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Empire of Insanity: Kerry's Iraq Numbers
(Fourth in a series)
by Greg Bates
October 22, 2004

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* Read Part One
* Read Part Two
* Read Part Three 

Where's Richard Nixon when you need him?

Taking a leaf from his record on sustainable energy, John Kerry now wants to make the war in Iraq sustainable. Just for today, let's put aside all our objections to the carnage and look at it from Kerry's point of view.

Some progressives cling to the hope that a vote for Kerry is a vote for peace. Such wishful thinking could lead many to breathe a mistaken sigh of relief in the event of a Kerry victory. We need an accurate picture of what Kerry's game plan means so that protests continue to grow. On October 13, 2004 The Wall Street Journal provided a sobering antidote to progressive hopes, by pegging Kerry right. It stated on the front page that, "On Iraq and the war on terror, George Bush and John Kerry differ mainly on tactics, assessments, and tone, while sharing the same broad goals."

But even within Kerry's own framework, the numbers don't add up.

Kerry's plan for reducing what we might call the empire man's burden is to build an international coalition so that we don't continue to "bear 90% of the costs and 90% of the casualties." Of course, we'll leave aside the fact that while our dead number 1,100 or so, Iraqi dead number over 30,000, making our burden of the dead 3 percent, not 90%.

As Alex Cockburn put it powerfully, Kerry's attempts at coalition building would be about as fruitful as General Custer asking the Canadians for help prior to his last stand. Imagine being a world leader, Jacque Chirac, say, and you get the call from President Kerry. Kerry is willing to give you lucrative reconstruction contracts, a share of the oil. Tempting, but you look over your shoulder at the electorate. In Spain, voters replaced their government because they got embroiled in this war. Or you ponder the fate of Tony Blair, who is hanging onto his career by his fingernails, having exhausted all domestic political capital by his support of Bush.

As you consider this request to put your troops and your career on the line, you might recall Kerry's language during the first presidential debate. He said he would "lead" the coalition. Shouldn't Kerry be talking more about building consensus with you as your equal, and less about leading you? Wouldn't you find the assumption of a U.S. president that he is your leader an insult?

You might want to clue Kerry in to what's really going on in Iraq by gently telling a story or two from your days in the military fighting a hopeless war in Algeria. Chirac warned Bush and the world prior to the invasion, but it fell on deaf ears.

Taking a brief break from this fantasy, recall that Kerry has criticized Bush's coalition as "the coerced and the bribed." Yet Kerry has also criticized Bush for not giving reconstruction contracts to countries that didn't participate in the invasion. Putting those two statements together, we can see more clearly what Kerry's beef really is: Bush's bribes weren't big enough!

Let's return to Kerry's fantasy and assume he offers you, as leader of your country, bribes that you just can't resist. You say, okay, I'll risk my troops for your war. For the sake of considering what a Kerry success would mean, let's say you commit 10,000 soldiers, an amount that exceeds the 8,000 or so British troops. Then Kerry goes on to score similar commitments from 4 other countries, expanding the coalition by 5, raking in foreign troops to be used as fodder to the tune of 50,000 soldiers. It would be a huge win, beyond what I believe even Kerry would hope for.

(Note that there is a plausible path to coalition building, but Kerry, or any other American president, would never take it. Shortly after the heinous train bombings in Madrid on March 11 2004, the socialists were swept into office, replacing the conservatives who had earlier defied the 80% of the population that didn't want Spanish troops in Iraq. But contrary to the impression given by widespread media reports, the newly elected Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, did not pledge to remove his 1,300 troops unconditionally. Rather, he was more nuanced, saying:

"If the United Nations does not take over the situation and there is not a rethinking of this chaotic occupation we are living through, in which there are more dead in the occupation than in the war phase, the Spanish troops are going to return to Spain."

That is a call for the use of force in accordance with international law. If we stay in Iraq it must be under UN, not U.S. auspices. It's just the kind of cooperation one might think John Kerry is advocating: avoid unilateralism, work through international institutions.

But Kerry rebuked Zapatero unequivocally. The Boston Globe of March 19, 2004, quoted him as saying, "I call on Prime Minister Zapatero to reconsider his decision and to send a message that terrorists cannot win by their acts of terror." In other words, simply saying that you require a UN mandate to participate in occupying a country is, in effect, sending the wrong message to terrorists.

So coalition building, at least from a European perspective, might be possible, but is hampered by the U.S. insistence that its forces remain outside international law.)

It is this unlikely coalition that is the basis for Kerry's claim that, by the end of 2005, he can reduce the number of American soldiers in Iraq.

Here's why, even if Kerry succeeded, that plan is insane. Kerry quotes General Shinseki, the Army chief of staff as saying we needed several hundred thousand troops to pacify Iraq. From a rational perspective, Kerry's criticism of Bush for not implementing Shinseki's recommendation is essentially, we should have hammered them harder; your war crime just wasn't big enough. But putting aside the matter of criminality, let's just accept that a grisly pacification of Iraq is a good idea. Remember, from Kerry's perspective, we are the good guys.

It follows that if we didn't have enough troops then, we don't have enough troops now. If we needed several hundred thousand back at the initial invasion (back when we could make a dubious claim to be improving life for Iraqis by ousting Saddam) how many more do you think we need today, now that we are accurately perceived as occupiers and torturers? For the sake of argument, let's stay in denial of the hardening Iraqi resolve and believe that we can still "win" with Shinseki's earlier estimate of just a few hundred thousand troops. To give Kerry the benefit of the doubt, let's lean toward a Rumsfeldian optimism and hope Kerry can get the job done on the cheap for 200,000.

As of September, we reportedly have some 110,000 troops in Iraq. Top that up with a hugely optimistic 50,000 foreign troops to 160,000 and we're still at least 40,000 troops short of what's needed to "win the peace." In other words, we need an increase in our own troop strength of more than one-third (110,000 plus 40,000), and that's based on the assumption that we get more foreign troops than any rational estimate would suggest.

If Shinseki's number really is right, and several hundred thousand are needed, not 200,000, then even armed with Kerry's fantasy coalition, we'll be short over 100,000 troops. To do the job, and I shudder what that term really would mean in this context, we might easily have to double American troop presence in Iraq. It's the best evidence I've seen for predicting a return of the draft.

You can see now why I pine for Nixon. Running for election in 1968, he was smart enough to claim he had a secret plan to end the war, which had to remain classified. Even though he later intensified the war, he knew what people wanted to hear. He gave it to them and they bought it. It's easy to see why Kerry, in contrast, is less popular than Nixon: Kerry's pledge to win the peace is a public plan to escalate the war.

Greg Bates is the founding publisher at Common Courage Press and author of Ralph’s Revolt: The Case for Joining Nader’s Rebellion. He can be reached at

Other Articles by Greg Bates

* An Open Letter to Eric Alterman
* What If Nader Critics Get What They Demand?
* Ralph’s Right Stuff: The Politics of Nader’s Republican Support
* How to Win Enemies and Influence People: Nader’s Campaign Victories
* Ralph’s Revolt: A Discussion with Greg Bates