August 15, 2004
Mr. Kerry, as almost everyone now knows, voted to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq, in a post-9/11 climate of fear and widespread conviction that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that might be used against the United States or its allies in the near future. Now that we know differently, some senators have said they regret their vote. Not Mr. Kerry. He affirmed once again last week that he believes he did the right thing. It was Mr. Bush who erred, he continued, by misusing the power he had been given.
The president gleefully seized on the remark as evidence that his opponent agrees that he was right "to go into Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power." That is not exactly what Mr. Kerry said. He - and many other Democrats - say that the White House asked for the vote as a way of strengthening Mr. Bush's hand in negotiations with the United Nations, but that they were betrayed when the president went ahead and launched an invasion without broad international support.
We're sure Mr. Kerry is right in claiming that the White House, in its negotiations with the Senate, played down the possibility that the vote would lead to actual conflict. That does not mean the public will be satisfied with an explanation that he authorized an invasion under the presumption it would not happen. After nearly two years of working with the Bush administration, Congress had a very good idea of how Mr. Bush viewed the world, what advisers he listened to, and what he was likely to do with American troops if Congress gave him a broad authorization to go to war. It was for precisely that reason that some senators, led by Joseph Biden and Richard Lugar, struggled unsuccessfully to narrow down the resolution. Senator Biden says Senator Kerry worked with him behind the scenes.
But for the most part Mr. Kerry, who voted against the first Persian Gulf war, tailored his positions on this one to his presidential ambitions. He was more hawkish when the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination seemed to be Richard Gephardt, and more dovish when Howard Dean picked up momentum. At the height of the Dean insurgency, both Mr. Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, decided to oppose spending $87 billion to underwrite the occupation of Iraq that they both voted to authorize.
The Republicans have made much of this record; the Kerry campaign is haunted by replays of the theme song from the old TV show "Flipper." Mr. Bush, however, has a far more dangerous pattern of behavior. On issues from tax cuts to foreign policy, the president tends to stick stubbornly to his original course even when changing events cry out for adaptation. His explanations seem to evolve every day, but his thinking never does.
What we would like to hear from Mr. Kerry is how the events of the last year have changed his own thinking. He consistently describes the failures of Iraq as failures in tactics - from a lack of international support to a lack of adequate body armor for the troops. We're wondering if he really believes better planning or better diplomacy would have made the difference, or whether the whole idea of sending troops was flawed. Arab nations have a painful history of Western colonization, and there is an instinctive resistance to the idea of a Western occupation of Arab soil. How much does Mr. Kerry think the addition of French and German soldiers would have improved things? In retrospect, it seems that even if Arab nations like Saudi Arabia or Egypt had added their support, the outcome would have more likely been trouble for the governments of those countries back home rather than credibility on the streets of Baghdad.
There are undoubtedly circumstances that call for military action, but we would like to know whether, as president, John Kerry would insist on a higher threshold than he settled for as an opportunistic senator in 2002.