Forget the rest of the conservative commentariat. The American Spectator‘s website alone, including the letters column, has been full of advice for President Bush on what he should say — or should have said — in the first two debates with Senator John Kerry. Truly, you can understand why. Like most Bush partisans, I watch with a certain grim determination, knowing our guy’s right, that John Kerry will say absolutely anything, and that the lies and half-truths will pile up high and demand a good swift kick, and knowing, too, that President Bush probably won’t deliver that ultimate kick to the Kerry pile of you-know-what.
But consider President Bush’s situation — the situation of any President in wartime, faced with an ad-lib partisan debate. There are far more things he can’t say than those he can, because the President actually is in the game of world politics. What he says could fracture alliances, end relationships, start wars. And some of his best ripostes are barred to him because of that.
In two debates, for example, Senator Kerry has insisted that he would eliminate the “nuclear bunker buster bomb program” from the United States’ arsenal. Unfair, don’t you know. Asking those other countries like Iran and North Korea to give up their nuclear arms programs, and then we go ahead developing new H-bombs. Hardly sporting, what? Not diplomatic.
Everybody in the world — take that literally — knows why the United States is developing those bombs. But can the President say something like, “You want to eliminate nuclear bunker buster bombs, Senator? What are we going to do about rogue nuclear powers when sanctions don’t work? I haven’t noticed they’re too responsive to talk.”
Even implying that threat in a public forum could cause an act of war.
Similarly, when Senator Kerry insists that the United States is ignoring the threat of Iran, or that the United States is “distracted” in Iraq when the “real threat” is in Iran, could the President say this?
“What makes you think we’re not doing anything about Iran? We already have special forces teams deployed all over Iran working with the democratic opposition to the mullahs. And we’re already at war with Iran. It’s a proxy war, going on right now in Iraq.”
Nope. Can’t say that.
Neither can President Bush make the obvious response to Senator Kerry’s repeated accusation that the United States has “turned its back on its traditional alliances” and “failed to bring aboard our traditional allies” in the war on terror.
“What countries are you talking about there, Senator? France, maybe? Did you know that France was bribed by Saddam Hussein through the Oil for Food program, to the tune of X billion dollars? And that France sold weapons to Saddam right through our war in 2003?”
Not when the United States still depends on French cooperation for fighting terrorism in North Africa.
When Senator Kerry slams the Bush administration for a “too few troops on the ground” and “failing to win the peace,” the President cannot say something like this:
“Senator Kerry, the Fourth Infantry Division was missing from our forces at the time the war started — and ended. Those are the forces that would have settled conflicts in Northern Iraq, where most of the trouble is now. Why was that division missing, Senator? Because those allies you keep talking about held up Turkey’s membership in the EU unless the Turks denied us passage through Turkey for that division. Those are your ‘global test’ buddies, Senator.”
Can’t say it, that is, without alienating Turkey and inflaming already difficult relationships with “old Europe.”
Now, either John Kerry knows that he’s saying things President Bush can’t respond to, or he doesn’t. In the first case, he’s a corrupt liar; he’s lying to the American people about what he can do and President Bush can’t. He’s had intelligence briefings. He knows where things stand. In the second case, he’s plain stupid.
I don’t think he’s stupid.
It reminds me of the time, during the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearings about Bill Clinton, when Clinton lawyer David Kendall questioned Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Kendall asked something based on an accusation raised by Sidney Blumenthal, raised when Blumenthal illegally revealed grand jury proceedings. Starr, whose office was in charge of that grand jury, could not legally admit that such testimony even took place.
Kendall, in other words, had asked a corrupt question. Starr was as angry as I have ever seen him, and recited the substance of the grand jury statute to Kendall. That was all he could do.
As President Bush listens to John Kerry repeatedly do the same thing, it’s no wonder his face wrinkles up in a disgusted scowl.