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September 24, 2004



PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. Something important happened this week. For at least a few days, the two candidates for president stopped arguing mostly about what they did or did not do during the Vietnam War, and instead, concentrated mostly on the war in Iraq, which has now cost more than 1,000 American lives and 200 billion dollars.

It is now clear that foreign policy issues, mostly the war and terrorism, are the main issues in this election. And we'll devote almost our entire program to these subjects. With me are our regulars, deputy editor Dan Henninger, Susan Lee, and Dorothy Rabinowitz. We've also included Rob Pollock, who writes about Iraq for us and has reported from there as recently as this summer.

First, the war in Iraq. In a speech on Monday Democratic candidate John Kerry seemed to finally stake out a clear anti-war position and an alternative to the Bush foreign policy.

KERRY: We cannot hope to succeed unless we re-build and lead strong alliances so that other nations share the burden with us. That is the only way to be successful in the end. If the president would move in this direction, if he would bring in more help from other countries to provide resources and to train the Iraqis to provide their own security and to develop a reconstruction plan that brings real benefits to the Iraqi people, and take the steps necessary to hold elections next year -- if all of that happened, we could begin to withdraw U.S. forces starting next summer, and realistically aim to bring our troops home within the next four years.

PAUL GIGOT: President Bush was quick to respond, suggesting that Kerry had changed his position again.

BUSH: Incredibly, he now believes our national security would be stronger with Saddam Hussein in power, not in prison. Today he said, and I quote, "We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure." He's saying he prefers the stability of a dictatorship to the hope and security of democracy.

PAUL GIGOT: Rob, the Kerry campaign is telling everyone that it is going to make Iraq the centerpiece of the campaign from here to November 2nd. What is the Kerry strategy, both substantively and politically?

ROB POLLOCK: Well, what the Kerry strategy is, is to entirely divorce Iraq as an issue from the war on terror. In his speech at New York University on Monday, Kerry declared openly Iraq is not part of the war on terror. What's more, Iraq is a distraction from the real war on terror. Kerry thinks we should be focusing on Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and he thinks we're bogged down in Iraq right now.

PAUL GIGOT: What is the weakness of that argument strategically? Does that make sense strategically? I mean, we're in a war where we do have -- a world where we do have state sponsors of terror. So where's the weakness in that argument, from a strategic point of view?

ROB POLLOCK: Well that's absolutely right. I mean, the weakness in the Kerry argument is, there doesn't seem to be any plank there to address what the left often talks about as the root causes of terrorism. I mean, the interesting thing about Bush is, he's got sort of a big program. He's got what he calls a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. He wants to sort of dry up the swamps of despotism and poverty where terrorism grows. John Kerry, he's got the minimalist version of the war on terror. I'm going to go after Al Qaeda specifically.

PAUL GIGOT: He's also saying Dan, is he not, that he wants to pull -- he would start pulling troops out within six months, and have them totally out within four years. What do you make of that argument, substantively and politically?

DAN HENNINGER: Well, I think the two are connected, the substance and the politics. It's been my impression, and I think it's a lot of Democrats increasingly as well, that the Kerry campaign has been running and adjusting itself according to the polls or the news, and most recently the news out of Iraq has been pretty bad, and so he gives a speech last Monday taking a position of complete opposition to Iraq. Now, that's a position, and I fervently hope that he will stick to it and run as the anti-war president, and that out of that he will develop some substantive, coherent ideas. And getting out within four years would be part of that.

PAUL GIGOT: I think Dan is hitting on something that I think some of us agree around here, which is this may actually be a good debate for the country to have on Iraq right now. We've had this partisan division, very angry division in this country about the war for what, 18 months. Is this the kind of thing a presidential election should decide?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Yes, if you could depend on the position being held by one of the candidates, meaning Mr. Kerry. All over America, when Kerry made that last comment, you could see people like the bloggers busily going around saying, "Uh-uh, this is what he said before. This is what he said two years ago." None of it consistent with what he said today. That, unfortunately, does not go away. That sense that this is this moment. It's going to be the hardest thing to shake.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, but the Kerry campaign clearly believes that this is a winning issue, does it not, Susan? So what are they seeing politically that this gets them?

