The Valley News [Lebanon, NH]

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Reckoning With Bush

    (First of two parts)

    After Sept. 11, Americans didn't need to be convinced that the threat of terrorism had to be taken seriously.  The thousands of deaths, the collapse of the Twin Towers and the attack on the Pentagon made the case quite effectively.  Still, the country needed a leader who could give voice to the collective resolve to respond quickly and forcefully to this threat.  George Bush, still in the first year of his presidency, fulfilled that role admirably.  What he lacked in eloquence he compensated for with clarity, decisiveness and determination. The war he launched in Afghanistan enjoyed broad support.

    That now seems like long ago.  The man whose leadership in the war against terror once united the country and, indeed, much of the world has now polarized both to an extent not seen in recent memory.  The world remains no less convinced of the necessity of defeating terrorism.  But Bush has raised questions about whether he is capable of leading the war, and he has done that primarily through his misadventure in Iraq.

    Bush has offered several rationales for invading Iraq, and they have two things in common.  Each asserted some connection to the war on terror, and each has proved wrong.  As virtually everyone in the world now knows, the Saddam Hussein regime didn't have weapons of mass destruction, its capacity to develop them was diminishing at the time of the invasion and it had no collaborative relationship with international terrorists.  The last rationale standing is the theory that a democratic Iraq will transform the Middle East and make the region a less fertile breeding ground for terrorism.  Thousands of American and Iraqi lives have been sacrificed for that theory, and a year and a half of occupation has brought Iraq closer to chaos than self-government.

    In the process, the administration has squandered more than just billions of dollars.  It has sacrificed its credibility by, as is now clear, manipulating evidence before the invasion and denying it afterward.  It has compromised the country's moral stature -- not only by its dishonest presentation of evidence but by downplaying the magnitude of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and its own role in fuzzing the line between tough interrogation and torture.  Also gone is the administration's claim to
competence.  It's not just that the decision to go to war was wrong, it's also that the prosecution of the war has been bungled.  Pre-war warnings about insufficient force numbers were ignored, the troops that were deployed were ill-equipped, and there was inadequate planning for the occupation.  Yet the administration blithely refuses to acknowledge its mistakes.

    It costs money to wage two wars and defend the nation against a new type of international threat, and Americans have never balked at making financial sacrifices necessary for national security.  The administration never asked.  Instead, it doggedly plowed ahead with its plan to offer billions in tax breaks that flow disproportionately to a tiny percentage of Americans who already are doing quite well.  The result is a record deficit, a widening gap between rich and poor, and a diminished capacity to respond to increasing financial pressure on two essential entitlement programs -- Social Security and Medicare.

    As was clear from the strong initial support for the Patriot Act, the war on terror convinced Americans that it was necessary to review the balance between liberty and security. But there's a huge difference between pushing for updated wiretap laws to account for technology changes and asserting the right, as this administration has done, to scoop up citizens and noncitizens alike, throw them in prison and hold them for as long as is deemed necessary without legal counsel and the opportunity to challenge their arrest. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted when the high court insisted that the government give "enemy combatants" some means for challenging their detention, "History and common sense teach us that an unchecked system of detention carries the potential to become a means for oppression and abuse of others." It shouldn't require a Supreme Court ruling in 2004 to make clear what the Founding Fathers grasped in the late 18th century.

    The administration's environmental and energy policies are egregiously bad, but they're wrongheaded in a standard way: They defer to special interests that support the Republican Party and don't depart significantly from the policies of some previous Republican presidents.  The administration's Iraq policy, on the other hand, represents a radical departure -- in its cavalier approach to war, in its contempt for longstanding alliances, and in its faith in the transformational power of nation-building. A succession of highly critical investigative reports highlight one contributing factor to George Bush's radicalism: His administration's hostility to dissenting opinion within its inner circle of key decision-makers.

    Allowing the government to remain in the hands of true-believers who exclude second opinions would be a disturbing prospect under normal circumstances. At a time when the nation faces a grave national security threat, it's frightening.

    (Tomorrow, the case for John Kerry)

Sunday, October 24, 2004

John Kerry

    (Second of Two Parts)

    Does the mere fact that John Kerry is not George Bush automatically entitle him to voters' support?  Not necessarily, although those who read yesterday's editorial about the failings of the Bush administration will realize that it's a good start.  Fortunately, the Massachusetts senator has used the past year to make a compelling case that his election is essential.

    When it comes to the most important issue of the campaign -- the war in Iraq -- Kerry's goal does not differ markedly from the current administration's.  Both the president and his challenger believe that the United States must stay in Iraq until the new government is firmly in control, although for different reasons.  Bush still believes that Iraq will serve as a prototype for the democratization of the Middle East, while Kerry places more emphasis on the grave regional threat posed by an
unstable Iraq.

    But given the fact that the next president is committed to staying the course in Iraq, Kerry is by far the better of the two candidates to oversee the effort. It is doubtful that his election would prompt other nations to eagerly step forward to help in Iraq. But to the extent that this bad situation can be managed intelligently, Kerry would bring to the table the traditional tools of statecraft -- flexibility, honest analysis, consultation and negotiation. Under normal circumstances, that would be expected. In 2004, however, when war and nation-building have become the means for an international experiment by a small band of neoconservatives, it would represent a vast improvement. A more realistic, less messianic approach to Iraq would help refocus the executive branch on the most pressing job -- protecting the country from terrorism. And the changed tone that Kerry would bring to the White House and the emphasis he would place on renewing old alliances promise to ensure that the effort to defeat terrorism remains an international one.

    Service in the Senate has provided Kerry with enough exposure to foreign affairs to discuss them knowledgeably and confidently. It also has allowed him to compile a record that provides a clear indication of how he would steer policy from the White House. Americans could expect a Kerry White House to respect the need to keep national policy free of religious overtones, to pursue an environmental agenda that regards the nation's natural resources as assets to be protected rather than exploited, and to formulate an energy policy that focuses on considerations other than quenching the nation's oversized thirst for fossil fuels.

    On the campaign trail, Kerry has advocated a proposal to have the federal government reimburse employee health insurance plans for 75 percent of the catastrophic costs they incur above $50,000, as long as that aid is used to reduce the cost of workers' premiums.  It is not a comprehensive plan, and it will place a significant new financial burden on the federal government, but it offers a sensible approach for protecting employer-based health plans from huge increases and for reversing a disturbing trend -- the increasing number of people who find themselves without insurance.

    The cost of that and other Kerry proposals almost surely signals that he has no serious plan to reduce the deficit, despite his intention to repeal tax cuts for those earning more than $200,000.  On the other hand, if the federal government is going to pile on debt, better to do so by extending a hand to people who genuinely need help than by showering tax breaks on the privileged and well-connected.  At the very least, we know that Kerry's heart is in the right place.

    Kerry deserves voters' support not only because his policy proposals compare favorably with the incumbent's, but because they offer further evidence that he would bring a level-headed, intelligent approach to governing. We live in dangerous times and require a leader who  can deal rationally with the world in all its perilous complexity.

© 2004 The Valley News.  Reprinted by permission.  (Martin Frank Dec. 16, 2004)

"These endorsements reflected the consensus of a four-person editorial board and followed a discussion about which candidates we wished to endorse and what we wanted to emphasize in urging others to vote for them. We had never
before written a two-part endorsement but decided that it would be an effective way to flag our unhappiness with the incumbent and the importance we placed in the election." -M. Frank