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.
In the course of the past week an odd double standard has emerged in the presidential campaign. Every sentence and gesture of the young John Kerry has been scrutinized -- and often deliberately misinterpreted -- for signs of insincerity, self-promotion, lack of patriotism and fledgling Francophilia.
The sentences and gestures of the young George W. Bush, on the other hand, remain shrouded in obscurity. You don't build a record if you don't show up, and that's exactly what Bush did during the Vietnam War.
The Republicans have subjected Kerry's time in Vietnam to the kind of going-over normally accorded war criminals. Did he really deserve that third Purple Heart? How big, exactly, was that piece of shrapnel that had to be removed from his left arm?
Has John Kerry fully pondered the extent of the mess -- or, more properly, messes -- he will inherit from George Bush should he be elected president in November?
The crystal ball for Iraq is necessarily more cloudy than the one for the home front. Still, the United States will almost surely still have a sizable occupation force in Iraq on Jan. 20. It's also a safe bet that the occupation will be at least as unpopular among millions of Iraqis then as it is today. Occupations, unlike wines, do not age well.
Don't look now, but is the Bush administration creeping toward John Kerry's position on Iraq?
I am writing this column hours before the president's Tuesday news conference, so I have to allow for the possibility that he will stun us with some radical new departure -- perhaps even articulating a coherent policy. But whatever the president says, the administration has been moving closer to acknowledging the desirability -- and at times, the necessity -- of letting the United Nations do the work of nation-building that George Bush once assumed the United States should undertake.
So now the president's war of choice has led to an occupation with no good options.
The Bush administration's plan is to hand over control of Iraq to the Iraqi Governing Council on June 30. Just how that council will sustain itself in power, however, is increasingly unclear after the upheaval of the past few days. Its own police force, which the United States has spent time and treasure recruiting and training, all but collapsed during the uprising of Moqtada Sadr's Shiite militia.
In Kufa, Najaf and Baghdad's own Sadr City, the government's new cops handed over police cars and police stations to the militia without any reported resistance. In some instances, the cops actually joined forces with Sadr's militants.