's essential. A free Iraq will set a powerful example in the part of the world that is desperate for freedom. A free Iraq will help secure Israel. A free Iraq will enforce the hopes and aspirations of the reformers in places like Iran. A free Iraq is essential for the security of this country."
Neither Bush's exit strategy nor his hopes for Iraqi democracy are remotely realistic. An Iraq closely tied to the United States--sort of like the Shah's Iran or one of the Arab emirates--could only be purchased, if at all, at costs that the American public is unwilling to bear. And the United States cannot create a democratic Iraq at any price. Creating a democracy is not like currency reform. It requires freedom from external control and a long period of institutional gestation. Bush's somewhat vague objectives suggested, as Kerry charged, that in a second administration, he would pursue "more of the same" in Iraq. Unfortunately, Kerry's own statements promise little more.
To Kerry's credit, he did declare that he would renounce any claims to Iraqi oil and to a permanent U.S. military presence. That is a precondition of any comprehensive settlement in the region. But Kerry insisted that he shared Bush's objective of "winning" in Iraq. "I believe we have to win this," Kerry said. "The president and I have always agreed on that." But what does it mean to "win" in Iraq? Does Kerry believe that the United States must create a full-fledged democracy there before it can depart? Or must it merely create a semblance of stability? And if so, how does it do that?
Kerry offered two steps to "winning" in Iraq. First, like Bush, he called for training an Iraqi security force--and, like Bush, he also failed to explain how these forces could be trained by the occupying power in the midst of a guerrilla war that commands widespread public support. Second, he called for holding a "summit with all of the allies" that would enlist their cooperation. Kerry implied that he could get countries like Germany and France, as well as Iraq's neighbors, to contribute troops to reduce America's military burden in Iraq. But given the strong domestic opposition in these countries to the U.S. occupation, Kerry would have great difficulty convincing them to send forces.
That would be especially true if Kerry planned to use the troops as he suggested during the debate. Last night, he criticized Bush for "back[ing] off of the Fallujas and other places" and for failing to "close the borders." Does Kerry imagine that Germany or Turkey or Saudi Arabia would allow its troops to undertake a Jenin-style clean sweep of Falluja, or to close off Iraq's border with Iran? On closer examination, then, Kerry appears to want to pursue much the same military strategy as Bush, but with help from countries that have bitterly opposed our invasion and occupation of Iraq. That makes as little sense as Bush's fantasies about a democratic Iraq. If Kerry wants to develop a plausible plan for a "new start" in Iraq, he's going to have to do better than he did last night.
John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic.