As in a classic fairy tale or a not-so-classic game show, John Kerry finds himself in a closed room staring at three closed doors. One is labeled "Reduce U.S. Forces in Iraq." The second door reads "Maintain Troop Levels"; the third says "Increase Them."
And here's Kerry's problem: The risk of opening any of those doors exceeds the rewards.
If Kerry calls for downsizing our occupation force by so much as one buck private, the Republicans will go calculatedly berserk. He'll be yet another Massachusetts wuss and, worse yet, a geo-strategic flip-flopper -- backing off his current stance of maintaining or, if need be, increasing our force in Iraq.
The considerable irony here is that Kerry has maintained the same position on the war since he voted to authorize our intervention back in the fall of 2002: in favor of ousting Saddam Hussein but insisting we needed the backing and aegis of the United Nations and NATO to have the troop strength and legitimacy required to rebuild the nation. The flip-flopper on Iraq has been George W. Bush, who was single-minded when it came to getting Hussein but whose views on controlling postwar Iraq have gone from a truculent unilateralism to a Kerry-esque acknowledgement that we need the United Nations to run the place until an Iraqi government can assume sovereignty.
But say Kerry keeps to his current position, choosing to maintain or boost troop levels depending on the level of chaos that Iraq is suffering. Behind either of those doors stands Ralph Nader, with a new and more compelling raison d'être for his candidacy than he's had thus far. Nader now calls for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq within six months -- a position that recent polling shows is shared by more than 40 percent of the electorate, including, surely, tens of millions of Democrats and left-leaning independents.
The vast majority of those Democrats and independents will stick with Kerry come what may, but Nader need only pick up a relative handful to throw the election to Bush. As well, Democratic turnout will not be helped if Kerry and Bush present a united front on Iraq while millions of potential voters are hoping for a change of course.
Kerry's views on Iraq reflect those of the Democratic foreign policy elites, who largely maintain an embattled Wilsonian optimism about the prospects -- or at least, the necessity -- of shaping Iraq into a unified, pluralistic democracy. A relative handful of the party's foreign policy mavens -- most prominently, Les Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Peter Galbraith, former U.S. ambassador to Croatia -- have a more chastened perspective. Heirs of such Vietnam-era realists as Sen. J. William Fulbright and political scientist Hans Morgenthau, they argue that Iraq is more nearly three countries than one -- a Shiite south inclined toward some form of Islamic rule, though not necessarily a theocratic republic; a democratic Kurdish north; and a Sunni-dominated middle with large non-Sunni minorities. No region will accept the domination of another, and striking a politically acceptable balance between majority rule and minority rights under these circumstances is all but impossible. You can't do nation-building, they conclude, when the nation doesn't want to be built.
Gelb has argued for letting Iraq devolve into three separate states. Galbraith, fearing that an independent Kurdistan would soon be invaded by a Kurdophobic Turkey, calls for establishing one state with a common foreign policy but consisting of three largely autonomous regions in all other matters. The realists acknowledge that there would be dreadful consequences from either kind of devolution -- certainly, women in the Shiite south would have their freedoms and lives ratcheted backward by several centuries -- but that this is going to be the eventual outcome in any case. Seeking to forestall it by a U.S. military occupation would just lead to more bloodshed and an even greater estrangement of the United States from the Islamic (and not just the Islamic) world. An inspection of polling in Middle Eastern nations or a quick glance at the nightly news suggests that the realists are on to something.
Were Kerry to move from a Wilsonian to a realist position on Iraq, he'd surely be subjected to a gantlet of flip-flop attacks. But when the United States has been trapped in unwinnable occupations before, as it was in Korea and Vietnam, its voters have tended to reward the candidate who acknowledged the stalemate -- or, at minimum, to get rid of the incumbent whose policies produced it. In this election year, my hunch is that voters would prefer a dialogue to a monologue on the subject of what to do in Iraq. And they'd embrace a candidate who'd come to recognize the sad wisdom of scaling down our mission -- and with that, our troop levels -- to just being part of an international transitional force in the middle third of Iraq.
John Kerry needs another option to those three closed doors. So does the United States.
Harold Meyerson is the Prospect's editor-at-large. This story originally appeared in The Washington Post.