So here it is, time to choose. I've spent every spare moment in recent weeks, sometimes more than I can spare, reading and studying and comparing the candidates, comparing positions and reading all the commentary. I remain deeply, deeply conflicted. (At least about the presidential contest; local races less so.) I've looked at Kerry's domestic proposals, and many of them are genuinely attractive, classic Democratic proposals to improve the lives of the American people. (How he's going to pay for it all I'm a little less certain.) I look at Bush's domestic record, and I'm not happy. Under Bush, the Republicans seem to have abandoned all pretense at standing for fiscal responsibility, with tax cuts that, face it, really are massive give-aways to the rich. The result has been runaway deficits, and even with those deficits Bush has shown no inclination to reign in spending or slow the growth of big government, two things which were supposedly Republican articles of faith for many decades. Not only that, I'm really nervous about what he could do to the makeup of the Supreme Court.
But the thing I keep coming back to is foreign policy, the fate of the world, and what role we will play. The typical Kerry argument on this point is, why would you want to keep in an incompetent team whose actions have led to such disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq? Well, if I saw disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq, this might be persuasive. But I don't.
Afghanistan just had the first presidential election in its history, and despite all the threats and warnings, it was remarkably peaceful. William Safire had a recent column pointing out that while Karzai may have won the race, and even his opponents now concede he won fair and square, the biggest winners were the people of Afghanistan, who have been heroic in their determination to claim ownership of their country. I read of one group of rural Afghan women who had been threatened with death by Taliban sympathizers if they had the temerity to try and vote. Instead of being cowed, they gathered together and through dress, prayer, and tribal ritual all prepared themselves to die that day. Then they went to the polls. Any inconvenience I may face tomorrow is nothing by comparison.
This is a huge and momentous event in Afghanistan, one that Bush can take a lot of credit for. But what about Iraq? Again, I see a lot of moaning and groaning, about quagmires and disasters, but with what justification? Just the other day columnist Bob Herbert was muttering about our troops getting "mauled in the long dark night of Iraq," noting that 1,100 American troops have lost their lives there. Excuse me? 1,100? While I absolutely honor the sacrifice of each and every one of those soldiers, and while I respect and grieve for the pain their families feel, have we lost all historical perspective? Perspective is not hard to find, as Google has the numbers. On June 6, 1944, D-day, at the start of the invasion of Normandy, the best figures we have is that we lost 2,500 American troops verified as killed, maybe 10,000 wounded or missing. That's in one day, in one big battle, in one fairly focused location. In the last year and a half, we conquered a country the size of California, deposed a brutal despot, pacified the country with the exception of a handful of hotspots, began reconstruction of its society and infrastructure, opened up a closed society to the world via the Internet, and turned over sovereignty to an interim government that is planning elections. And in that year and a half, we lost about 4% of the number of troops we lost in the single battle of D-day. That's a staggeringly good casualty rate, and if this is a disaster, may we have more of them.
There are a lot of Iraqis who don't think this is a disaster as well. And because of said opening up through the Internet, they are very eager to tell you about it. Try Healing Iraq, The Mesopatamian, and Iraq the Model as starters. You may find a lot of frank talk about some of the terrible things that are happening, but underlying it all is a strong undercurrent of hope.
No, Iraq is a disaster only if you concede that the terrorists were right in their assessment of us up until 9/11: that we really have gone soft. That we have gone so soft we cannot handle wartime casualties that would have been barely noticeable in previous wars. What concerns me about this election is not just that I would not like to think that we really have become weak and fearful, without any backbone. It's the risk of confirming in the terrorists' eyes that this is the case.
Look at it from their eyes, considering that they don't understand the nuances of our electoral process and are more inclined to think in terms of dynastic power. (As evidence, consider the recent bin Laden tape in which he blithely speaks of Bush I installing his sons as governors and then moving one of them up to president.) So, Bush I goes to war against Islam in the early 90s, and even though he does pretty well, the American people get nervous and depose him. No, that's not quite what happened, but that's what they see. Then after 9/11, Bush's son again goes to war against Islam, does even better, and again the American people get nervous and depose him.
That sends a clear message to the Islamofascists, and a very bad one from our point of view. It says that no matter what a US president does to them, all they have to do is hold out until we the people lose our nerve and depose him, as we inevitably will.
So far we really have used considerable restraint in our military actions. We really have tried to minimize civilian casualties, even at the cost of our own. If we didn't care about civilians, Fallujah would have been a smoking hole in the ground eight months ago, and our enemies know it. The only way restrained tactics can work against such an enemy is if the enemy knows that you are absolutely resolute, that you will keep hitting them and hitting them until the ones that aren't dead just give up and quit.
A sign of irresolution, however, not only emboldens them to keep hanging on, but even encourages them to increase the level of attack. In the end, this is dangerous for us, but disastrous for them, even if they don't fully appreciate it. Push us too hard, and we'll get mad enough to stop being restrained, and then Fallujah will be just a hole in the ground.
In the worst case scenario, the terrorists hold on long enough to get their hands on true WMD, say a suitcase nuke. After 9/11, no one would have been too surprised, or too critical, if we had (as one guy put it) "gone Roman" on Al Qaeda and the country that harbored them. To our credit, we didn't. But if Washington or Boston or Philadelphia were to disappear in a mushroom cloud, we might truly "go postal" as a nation. In that case, Mecca and Medina might wind up plains of molten radioactive glass, and that would be an unmitigated disaster. It's not just that the world would never forgive us. It's that, after the rage wore off, we'd never forgive ourselves.
These seem to be the risks of sending the wrong signals at this terribly dangerous time in history. Though I really cringe at the idea of voting for Bush, I truly fear that electing Kerry would send the most wrong signals possible. If I'm mistaken, you've got 24 hours to convince me.