A big question in determining whether the Democrats can take back the White House next year is: Can the party think straight on matters of war and peace?
Judging from Sen. John Kerry’s performance Tuesday, the answer is “no.”
Let’s try to follow Kerry’s argument. First, he says his vote “to threaten the use of force” against Iraq last year was “right.” O.K., but why?
Presumably because Saddam represented a threat to the region and to U.S. interests severe enough to justify war. Otherwise, Kerry should have voted against the resolution. Indeed, the resolution said, in part, “Whereas Iraq’s demonstrated capability and willingness to use weapons of mass destruction, the risk that the current Iraqi regime will either employ those weapons to launch a surprise attack against the United States or its armed forces or provide them to international terrorists who would do so, and the extreme magnitude of harm that would result to the United States and its citizens from such an attack, combine to justify action by the United States to defend itself.”
Kerry tries to make it seem that his vote was only to threaten force when it was to authorize it, giving congressional approval for what everyone knew was President Bush’s march toward war.
Just threatening the use of force, after all, would have been a continuation of what had been U.S. policy for about a decade, and utterly unremarkable. Everyone understood they were voting for a departure. Kerry is dishonest to pretend otherwise. And what good is threatening force if you’re not going to use it? That’s worse than not threatening it in the first place.
Kerry’s straddle is that he wanted to threaten war, but not actually wage it unless, in effect, France was willing to go along. This is a fine position in the abstract. Of course, it would have been better to have the entire international community behind the Iraq intervention. But what if it wasn’t possible? It seems clear that France and Germany were opposed to an invasion of Iraq root and branch, and by the end of the U.S. effort to get a final U.N. resolution even Colin Powell was convinced that Paris was acting in bad faith.
So the question for Kerry is whether he would have waged war in Iraq absent French approval. Probably not. Which makes it incumbent on Kerry to explain how it would have served U.S. national interests to declare Saddam a threat, to demand his compliance with U.N. resolutions, and then to back off after encountering opposition from Europeans. And why he voted to authorize the president to “use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to: (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.”
At times, Kerry makes his opposition to the war in Iraq appear less situational — not enough allies — than categorical. He says, strongly implying that this is what Bush did in Iraq: “If I am President, the United States will never go to war because we want to, we will only go to war because we have to.” In this statement — if you take it seriously — Kerry has declared his opposition to the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and the interventions in Somalia and Haiti.
He seems to flirt with the argument that the U.S. historically only fights wars when it is attacked, declaring that Bush has violated “the very principles that made our nation a model to the world for over two centuries,” and put us “at odds with 200 years of our history.”
If this is true, why did Kerry vote to authorize Bush to fight a war of whim, and a war that violated American principles? This simply makes no sense. It is understandable that Howard Dean is beating Kerry so soundly, since at least Dean has a position on the foremost public-policy issue of the last two years that is coherent and Kerry doesn’t.
On the postwar situation in Iraq, Kerry indulges in delusion. He says, “We need to end the sense of American occupation as fast as possible and take the targets off American soldiers.” Getting more international help in Iraq does indeed make sense, and the Bush administration — perhaps belatedly — is setting about to do that.
But it is wishful thinking to believe that in any circumstance terrorists and their allies aren’t going to want to kill American soldiers — they did it in Beirut in 1983, they did it in Somalia in 1993, and they will continue to do it in Iraq in 2003, even if there are a couple of Indian and Turkish brigades on the ground with us. And hasn’t Kerry noticed that the resistance in Iraq has gladly murdered U.N. workers and Iraqis? They hate the entire project we’ve embarked on in Iraq, not just the U.S. as Kerry would seem to have it.
As a further sign of Bush’s international recklessness, Kerry invokes the administration’s interest in building a bunker-busting tactical nuclear weapon. He says that Bush “is poised to set off a new nuclear arms race,” thus retailing one of the great Democratic clichés from the 1980s and the missile defense debate of the 1990s. It is an utterly meaningless phrase. What arms race is Kerry talking about?
This is the situation, which has existed for a long time: The Russians are going down in nuclear missiles. The Chinese are going up in nuclear missiles. And the North Koreans are trying to build nuclear missiles. All of this is going to continue to happen whether the U.S. develops a new nuke or not.
Finally, Kerry scores Bush for not using American troops in the assault on Tora Bora. Fair enough. Some of us were appalled by the endless surrender negotiations undertaken by our proxies at the time. But one of the reasons we were relying on proxies in the first place was to reduce our footprint in Afghanistan, the kind of thing Kerry generally supports — unless, apparently, it gives him a way to criticize President Bush.
Kerry talks often of “arrogance” and “pride” in attacking the Bush administration; he surely is onto something. This administration does not admit mistakes easily. But Kerry (if he is the Democratic nominee) also opens himself up to a potential piece of jujitsu, the way Bob Dole did when he talked of returning to a better, past America. It seems to me Bush can — very loosely — turn Kerry’s pride charge around to say that America should be proud, and has nothing to be ashamed of in defending itself vigorously.
And if that doesn’t work, Bush can just point out that John Kerry makes no sense.
— Rich Lowry is author of the upcoming Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.