Thursday, September 30, 2004

Kerry (and Reality) Win One

Judging by the early polls and pundit reactions (Mark Kleiman has a good rundown here), Kerry clearly won tonight's debate. The concessions by conservative pundits are key, for they should keep the right from trying to spin defeat into victory tomorrow. Expect the focus instead to be on damage control -- i.e., trying to get the result declared inconclusive, a draw.

The format all but mandates a contest of soundbites and slogans, and we certainly got plenty of them. Bush came armed with his anathema against "mixed messages," his passion for "certainty" and "staying on the offensive," and his self-description as resolute-consistent-firm-steadfast-decisive. For his part, Kerry brought along "colossal error of judgment," (the night's juiciest one-liner) promises of "a fresh start" and "new credibility," and an emphasis on "getting the job done" versus "more of the same."

The difference is that Bush was compelled, in a way Kerry was not, to lauch his slogans into a stiff headwind of adverse facts -- and it showed. While Bush talked about the importance of being on the offensive, Kerry demonstrated it. He easily parried most of Bush's rote charges (all variations on the weak-and-indecisive meme), and was comparatively free to carry the fight to his opponent.

Part of what made Kerry's aggressive posture possible is that the debate's agenda was largely taken up by Iraq. Such an agenda now favors Kerry. National security was supposed to be Bush's forte, but this only holds when he can keep the actual mess in Iraq out of the discussion. Too many of tonight's questions centered on that mess, and its implications, for him to be able to get away with such an evasion.

But Kerry himself deserves credit for capitalizing on this advantage. For most of the evening he kept his responses as clear, concise and forceful as the statements in his recent foreign policy speeches. Several times he rebutted Bush's "changed his position" and "mixed messages" charges with staccato efficiency: Yes, Hussein was a threat. But there was a right way and wrong to deal with it. The President chose the wrong way. Or this: Yes, we must be steadfast and resolute, and I will be. But the war was still a mistake. And this president can't fix it.

When you bat back the worst the other side has to offer that quickly, you have plenty of time for offensive blows, such as: Saddam Hussein did not attack us, Bin Laden did; the President outsourced the job of getting Bin Laden and al Qaida at Tora Bora; he misled us about building a grand alliance for Iraq, or exhausting diplomacy, or treating war as a last resort ("those words have to mean something"); we're paying 90% of the cost and taking 90% of the casualties; Iraq wasn't a center in the war on terror before the President invaded, but it has become one since; the President rushed to war without a plan to win the peace; we broke Iraq and now we have to fix it, have to succeed, but the President is not getting the job done; you can be certain and be wrong; just because the President says it can't be done, doesn't mean it can't be done; and so on and on.

All in all, not a bad outing for Big John. Here's hoping his luck holds through the weekend spin cycle.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Favorable Winds for Skipper John?

Politically speaking, August and early September were dismal for the Kerry campaign. The Bush campaign's strategy of getting the major media to disseminate its anti-Kerry talking points -- slanders against Kerry's military heroism, and an absurd caricature of his Senate career -- was at its peak of effectiveness. This effectiveness was thanks, chiefly and respectively, to the Swiftboat Veterans for Making Shit Up and the most mean-spirited national party convention since Pat Buchanan declared the GOP Kulturkampf in 1992.

The last couple of weeks, however, have been considerably kinder, and my impression is that they have given Kerry a slight advantage heading into the first of the debates, tomorrow night, with its focus on what will probably be the decisive issue area of foreign policy. Whether Kerry can successfully press that advantage, in the face of Bush's formidible political skills, and the media's deep inclination to be swayed by a set-piece display of those skills, remains to be seen. It would be hard to imagine a higher-stakes moment of political combat.

Two things have given Kerry new life: First, he seems at last to have found, or regained, his voice on Iraq. Beginning with a speech at NYU that was widely (and justly) hailed as the best of his campaign, and continuing with one at Temple University that was nearly as good, plus a variety of shorter remarks, Kerry has boiled down his critique of Bush's foreign policy to a handful of essential points, clearly and forcefully stated:

  • That we face a major threat from the potential marriage of radical Islamic fundamentalist terror and weapons of mass destruction.

  • That the Iraq war addressed neither aspect of this threat but was, instead, an unnecessary and harmful strategic diversion.

  • That the President's key failure was in not leveling with the American people about this fact, but instead relying on falsehoods to get a war he wanted.

  • That this key deception led the President to disregard reality itself in Iraq, which continues to this day, and which has put us on a path to defeat there.

  • That such a defeat would make of Iraq permanently what it has become only since the war -- a haven for radical Islamic fundamentalist terrorists.

  • That we have no hope of averting this prospect of incipient defeat until and unless we acknowledge the reality of it -- which the President will not do.

  • That the battle against Islamic fundamentalism, having been diverted by Iraq, cannot fully be rejoined until Iraq is put on a path to a least-bad outcome.

  • That the President, therefore, must be replaced, if we are to avert disaster in Iraq, and get back to fighting the real war on terrorism.

The other thing that has helped Kerry a great deal in recent days is that the major print media have begun, however tentatively, to report truthfully and prominently on the deteriorating conditions in Iraq. It's possible, even likely, that Kerry's new-found critical voice helped to prompt this sudden reappraisal, but that can't be the whole story.

