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J. Sharpe James, J.D.
10-06-2004, 09:07 AM
JAY BOOKMAN
Atlanta Journal Constitution

Debate offers little cause for optimism

Published on: 10/04/04


Some people are victims of circumstance, ruined not by their mistakes or personal shortcomings, but by events beyond their control.

George W. Bush has been just the opposite, a beneficiary of circumstance who was elevated by the attacks of Sept. 11 to a heroic status beyond what his abilities and accomplishments would justify. In last week's presidential debate, that shining aura finally began to fade, allowing a glimpse at the real man within.

What we saw was not a confident leader, secure in himself and his policies. In his halting, stumbling responses to questions, in his recitation of sound bites searching for a context, Bush looked lost and out of his element. Judging from his facial expressions and his body language, he seemed startled that his opponent, Sen. John Kerry, could actually be allowed to say harsh things about him in public.

Bush's inner teenager showed itself, angry, impatient and frustrated to be called onto the carpet.

In hindsight, Bush's reaction should not have been surprising. During his first term in office, the president's handlers worked hard to protect him from news conferences, interviews and other uncontrolled situations in which he might be forced to defend his policies, hoping that by doing so they could nurse the heroic myth along for a few more months or even years.

The strategy worked for a while, but at a price. His time in the bubble betrayed Bush in the debate, leaving him without the confidence and experience that a president ending his first term would otherwise enjoy.

The president had another problem as well: He was trying to sell a product that was long past its expiration date. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; there were no substantive ties between Saddam and terror groups; we were not greeted as liberators and the cost of our occupation has not been covered by the sale of Iraqi oil, not even close.

Most of all, the idea that we could create a Western-style democracy in Iraq that could then spread throughout the Middle East has been exposed as a tragic hallucination. Chaos, destruction and terrorism are far more likely exports from post-invasion Iraq. President Bush, unable to admit that reality, was left only to insist repeatedly that more of the same would improve things. It is a tale grown stale by retelling.

When the insurgency began, we were told that it was just the work of a few stubborn dead-enders, that once they were rounded up, the situation would improve. It did not. When the heinous sons of Saddam, Uday and Qusay, were killed in a shootout in July 2003, we were told that we had reached the turning point, that without its leaders the insurgency would collapse. It did not.

When Saddam himself was captured in December 2003, we were told that this, surely, would mark the coming of better days. Things got worse. In June, when we handed official sovereignty to Iraqi officials, it was supposed to ease resentment at our occupation and calm the violence. Since then, the rate of casualties, both American and Iraqi civilian, has risen steadily.

Now we are told that the January elections will reverse the decline, but there is little, if any, evidence to support that contention.

That is not an argument for withdrawal. The violence taking place daily in Iraq is almost inconsequential compared to what would happen if the United States abandoned the country to its worst elements. On this point, both Bush and Sen. John Kerry are in agreement.

Sadly, though, the alternative approach laid out by Kerry in the debate doesn't offer cause for optimism. Even if our allies offer help to a newly elected President Kerry that they have withheld from President Bush, they lack enough manpower to really make a difference in Iraq. And it's not realistic to expect that we can greatly accelerate training of Iraqis to replace our own soldiers.

What Kerry does offer, though, is an acknowledgement that a change of direction, and a change of leadership, is absolutely necessary. Those responsible for the repeated, stubborn misjudgments that got us into this mess should not be entrusted with leading us out.