Iraq and Kerry: Hara-kiri?

Article published on June 7, 2004
community published
Article published on June 7, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The war against Iraq, which began on March 20th 2003, has become the main issue of the American election campaign. It will also be the key issue for a possible new government if Kerry is elected. The Democrat Senator has promised to resolve the Iraq issue quickly. But it might be more complicated than he thinks…

From war as a campaign issue…

The election campaign for the presidential elections in November is taking on a deeper dimension in the context of the identity crisis Americans are experiencing yet again. The crisis is calling into question a diplomatic line which has been fashionable in America since the beginning of the Cold War: unilateralism. The war in Iraq is just the latest example of this.

This is the legacy that the Massachusetts Senator, John Kerry, the official Democrat candidate, will have to deal with if he is elected President of the United States this autumn. And Kerry is banking on this weakness in George Bush’s strategy. A Vietnam veteran, he is presented everywhere as a leader of the American anti-war movement. His Vietnam aura gives him legitimacy and therefore the credibility that Bush lacks.

Nevertheless, Kerry’s position with regard to the war in Iraq is difficult to sustain. He is playing the pacifist card because it is strategically the most interesting opposite Bush, but he also demonstrates a certain vagueness. He hums and haws and avoids the most controversial issues (the absence of WMD, torture and so on). An open pacifist from the very beginning of the campaign, the Democrat Senator nevertheless voted for armed intervention in Iraq on October 11th 2002 when the Senate gave the green light to the current President…

With strong communication back up, John Kerry is represented as a disciple of multilateralism, a veritable pilgrim of international organisations, a convinced Europhile. People recall the career of his father, Richard Kerry, a seasoned diplomat, who was strong supporter of international law. People bring up the ‘Mekong revelation’, the revelation of the limits of an all-powerful America. So will it be the revival of American foreign policy or just a dust storm? The Iraqi crisis will reveal all quickly and clearly. The very concrete issue of withdrawing American troops from Iraq (one of Kerry’s key promises) typifies the difficulties that Kerry will face if he takes power…

From Vietnamese quagmires to Iraqi quagmires

The jump between promises and political decision-making is a hard one to make. The situation in Iraq will turn out to be more complex in January 20th 2005 than it is now in the Democrat election meetings. In reality, it will be difficult to take on the responsibilities in Iraq, notably in terms of reconstruction, while at the same time bringing an end to an occupation whose unpopularity will only increase in the Middle East. This would correspond to his electoral promises but would go against the interests of powerful economic lobby groups. There is nothing harder that making the leap from leader of the opposition to the person making the decisions and Kerry is going to try to relieve himself of these responsibilities under the cover of multilateralism. His leitmotiv is allowing the United Nations to have more control over the situation. That is to say, that under the cover of more legitimate governance, the United States will relieve itself of its obligations of managing Iraq which are rooted in political difficulty and strong community tensions to say the least. Nevertheless, the UN is not there to pick up the pieces and enhancing its presence and its visibility in Iraq would confirm and legitimise a doubtful state of affairs in terms of international law that this same United Nations decided to condemn by leaving Iraq after the terrorist attack of August 19th last year.

June 30th is supposed to be about transferring sovereignty. If you believe the electoral debates in process in America, the presence or not of US troops in the Gulf after this date will depend on the result of the elections. But in practice does Kerry have the means to keep his promises? It is doubtful giving the interests at stake: how can he manage backers, arms dealers and the divisions in the Democrat camp over the war? And the issue goes even further: what are the implications in terms of image, reputation and international credibility? How can America avoid losing face? And, more pragmatically, what will be the direct consequences of this retreat on the policy of the war on terror implemented by Bush? You come back to the criticisms which were formulated after Zapatero announced that he would pull the Spanish troops out of Iraq: is this not playing into the terrorists’ hands? What will be the reaction of American citizens (the electorate)? What will be the consequences for the coalition, that is to say the alliance between the United States and some countries in Europe? Or even relations between member states themselves? And could any solution also nudge the peace process between Israel and Palestine in the right direction?

In the unlikely event that it actually happened, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq would be the sign of a change in American foreign policy. But it would also be a challenge for the American people in terms of their identity and their reputation. How would they take this failure and, in particular, would they recognise their mistakes, would they accept the cynicism of their leaders? Because there is no doubt that the majority of American citizens sincerely believed that the first motivation for intervention in Iraq was to fight Islamic terrorism and to free a people from a bloody dictator. And therein lies the ‘subtlety’ of American foreign policy: legitimising realpolitik by appealing to noble sentiments. This is the legacy in terms of reputation that Kerry will find most difficult to deal with. Believing himself to be innocent after Vietnam has made him take on a big job. Ensuring that an entire people can rediscover themselves through his identity of a promoter of freedom is going to cause him a lot of problems…