How Iraq May Become Bush’s Achilles Heel

President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign allowed the game to slip away from them during the past week. Bush’s handlers were convinced that the overriding issue was flip-flops, not the kind you wear on your feet, but Sen. John Kerry’s propensity for foot-in-mouth disease.

The Bush campaign was wrong. Their preoccupation seems like ancient history.

It was just a few short weeks ago that the presumptive Democratic nominee, in a rash moment, said foreign leaders want him to be president. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell immediately insisted that Kerry “name” these leaders, putting the senator in a box. For many reasons, such conversations are off the record. Kerry was a loser on that particular exchange.

This game of “gotcha” is pure politics. At a Texas Republican dinner in 2002, Bush had one of his rash moments. He blurted out that Iraq was a “uniquely American issue” because Saddam Hussein “tried to kill my dad.” AFP, the French news agency, said the remark personalized the conflict with Iraq and the conservative London Telegraph sneered that “toppling” Hussein was an “affair of the heart as well as affair of state” for the American president.

While Bush is as likely as Kerry to make verbal slips, the Republicans were convinced that the “gotcha game” would help them show that the Massachusetts Democrat tries to be on both sides of the same issue in order to appease different groups, even if his positions conflict with one another. Pleasing interest groups is an all too human trait for a politician, and after 19 years in the United States Senate, Kerry has probably made a significant number of conflicting statements.

This is the opening Republicans hope will lead to Kerry’s defeat.

Phase one of the GOP plan would raise the question “Where do you stand Sen. Kerry?” and portray the senator as a candidate with no backbone. From no backbone, the next phase would be no character, and the last stage the damning conclusion that Kerry is simply dishonest. Ultimately, campaign strategists hoped voters would conclude that Kerry is a liar in the hire of special interests. For Bush Republicans, special interests include, first and foremost, feminists, gays, civil libertarians, and other “ultra liberals” who are against “family and tradition.” The Republican ads would leave Kerry as sullied as Pres. Bill Clinton on the “values” question. But phase one of the Bush campaign lost its footing before its message could take hold.

Foreign policy mavens, some of them only recently out of government service, tripped up the re-election effort by shifting the focus from Kerry’s character to how good a job the president is doing. That’s a question that puts Bush at a disadvantage because too many voters are underwhelmed by the direction the nation is taking, at home and abroad.

The key player in raising this line of attack on the president, Richard A. Clarke, has been dubbed a former counterterrorism chief by the media. An advisor to Republican and Democratic presidents, Clarke knows how to win arguments, is armed with facts and knows how to utter a sound bite. He pounced on the president in a “60 Minutes” interview saying, “What if Franklin Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor instead of going to war with Japan said, ‘Let’s invade Mexico’? It’s very analogous.” Clarke’s charges dominated the news, and he was still very much in the public eye one week later, when NBC’s “Meet the Press” recognized his elevated status by making him the only guest on the one-hour show.

NBC’s confidence in Clarke was rewarded when he made several newsworthy statements. Declassify my memorandum and e-mails, Clarke demanded, confident that he could prove his point. According to Clarke, in September of 2001, the president and his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, weren’t heeding intelligence briefings warning of an imminent Al Qaeda attack.

Clarke neatly turned the tables on Republicans who were saying that classified documents would show the President hard at work when he demanded a full airing of pre-9/11 documents.

Those Americans worried about the war in Iraq heard some somber conclusions during Clarke’s Capitol Hill testimony.

“After September 11, people in the Islamic world said, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe we’ve gone too far here. Maybe this Islamic movement, this radical movement, has to be suppressed,’ and we had a moment, we had a window of opportunity, where we could change the ideology in the Islamic world. Instead, we’ve inflamed the ideology,” Clarke said.

Clarke cited Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense and an architect of the war in Iraq, to support this view. Clarke said Rumsfeld, in a memo leaked from the Pentagon, betrayed his belief that Al Qaeda is “generating more ideological radicals against us than we are arresting them and killing them. They’re producing more [radicals] faster than we are stopping them.”

The clumsy way the Bush administration went to war in Iraq has become the focus of public concern. Foreign policy experts worry about a more troubling question––whether the United States is making itself weaker, and the enemy stronger. Clarke’s “Meet the Press” interview comes very close to an affirmative answer to this most basic question.

Bush had a miserable week, his campaign plan detoured by a simple truth: it wasn’t foreign leaders endorsing Kerry’s candidacy that gave the Democrats a boost. That assistance came from American foreign policy experts, at least one of whom voted for Bush in 2000. It turns out that gays, feminists, and civil libertarians are not the only ones alarmed by this administration’s policies in Iraq. Soldiers, diplomats, and bureaucrats are also nervous, so nervous that they have gone public with their questions.

Bush has the money to dominate the political advertisements, but campaign gurus can’t stop this debate about the war in Iraq. On that front, the president is not looking like a winner.

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