Given the dearth of serious reporting during the Democratic convention, I've been forced to turn to candidate junk mail and the right-wing press to get the big scoop of the month: Iraq is off the national political agenda.
This may strike some as odd. The premise for the invasion has been entirely discredited, the U.S. military death toll is approaching 1,000, kidnapped contractors are being decapitated on a regular basis, vast sums of money are pouring down a black hole called "Iraqi democracy," but hardly a whisper is heard in Kerry World about America's new Vietnam -- nary a question is posed by the swarms of "journalists" who flocked to Boston about how to get out of Iraq. Instead, we're being weirdly reintroduced to the old Vietnam through the revisionist eyes of a Vietnam veteran, John Kerry. And that ugly old war has been remade as a stage set designed to glorify Mr. Kerry's service in perhaps the most inglorious chapter in American history.
If you want to inquire into just how assiduously Mr. Kerry avoids Iraq -- even as he promised in his nomination acceptance speech to "wage this war with the lessons I learned in war" -- you won't get a straight answer from the press agents and pundits who prattle on endlessly about America's supposed obsession with "security" and the need for a steely-eyed commander-in-chief. For that you have to find alternative sources, such as the small-circulation,
pro-Bush media and the mass-produced literature of direct marketing.
A recent issue of The Weekly Standard called a spade a spade: "The November election won't be about the future of Iraq." Had he wanted a debate on Iraq, Mr. Kerry would have selected an anti-war running mate. Mr. Kerry could have then "explained his own vote to authorize the invasion as a mistake," based on bad intelligence. On the contrary, Mr. Kerry "in his methodical way has moved Heaven and Earth to make sure such a debate never happens."
One reason for Mr. Kerry's dodging an argument about Iraq is, as the right-wing journal notes, that the Democratic nominee's position on the occupation is "no more than a millimeter from that of President Bush": Take the casualties, send more troops if necessary and keep forcing "democracy" down a gun barrel. Military collaboration with France and Germany would be nice, but George Bush has already embraced that idea.
Too much familiarity with Mr. Kerry's Bush-like views on Iraq might breed contempt among the anti-war legions that followed Howard Dean into battle. If U.S. soldiers are still dying at the same rate on election day, elements of the radicalized anti-Bush crowd might touch the screen for Ralph Nader or just stay home.
But the larger motive for Mr. Kerry going AWOL on an Iraq debate appeared recently in a junk mail package I received from a political action committee calling itself "Friends of Hillary." Hillary Clinton, junior senator from New York, has been, like the great majority of her fellow Democratic congressmen, as steadfast in her support for the war in Iraq as Mr. Kerry has been equivocal. Bold on his swift boat, the junior senator from Massachusetts shrinks in the face of the Clintons' fundraising and organizational power.
As it happens, the Friends of Hillary letter is signed by Hillary herself, and she wants money -- for Democratic Senate and House candidates. Nowhere in the letter does she inform her friends about the urgency of replacing Mr. Bush in the White House; nowhere does she mention Mr. Kerry. Presenting her letter as a questionnaire rather than a pitch ("Part of my job is being a good listener"), she asks her friends to rank nine issues in order of importance. Iraq isn't on the list.
Mr. Kerry's junk mail is similarly short on references to Iraq. Fearful that the Clintons and their allies in the right-leaning Democratic Leadership Council will seize on any apparent "weakness" in Mr. Kerry's commitment to killing Arabs, one of his letters goes completely blank on the great issue of the day. I'm assumed to be up in arms about plans to "despoil" the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but I'm assumed to care not at all about my fellow citizens getting killed to sustain a lie in Iraq.
A more recent Kerry letter mentions on page 3 that Mr. Bush "has no plan for solving the dilemma of Iraq that his go-it-alone and incompetent leadership helped create." Well, since Mr. Kerry's "plan" is essentially the same as Mr. Bush's, then neither does Mr. Kerry.
I know what the Kerry strategists are thinking -- the anti-war types will vote against Mr. Bush no matter what Mr. Kerry says about Iraq, so why buy trouble with potent fundraisers like Bill and Hillary and the "support our troops, Abu Ghraib or not" lobby? They also believe that, without a draft, resistance to Iraq will build more slowly than it did in the late 1960s. Who is going to care if a few hundred more working-class kids die between now and November in the noble cause of nation-building?
But the strategists may be wrong. In 1968, with Vietnam deteriorating rapidly, the Democratic presidential nominee, vice-president Hubert Humphrey, refused to break with president Lyndon Johnson's self-destructive war policy. While Richard Nixon talked up a "secret" peace plan and George Wallace was grabbing votes in the South, Mr. Humphrey found himself trailing Mr. Nixon into the last week of the campaign. Finally, the deeply selfish Mr. Johnson bowed to political reality and declared a bombing halt of North Vietnam; Mr. Humphrey surged in the polls. Too little, too late; Mr. Nixon won by a nose.
I think John Kerry is fundamentally anti-war -- he has to be after experiencing the insanity of Vietnam. I think his vote for Mr. Bush's Iraq folly was a cynical political choice, not a genuine commitment. I have to believe that fewer people will die in Iraq during a Kerry administration.
In an earlier life, Mr. Kerry famously asked, apropos of Mr. Nixon's continued ferocity in Vietnam, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" I hope we're not asking the day after the election why more men will have to die for a mistake in political strategy.
John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper's Magazine.
© Copyright 2004 Bell Globemedia