Magazine article New York Times Upfront

What's at Stake: Many Issues Will Confront Whoever Wins in November. but in Choosing between George W. Bush and John Kerry, Voters Will Decide What America's Role in the World Should Be

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

What's at Stake: Many Issues Will Confront Whoever Wins in November. but in Choosing between George W. Bush and John Kerry, Voters Will Decide What America's Role in the World Should Be

Article excerpt

Almost 40 years have passed since so much was at stake in a single presidential election. In times of peace, Presidents and their challengers argue about unemployment and taxes, the future of Social Security, whether the Federal government is too big, or what rules it should set to protect the environment. In times of war, those questions are still important and will certainly be debated, but they recede to the background as voters make a gut judgment about who they trust to better protect the nation.

The battle between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry is one of those elections. For all the talk about how this is a contest between a conservative Texan and a Massachusetts liberal, a tough-talking unilateralist versus a more moderate-sounding Vietnam veteran, in the end it is likely to be an election about the wisdom of the American experiment in Iraq and whether the nation is now safer than it was before Sept. 11, 2001.

The United States has not faced an election like this since 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War (see Times Pant, p. 22). The country is deeply divided about President Bush's tumultuous three-and-a-half years in office--a span that has covered one of the largest attacks on American soil, two American led invasions (Afghanistan and Iraqi, and endless investigations about who is to blame for intelligence failures and for the mistreatment of American-held prisoners in Iraq.

SWING VOTERS AND IRAQ

Because the divide in the country is so deep, the election may well be determined by which way a dwindling number of voters--the "swing" voters in key states who haven't yet made up their minds--decide the Iraq issue. This means, according to Andrew Kohut, who conducts polls for the Pew Research Center, that "Iraq is the joker in the deck," the unpredictable factor for both candidates.

More broadly, this election is also a referendum about whether the United States should continue to pursue what has become known as the Bush Doctrine: a willingness to execute a pre-emptive strike against any foe that the U.S. believes could pose a threat sometime in the future.

"September the 11th, 2001, taught a lesson I will never forget," Bush said to the wild cheers of his supporters at an appearance in Cincinnati on May 4, turning pre-emption into a campaign theme. "America must confront threats before they fully materialize."

Kerry views the world very differently. He says he does not disagree that the U.S. needs to battle terrorists or even that American troops need to stay in Iraq until the country is stable. Kerry voted in late 2002 for the congressional resolution authorizing the President to use military force to remove Saddam Hussein from power. But now, he argues that Bush botched the job by going to war without a broader coalition of countries firmly behind the invasion.

At every opportunity, the Massachusetts Senator casts Bush's approach to the world as "the most arrogant foreign policy" in American history, one that has isolated America from the United Nations and from allies it now badly needs to rebuild Iraq, and needlessly driven away countries that were sympathetic to the U.S. after September 11.

NUCLEAR THREATS

With the safety of the country paramount on voters' minds, the candidates disagree about whether Washington is even focused on the right threats today. While Iraq has dominated the headlines and tied up American forces--there are precious few American troops available to deal with an emergency elsewhere--Iran and North Korea have both apparently made tremendous progress in their nuclear-weapons programs. North Korea, the CIA believes, has probably created enough nuclear material in the past year for six or more bombs. The Iranians, in addition to feeding the insurgency in Iraq, have their own suspect nuclear program.

"This administration has been almost myopic in its view on Iraq itself, to the exclusion of things that are necessary to in fact make the world safer," Kerry said in an interview. …

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