Bush/Kerry Debates Part 1: Iraq

Slate’s William Saletan examines the pivotal questions about Iraq left from the debate.

How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

So, [Bush] offers himself—and you—a way out. Ignore the bad news, he says. Ignore the evidence that Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs had deteriorated. Ignore the evidence that Saddam had no operational relationship with al-Qaida. Ignore the rising casualties. Ignore the hollowness and disintegration of the American-led “coalition.” If these reports are true, as Kerry suggests, then it was all a mistake. How can we ask our troops to die for a mistake? We can’t. Therefore, these reports must be rejected. They must be judged not by evidence, but by their offensiveness to the assumptions we embraced when we went to war.

The logical upshot of these beliefs—and the evidence—is that Americans are dying in Iraq for a mistake.

Why won’t Kerry say so? For the same reason Bush accuses him of saying so: Because we don’t want to believe it. On this ultimate question, Kerry clings to Bush’s wishful thinking.

But the greater shame belongs to the candidate who launched this war, refuses to admit his errors, and now holds the moral pride of his countrymen hostage, blackmailing them into shunning the truth. Tonight he scoffed, “If I were to ever say, ‘This is the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place,’ the troops would wonder, ‘How can I follow this guy?’ “

Exactly, Mr. President. If you were ever to give them the correct assessment, they would ask the correct question.

What is missing from this critique is the realization that now that the claimed mistake has been made, there are some unacceptable repercussions to just pulling out. Both Bush and Kerry acknowledge this point. The real question was who has a more realistic plan for what comes next. My concern is that it may be too late for the moves that Kerry wants to make to change the situation.

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