KERRY AND IRAQ….Several people have written to take me to task for criticizing John Kerry’s foreign policy flabbiness (here and here) without offering something constructive to take its place. This is a fair point, so let’s offer something constructive.

First, though, a question: does Kerry’s national security policy really matter that much? I think it does for a couple of reasons:

  • We liberals would like to think that the election is going to turn (or can be made to turn) on the state of the economy, or perhaps on favored social issues like education or healthcare. This is dreamland. The economy is going to do whatever the economy does, and right now it looks like it will be bad enough that Kerry has a chance to win but good enough that it won’t hurt Bush too badly. Relying on that to win the election would be foolish.

    Whether we like it or not, this just isn’t the year for social issues to take center stage. The president has far more ability to control the agenda than the challenger, and Bush’s campaign message is already clear: the world is a dangerous place and John Kerry can’t be trusted to keep you safe.

    This is not to say that the economy and social issues won’t play a role. Of course they will, and Kerry should take advantage of his strengths in these areas. But the key issue is going to be terrorism and ? especially ? the war in Iraq. I think liberals need to face up to this squarely even if we don’t like it.

  • Survey results for the past several months have been clear: Bush’s approval ratings for handling the war have gone down, people increasingly believe it was a mistake to invade Iraq, and sentiment is moving in the direction of bringing the troops home. But this hasn’t helped Kerry. It does give him an opening, but by itself it’s not enough for people to have doubts about Bush; they also have to believe that Kerry is likely to do a better job.

What to do? Dan Drezner summarizes Kerry’s problem pretty well: (a) when things go badly overseas ? even if people blame the president ? they tend to rally around him; (b) as a Democrat, Kerry can’t afford to look weak if he wants to win moderates to his side, but he can’t seem too aggressive or else he’ll lose his liberal base; and (c) it’s hard to figure out a way to really distinguish his Iraq policy from Bush’s.

To a certain extent, this is OK for the moment. One of the advantages that challengers have is that they can wait before they lay their policies in stone. After all, facts on the ground in Iraq could change dramatically in the next few weeks, so why shouldn’t Kerry let Bush stew in his own juices a while longer before committing himself to a policy that he won’t be able to execute until next year anyway?

These are good points, and waiting until after the June 30 handover in Iraq might not hurt Kerry. But to win the election Kerry has to convince the fence sitters that he can do better than Bush, and I think he needs to do it by July at the latest, before Bush has had a chance to irrevocably define him as untrustworthy on national security. What’s more, this is a case where policy wonkishness and 20-page position papers won’t do the job for him. Max Boot may come at this from a different perspective, but he’s right when he says that Kerry needs a “compelling alternative.” To distinguish himself, he needs to have two or three very clear, very simple, and very persuasive proposals that he knows Bush can’t endorse. And he needs to hammer on them.

Here are some examples of the kind of things I’m talking about:

  • Break Iraq into three parts. Peter Galbraith made the case for this a few days ago and I was skeptical of it, but it’s nonetheless a compelling and worthwhile idea. It’s easy to understand and explain, it cuts through a lot of problems at once, and it’s not something Bush is proposing.

  • Significantly expand the Army, especially its peacekeeping functions. You could put a humanitarian spin on this too. Or maybe a new branch of the military dedicated to special ops. No more arguments between the CIA and the Air Force about who’s in charge of Predator drones.

  • Propose killing a major weapons system. Maybe the F-35, or something to do with missile defense. Recommend a major new program for technology better suited to asymmetrical warfare against terrorists. A military that’s oriented toward fighting terrorism, not the Cold War, is badly needed, and Bush has done little to get us there. He’s vulnerable on this issue, and it’s an area where Kerry could really score some points.

I’m not necessarily advocating any of these specific ideas, but you get the idea. Kerry needs to pick something he believes in and then hone it into a proposal that’s easy to understand, that provokes a serious debate, and that makes him look like the guy with new ideas compared to a hidebound administration that refuses to face up to the requirements of a new kind of warfare. And don’t get hung up on the details.

And one more thing: as Mark Schmitt observed a few days ago, this is something where the usual Democratic pressure groups need to give Kerry some breathing room. Some of them undoubtedly think he should just declare the Iraq war unwinnable and propose that we withdraw. But in the America we actually live in, as opposed to the one in our imaginations, that would be suicidal. George McGovern is still alive and can confirm this.

So let Kerry make proposals like these without attacking him from the left, especially since there’s no telling what the actual situation in going to be next January 20 anyway. There will be plenty of opportunity to start pressuring him after he’s comfortably ensconced in the Oval Office.