A mostly non-partisan voter's guide to the November 2004 American election, intended for people who don't have much time to follow political issues. Adapted from a similar guide I put together for the Canadian federal election in June 2004.
Table of contents:
1. Why should I vote?
2. How do I decide who to vote for?
As an outsider, I'm a little hesitant to comment on the US election--I'm Canadian, not American--but then I thought, so is David Frum. I've tried to be as objective as possible.
Because voting is one of the duties of being a citizen, like paying your taxes. You don't have to like it, you just have to do it.
If you don't vote, what difference does it make? It's a little like littering: if only one person does it, it doesn't make much difference, but when it's widespread, it makes a huge mess.
Politicians answer to collective public opinion, as expressed in elections. If the subset of people who decide to vote is not representative of the entire population--if richer people vote and poorer people don't, or if older people vote and younger people don't--then politicians will be more concerned with the interests of the voters than with the interests of the non-voters (tax cuts over services, health care over education). The smaller the number of people who vote, the more distorted the process becomes.
Moreover, in close races, your vote really does make a difference: a handful of votes can decide the result. The 2000 race between George W. Bush and Al Gore was decided by 537 votes in Florida. The website www.electoral-vote.com attempts to predict the outcome of the election, based on state-by-state polls; as of October 14, there are 11 states in which the difference between the two candidates is less than 5%, and another 15 states in which the difference is less than 10%.
If you don't have the time or interest to follow politics closely, I'd suggest asking yourself the following question: Do you believe that the US is following the right strategy in the war on terror?
If you think the current strategy is working, you should vote for Bush. If you think that the current strategy has failed, you should vote for Kerry.
The current long-term strategy of the US is to go to the roots of the problem by liberating the Middle East from tyrannical regimes, starting with Iraq. David Frum (the speechwriter who came up with the term "axis of hatred" for Bush's 2002 State of the Union address) describes this strategy in his book The Right Man:
... should the United States take President Bush's words literally and continue the war on terror until terrorism was entirely uprooted from Middle Eastern and Muslim politics? If the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein next, it could create a reliable American ally in the potential superpower of the Arab world. With American troops so close, the Iranian people would be emboldened to rise against the mullahs. And as Iran and Iraq built moderate, representative, pro-Western regimes, the pressure on the Saudis and the other Arab states to liberalize and modernize would intensify. It was quite a gamble--but also quite a prize.
If you believe this is the right strategy--yes, there's some problems in Iraq, but things aren't that bad, they'll work out in the end if we just maintain our political will--then you should vote for Bush. Kerry would only constrain the ability of the US to act, by deferring to allies and to the UN.
If, on the other hand, you believe that this strategy is unrealistic and utopian, even reckless, and has greatly overextended the US in the Middle East--out of ten active divisions in the US army, nine are committed to Iraq, and the insurgency only seems to be getting worse--then you should vote for Kerry. In this view, the US strategy ought to be to isolate, hunt down, and kill al-Qaeda and its affiliates ("Jihad International"), without radicalizing the Arab and Muslim world and supplying the jihad with a growing number of recruits. (This is my own view.)
In this view, the US is fighting two different wars: a global war against al-Qaeda, centered in Afghanistan, and a war against the growing insurgency in Iraq. In Iraq, there aren't any good choices, since there aren't any more troops available. Kerry's planning to add two more divisions to the US army, and double the size of the special forces, but that'll take time; and he's going to try to get more international support--it's not in the interest of US allies to see Iraq dissolve into civil war or chaos--but he may or may not succeed. Nevertheless, he's more likely to succeed than Bush, simply because Bush doesn't appear to realize the magnitude of the problem. Moreover, given that Bush was responsible for the decision that got the US into the mess into the first place--going to war with a grossly inadequate postwar plan, based on wishful thinking--it seems unwise to rely on him to get the US out of it. He hasn't fired any of his key advisors, so he's still getting the same advice.
Transcript of first Bush/Kerry debate, September 30, 2004. Includes annotations regarding misstatements by both candidates.
John Kerry, Speech at Temple University, September 24, 2004. Outlines Kerry's strategy for the war against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
John Kerry, Speech at New York University, September 20, 2004. Outlines Kerry's strategy for Iraq.
A collection of articles describing the situation in Iraq as of September 2004.
The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, September 2004. See especially Chapter 12, What To Do? A Global Strategy.
Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack (2004). Describes the lead-up to the war in Iraq. The Washington Post has posted a series of excerpts on its website.
James Fallows, "Blind into Baghdad", Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2004. Describes the pre-war planning.
Kenneth Pollack, "Spies, Lies, and Weapons: What Went Wrong," Atlantic Monthly, January/February 2004. What happened to the WMD? Inspections turned out to have been more effective than Pollack had expected.
Garrett Jones, "Iraq: We Have Seen This Movie Before," FPRI E-Notes, December 15, 2003. Describes the CIA's experience fighting al-Qaeda in Somalia.
Jeremy Shapiro and Benedicte Suzan, "The French Experience of Counter-Terrorism," Survival, Spring 2003.
David Frum, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush (2003). I've posted some quotes describing the current strategy in the war on terror.
Bob Woodward, Bush at War (2002). Describes Bush and his war cabinet during the aftermath of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan.
Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam's War Against America (2002). The best book I've seen on al-Qaeda. Quite scary.
John Kerry, Senate speech during Iraq debate, October 9, 2002.
George W. Bush, Remarks at the United Nations General Assembly, September 12, 2002.
George W. Bush, West Point speech, June 1, 2002. Major speech justifying pre-emptive war.
Kenneth Pollack, "Next Stop Baghdad?," Foreign Affairs, March/April 2002. The case for going after Iraq, by a former Clinton NSC staffer.
George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, January 29, 2002. Describes the US strategy in the war on terror, after Afghanistan.
Michael Scott Doran, "Somebody Else's Civil War," Foreign Affairs, January/February 2002. Describes the civil war between radical Islamists (such as al-Qaeda) and repressive governments (particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt) throughout the 1990s.
Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951). A classic analysis of mass movements and political fanaticism.
October 4, 2004