Imposing accountability

The Economist, “with a heavy heart,” endorses John Kerry for President. This was a well written, balanced and cogent piece, a welcome relief from all of the mind-numbing TV advertisements and pundits.First up, George W. Bush…

Mr Bush was inspiring in the way he reacted to the new world in which he, and America, found itself. He grasped the magnitude of the challenge well. His military response in Afghanistan…was a resolute, measured effort, which was reassuringly sober about the likely length of the campaign against Osama bin Laden and the elusiveness of anything worth the name of victory.

Mistakes were made, but overall, the mission has achieved a lot: the Taliban were removed, al-Qaeda lost its training camps and its base, and Afghanistan has just held elections that bring cautious hope for the central government’s future ability to bring stability and prosperity.

The biggest mistake, though, was one that will haunt America for years to come. It lay in dealing with prisoners-of-war by sending hundreds of them to the American base at Guant�namo Bay in Cuba. Today, Guant�namo Bay offers constant evidence of America’s hypocrisy, evidence that is disturbing for those who sympathise with it, cause-affirming for those who hate it.

Mr Bush’s credibility has been considerably undermined not just by Guant�namo but also by two big things: by the sheer incompetence and hubristic thinking evident in the way in which his team set about the rebuilding of Iraq, once Saddam Hussein’s regime had been toppled; and by the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which strengthened the suspicion that the mistreatment or even torture of prisoners was being condoned.

Such incompetence is no mere detail: thousands of Iraqis have died as a result and hundreds of American soldiers. The eventual success of the mission, while still possible, has been put in unnecessary jeopardy. So has America’s reputation in the Islamic world, both for effectiveness and for moral probity.

To succeed, however, America needs a president capable of admitting to mistakes and of learning from them. Mr Bush has steadfastly refused to admit to anything: even after Abu Ghraib, when he had a perfect opportunity to dismiss Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, and declare a new start, he chose not to. Instead, he treated the abuses as if they were a low-level, disciplinary issue. Can he learn from mistakes?

In the end, one can do no more than guess about whether in a second term Mr Bush would prove more competent.

And John F. Kerry…

Like those two previous challengers, Mr Kerry has shaped many of his positions to contrast himself with the incumbent. That is par for the course. What is more disconcerting, however, is the way those positions have oscillated, even as the facts behind them have stayed the same.

In the American system, given Congress’s substantial role, presidents should primarily be chosen for their character, their qualities of leadership, for how they might be expected to deal with the crises that may confront them, abroad or at home. Oscillation, even during an election campaign, is a worrying sign.

If the test is a domestic one, especially an economic crisis, Mr Kerry looks acceptable, however. His record and instincts are as a fiscal conservative, suggesting that he would rightly see future federal budget deficits as a threat. His circle of advisers includes the admirable Robert Rubin, formerly Mr Clinton’s treasury secretary.

His only big spending plan, on health care, would probably be killed by a Republican Congress. On trade, his position is more debatable: while an avowed free trader with a voting record in the Senate to confirm it, he has flirted with attacks on outsourcing this year and chosen a rank protectionist as his running-mate.

Still, on social policy, Mr Kerry has a clear advantage: unlike Mr Bush he is not in hock to the Christian right. That will make him a more tolerant, less divisive figure on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and stem-cell research.

The biggest questions, though, must be about foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. That is where his oscillations are most unsettling.

So what is Mr Kerry’s character? His voting record implies he is a vacillator, but that may be unfair, given the technical nature of many Senate votes. His oscillations this year imply that he is more of a ruthless opportunist.

His military record suggests he can certainly be decisive when he has to be and his post-Vietnam campaign showed determination. His reputation for political comebacks and as a strong finisher in elections also indicates a degree of willpower that his flip-flopping otherwise belies.

John Kerry says the war was a mistake, which is unfortunate if he is to be commander-in-chief of the soldiers charged with fighting it. But his plan for the next phase in Iraq is identical to Mr Bush’s, which speaks well of his judgment. He has been forthright about the need to win in Iraq, rather than simply to get out, and will stand a chance of making a fresh start in the Israel-Palestine conflict and (though with even greater difficulty) with Iran.

After three necessarily tumultuous and transformative years, this is a time for consolidation, for discipline and for repairing America’s moral and practical authority. Furthermore, as Mr Bush has often said, there is a need in life for accountability. He has refused to impose it himself, and so voters should, in our view, impose it on him, given a viable alternative. John Kerry, for all the doubts about him, would be in a better position to carry on with America’s great tasks.

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