Mixed signals (the Bush-Kerry debate)

Daily: The Nation
Date: 16.10.04

“I made a mistake in how I talked about the war. But the president made a mistake in
invading Iraq”, said Senator John Kerry in reply to a question of the moderator, Jim Lehrer
of PBS, for US President George W. Bush, in the first debate at the University of Miami, to
convince the electorate of his respective worth to be the next President. Mr. Kerry called
the mistake of Mr. Bush “a colossal error of judgment”. Hence, acknowledging one’s
mistake but at the same time making other’s mistake as other’s Achilles’ heel is what the
trick of modern day politics is.

The debate revealed the mind set and priorities of both the contestants while they had
been trying to win the hearts and minds of the Americans. Seventy five percent of the
debate revolved around one point: when Tora Bora was the first choice, then why did
Fallujah replace it? Against the onslaught of Mr. Kerry, Mr. Bush exposed at least one weak
point of his opponent. That is, Mr. Kerry was guilty of sending “mixed signals” to both
friends and foes of US, as if it was a “wrong war at the wrong place and at the wrong time”.
Mr. Kerry was of the view that both war and its place (Iraq) were right but both the time and
adopted way were wrong. Hence, the shift of the choice seems to hold potential to shift the
government in US.

The debate also showed that both debaters had “different set of convictions”. Where Mr.
Bush was emphasizing on weakness of the UN’s decisive role to compel Saddam Hussain to
comply with the UN’s resolutions, Mr. Kerry was pressing upon a need to take European
countries along even in the context of “construction of Iraq” to form a “genuine coalition”
ultimately. Similarly, where Mr. Bush was airing the news of isolation of the Al-Qaeda, Mr.
Kerry was worried about the isolation of US in the world. Likewise, where Mr. Bush was
pleading for a leading politico-economic role of US internationally, Mr. Kerry was concerned
about standing of US at the global warming and the stem cell research issues.

The whole debate exposed the American set of mind towards international affairs. For
instance, when Mr. Kerry said: “I will never give a veto to any country over our security”; he
was basically saying that he would never allow any country to stall the pre-emptive doctrine
of the US. The same was also the viewpoint of Mr. Bush and that was what he did by
attacking Iraq. It means that the way the doctrine is being rationalized; it is now poised to
become a permanent feature of the international relationships. Resultantly, any (stronger)
country can attack any (weaker) country on a pretext, which may be proven even wrong
afterwards. Moreover, if the pre-emptive strike pretext comes out to be a colossal error of
judgment, what recourse will be adopted for repentance and compensation, is still to be
debated. Further, if this doctrine flourish, it is still to be seen what sort of role is left with the
UN to play?

Mr. Kerry also criticized Mr. Bush for not reaching out to the Muslim world. He pledged that
he would do it, if he became the next President. At this point, both debaters were ignorant
of the importance of the Palestine issue. They could not comprehend that the Muslim world
thought that Israel could not inflict atrocities on the Palestinians unless US backed her. Not
a single word was spoken pertaining to the matter, not to say of Kashmir or Chechnya. It
means that the Palestine issue is going to linger on further and the dream of collaboration
would be frustrated to the loss of all. Nevertheless, it is hoped that the ignorance was not
deliberate and irreversible.

Interestingly, in the debate, there was no mentioning of Pakistan: either a friend or a foe of
US? In the words of Mr. Bush, “ we have upheld the doctrine that said if you harbor a
terrorist, you're equally as guilty as the terrorist”. In the light of this statement, it is more
convincing to believe that Pakistan has been trying to save its skin only by proving,
somehow, that it does not harbor any (requisite) terrorists. Hence, the claim of
capturing/handing over of more than five hundred Al-Qaeda members is a compulsion and
the rhetoric of an ally of US in war on terror is just a face-saving.

The debate has disseminated one major lesson to all the powerful countries of the world.
That is, “a viable exit strategy” is more important than a forceful and spectacular entry. The
lesson is equally applicable, besides Iraq, for Kashmir, Chechnya, and even for Wana
(Wazirastan). As Mr. Kerry said that Mr. Bush should have showed more “patience” to
invade Iraq, now it seems that the same patience is required to find out an exit strategy.
Any hurried decision to abandon Iraq, whether by Bush or Kerry, may lead to civil war and
dismemberment of Iraq. The same may invite anger of the Arab world as well as of the
European world.

In the debate, both the competitors acknowledged a role of the United Nations, in one way
or another. Unfortunately, none of them gave a thought what if the matter of winning peace
in Iraq is left up to the UN by considering it a superior body to decide about the united and
democratic future of Iraq. That will be not only a viable exit strategy but also a face-saving
for US.  

Back to columns in 2004