Judging by the sources for many of these stories, I suspect that there are now simply too many professionals (military, intelligence, diplomatic), who are too outraged by the manifest stupidity of the whole affair, for any White House (even one as ruthlessly efficient in suppressing dissent as this one) to be able to keep the lid clamped firmly on. And when the pros who make up the permanent national security establishment in Washington start letting their disgust slip out more-or-less unfiltered, the mainstream press has little choice but to take notice -- however much they may fear the prospect of drawing the administration's ire.

For examples of this, one need go no farther than the New York Times, where recent articles have covered such topics as:

  • The arrest, by the U.S. military (in "sovereign" Iraq), of one of the senior commanders whom we had put in charge of Iraqi national guard forces, for co-operating with the insurgents.

  • Sober comments, by the Secretary of State and the head of CENTCOM, to the effect that the insurgency is getting worse, and will have to be fought right up to, and through, the scheduled January elections.

  • The negative political impact that the worsening situation in Iraq is having on staunch Bush ally Tony Blair's (and Labor's) political fortunes in the United Kingdom.

  • The revelation that the National Intelligence Council not only issued a gloomy recent assessment of the likely outcomes in Iraq, but also warned the President in advance of the invasion that it could lead to instability, insurgency and greater support for radical Islamic fundamentalism.

  • Doubts voiced by friendly regional leaders like Abdullah of Jordan that the Iraqi elections will be able to take place as scheduled, given that the chaos and violence show no signs of letting up.

  • Independent studies showing that the security situation is steadily deteriorating as the insurgency continues to grow.

The news from Iraq, in other words, is uniformly bad. This is not new in itself -- the news from there has been almost nothing but bad for quite a long time. The real novelty is that the press is finally starting to cover the story prominently again, after the strange hiatus of serious coverage that followed the formal handover of what we are pleased to call "sovereignty" to the interim government of Dr. Allawi.

So, the media-bred illusion that the Iraq war was largely over and done with has started to give way, just as John Kerry has begun to mount his most potent criticisms of Bush's foreign policy blunders. If this happy conjunction of events holds up through tomorrow night's debate, and the all-important post-debate media spin cycle, then I suspect we will come to look back on this moment as the pivot of the fall campaign -- the moment when the final outcome first came into view.

Those of us who haven't, in the last three and a half years, completely lost our taste for reality -- or our natural aversion to disaster -- can, for the moment, but hope. There will be important work for everyone to do between now and November 2nd, come what may tomorrow night. For the moment, however, it is all in Kerry's hands. I have never pulled harder for a politician to do his best, or wished harder, for a politician's luck to hold.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Lying and Politics, a Prologue

The apparent effectiveness of the pre-convention smear campaign against John Kerry's record of military heroism in Vietnam, coupled with the flagrantly dishonest attacks upon his political record -- and the equally dishonest whitewashing of Bush's own -- at the GOP convention itself, raise anew some old and disturbing questions about the power of organized lying in politics. Why does such lying work so well, politically? Why is our politics so vulnerable to it? Is there any way to make it less so? Not since the release of the Pentagon Papers have we been confronted so urgently by such issues.

I have started a post dealing with these issues, but they are tough ones and forward progress has been slow. What follows is at best a kind of promissory note for that eventual post. It doesn't contain any answers at all -- only a litany, really, that might serve as a reminder of how dire the situation has become. Think of it as a low-water mark (or so let us hope).

Here, then, are some examples of the kinds of organized lies whose effects on the presidential race seem to me undeniable -- and indeed the cumulative effects of which could wind up deciding the next election. I confine myself here to lies that impact national security issues primarily -- because I think these are likely to have the biggest impact. A similarly long list could easily be drawn up on the domestic/economic side of the policy ledger.

Many of these lies have been analyzed in this space before, in various scattered posts, citing very frequently the diligent work of other bloggers, along with those rare journalists who somehow retain their feeling and taste for truth in the midst of so much systematic deception. A special hat tip to Matthew Yglesias for his handy roundup of those that were repeated in Bush's convention speech. For the rest, let the memories of citizens not yet in the grip of organized deception serve as their support:

  • The lie that Saddam Hussein was co-responsible for 9/11

  • The lie that Saddam Hussein was in league with, or supported, Al Qaida

  • The lie that WMD have been (or still might be) found in Iraq

  • The lie that Saddam Hussein's Iraq posed an imminent threat to the United States

  • The lie that Saddam Hussein refused U.N. inspectors unfettered access before the invasion

  • The lie that only a few countries were opposed to the U.S. position on Iraq at the U.N.

  • The lie that our current coalition is as broad as (or broader than) those assembled for Desert Storm and Kosovo

  • The lie that military and intelligence resources were not diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq

  • The lie that the security situation in Iraq is (or has been) improving

  • The lie that John Kerry did not deserve (and/or lied about) one or more of his Vietnam combat medals

  • The lie that John Kerry falsely accused fellow Vietnam vets of war crimes

  • The lie that, as a Senator, John Kerry repeatedly opposed weapons systems requested by the President

  • The lie that John Kerry has ever had, or has now, a contradictory position on the Iraq war

  • The lie that John Kerry opposed the $87 billion appropriation for our troops in Iraq