During his surprising appearance on “Meet the Press” on Feb. 8, President Bush outlined what most observers believe will be the basic argument of his campaign for re-election in November 2004. The dominant theme of that campaign was probably captured in the president’s assertion to Tim Russert that he was a “war president,” suggesting that his continued leadership in a time of grave international danger was necessary for the security of the United States.
The question of how wisely Mr. Bush has discharged his responsibilities as a “war president” will be a legitimate issue in the forthcoming presidential election campaign, but it is an issue that will require careful handling by both Republicans and Democrats. Criticism of the commander in chief in a time of war is never intended as a lack of support for U.S. forces fighting in Iraq, and it should not be so characterized. An honest debate about national policy is actually a way of honoring the sacrifices made by U.S. military personnel.
At the same time, the stakes in this debate are too important for it to become trivialized by personal attacks. I, for one, am not interested in exploring George W. Bush’s record in the Texas National Guard over 30 years ago nor in the fact that John Kerry participated in an anti-Vietnam War rally at which Jane Fonda was also present. The important question is not how either man behaved over 30 years ago, at a different time in a different struggle.
Instead, the more critical and more difficult question in this presidential year will be whether the Republican or the Democratic candidate inspires more confidence in his understanding of the dangers we confront. Which candidate will be more likely to make wise decisions on how the United States can use its moral power and diplomatic skills, as well as its military force, to confront these dangers?
The voters will need to consider, for example, whether the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq was the necessary next step in the “war on terrorism,” or actually a distraction from what must be a continuing campaign against international terrorism in many parts of the world. The argument that Saddam Hussein was giving active support to Al Quaeda has never been confirmed. No weapons of mass destruction have been found and no pre-war conspiracy with Al Qaeda established.
Given the shifting rationales that various spokespersons for the Bush administration have advanced to justify the invasion, as well as the recent admissions of failures in U.S. intelligence, do the American people accept President Bush’s claim that Saddam Hussein represented a “grave and gathering danger” to the United States? Or was Saddam Hussein only the most notorious of the various tyrants who continue to violate the rights of their own peoples in various parts of the world?
While the goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world is both noble and in the best interests of the United States, when, if ever, is the unilateral use of military force a wise instrument to achieve that goal? Do not the post-invasion conflicts demonstrate the need for a more multilateral foreign policy?
What does it mean to say that “9/11 changed everything,” as administration spokesmen have so often claimed? Did the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center invalidate the policies of containment and economic sanctions that had been used with some success toward rogue nations like Libya and Iraq? Or does the repeated invocation of 9/11 suggest that the powerful emotions aroused by those terrorist attacks have been exploited to promote an ideological goal identified long before those attacks?
It is not easy being a “war president” in an age of international terrorism. It is not a “war” that will end in a treaty or surrender. The enemy is not an identified state with recognized national interests. Suicide bombers cannot be addressed by conventional military strategy. Difficult decisions by national leaders must be made on the basis of fallible intelligence reports. Asking the right question is always the best way to find the right answer, both after Sep. 11, 2001, and in November 2004.