SUSAN LEE: Well, I think they're seeing politically what's happening in the polls, which is Americans are getting nervous. They're getting anxious about how the war is going, and how long the war is going to go. And I think the resource costs involved in the war. And I think politically, although I'm no political head --

PAUL GIGOT: We're all experts here.

SUSAN LEE: We're all experts. It does seem to me, in my modest way, that Kerry has made the first leg of his argument, and he's got to have a really good foreign policy debate. He's got to make the second leg. And that is, what are the opportunity costs of being in Iraq? Is the opportunity cost of having Saddam Hussein in jail, bin Laden free? Or Zarqawi free? Those are the things, I think, that he's got to put out on the table now. What are we giving up to have what we have?

DAN HENNINGER?: But I also think, Susan, that the American electorate really deserves to have that argument. It's not so much a matter of the Kerry camp manipulating their policies in a winning way. I think the Democratic party, and the people who voted in those primaries, deserve to have their ideas on the table, which is opposition to the war. And Susan's right, there is a sentiment that there are problems with the war now. The president is supporting the effort. Let the American people have a clear shot at choosing between those two alternatives.

PAUL GIGOT: Let me -- a little history here. 1968, Hubert Humphrey, September 30th, speech in Salt Lake City, comes out against the war in Vietnam, calling for a bombing halt. Breaks with his president, Lyndon Johnson. That was the start of his come-back, which almost helped him beat Richard Nixon.

Rob, has there even been a case, though -- he was running as a vice president then, and LBJ was not running for re-election. Has there ever been a case in American history of a president, an incumbent president, losing a fight while he was fighting a war?

ROB POLLOCK: No, no, there hasn't been.

PAUL GIGOT: Is there anything close? I mean '52, Truman didn't run, I guess, and '68 LBJ didn't run. But the prospects otherwise are not good if you look back at history for Kerry, is that right?

ROB POLLOCK: That's absolutely right. What Kerry has to do here if he wants to win on a consistent anti-war message, is he has to convince a plurality of voters to at least be comfortable with the notion that America's sons and daughters have been dying for a mistake. That's a very difficult thing to do.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Well, I'd like to say also that I knew, and we all knew, Hubert Humphrey. And John Kerry is no Hubert Humphrey.

SUSAN LEE: Thank God.

PAUL GIGOT: I think we all agree here that Senator Kerry has every right to criticize the war. But is he leaving himself open to the criticism which we're beginning to hear from some of the Bush campaign that perhaps he is inviting a very rough October in Iraq, and is undermining our allies. We had the spat this week, Rob, with Prime Minister Allawi when he was here, where John Kerry criticized him. Is that at all a risk?

ROB POLLOCK: That's very much a risk, and we saw that yesterday. Kerry got himself into a very awkward position, basically telling the Prime Minister of Iraq that he didn't have a realistic view of his own country.

SUSAN LEE: I totally disagree. We are putting ourselves in that position, because we have said we are not going to take any aggressive military action until the Iraqis are trained, and that might not be until the end of December. Now, if you were a terrorist you would say, oh, great, I have until the end of December to go mad. This is a Catch-22 of our own policy, not of Kerry's.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Well, could I just say there's another reason about it being a bad mistake. He accused Allawi of inconsistency. This is a very dangerous ground for John Kerry to be mounting an attack, that paragon of consistency.

PAUL GIGOT: Wouldn't John Kerry be on stronger ground if he were saying, not just criticizing President Bush's war management, which is certainly open to criticism, but then saying, I'm going to criticize it and I'm going to win. And if he talked about clearing out Fallujah -- because what he's saying instead is, I don't like the way he's managed the war, but I'm going to pull out.

ROB POLLOCK: That's right. There was an opportunity for Kerry to run as the guy who was going to win in Fallujah. And instead he's settled on being the anti-war candidate.

DAN HENNINGER: Yes, that was way back when. This is why people are connecting the dots between his statements and the possibility of more violence in Iraq. It's because it seems opportunistic. If it had been Howard Dean who's been running that way since the beginning, no one would accuse him of fomenting violence in Iraq. Because that's where he stood from the beginning.

PAUL GIGOT: All right, Dan, you get the last word. Next subject.