IT'S BECOME something of a Beltway pastime to harass Kerry for his fence-straddling on Iraq. Peter Beinart of the New Republic wrote in the magazine’s February 10 issue that Kerry’s attempt to reinvent himself in a straight-talking John McCain mode was " doomed to fail if Kerry keeps speaking so dishonestly about Iraq. " Criticism from rival Democratic presidential hopeful former Vermont governor Howard Dean, delivered last week in Iowa, is more typical: " To this day, I don’t know what John Kerry’s position is.... If you agree with the war, then say so. If you don’t agree with the war, then say so, but don’t try to wobble around in between. "
Yet this is all a bit disingenuous. Kerry’s thoughtful, nuanced approach to dealing with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — which is based on principle, not polling — has been fairly consistent over the long months of Bush’s drum-beating build-up to war. It can be summed up in four simple points: 1) Hussein is evil and dangerous; 2) Hussein should be taken on via a multilateral coalition or under the auspices of the United Nations; 3) such a war should not be conducted without careful diplomacy aimed at keeping the coalition together; and 4) public support for such a war, both domestically and internationally, is essential. The only thing he and Bush apparently agree on is that Hussein is evil and must be disarmed.
" It may well be that the United States will go to war with Iraq, " Kerry wrote in a September 6, 2002, New York Times op-ed summarizing his views on Iraq. " But if so, it should be because we have to — not because we want to. " He has reiterated that line many times during public discussion of the war. Indeed, when he has been attacked from the left for his stance on Iraq, Kerry has repeatedly stated that he is no pacifist. He believes there is a time and place for war, although he believes it ought to be entered into carefully and that combat troops must never be let down, as they were in Vietnam. And when attacked from the right, Kerry has pointed out that a nation at war needs the support of both the American public and the international community. All that said, though, some of the criticism leveled at Kerry may be rooted in how his thoughtful rhetoric is framed: it’s often long-winded, more suited to his role as a legislator than to a presidential candidate who must deliver sharp sound bites in response to complicated questions. (Indeed, the Globe’s Scot Lehigh faulted Kerry last December for taking 350 words to explain his Iraq position to Tim Russert on Meet the Press.)
In this context, it’s interesting to consider how Kerry, were he president, might have prosecuted the war on Iraq — assuming he would have even agreed to such an enterprise, with Osama bin Laden still on the loose and Afghanistan still in shambles. It’s also interesting to contemplate how he might critique Bush’s performance as commander in chief once the presidential campaign heats up. Kerry’s résumé as a Naval officer, an anti-war protester, and a senator provides some clues. His ideas about modern warfare, foreign policy, and national defense are more clearly articulated in his 1997 book The New War: The Web of Crime That Threatens America’s Security (Simon & Schuster), in which he wrote: " We cannot fight alone; we need to create a new international alliance to meet [threats], like the alliances that defeated fascism, communism, and Saddam Hussein. " At the very least, then, we know this much: Kerry clearly sides with the Pentagon brass, who are now speaking out about Bush’s war plan.
Over the past week, the fault line between the Pentagon brass and the civilian architects of the war (Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, former Defense Policy Board chair Richard Perle, and, by natural and obvious extension, President Bush) has cracked open. For the most part, military higher-ups at the Pentagon adhere to the Powell Doctrine, which holds that, in war, America must apply " overwhelming force " against its enemies. Bush, by contrast, has signed on with Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, and Rice, who subscribe to the " transformative war " theory that wars can be fought with much less force today because of the lethal combination of special-operations forces, refined technology, and precision bombing. There’s little doubt that the Pentagon was opposed to the war in Iraq as it’s currently configured (a pre-emptive strike being fought, as an anonymous field colonel told the New York Times on March 31, " on the cheap " ). It’s hard to imagine that Kerry would have agreed to anything other than a Powell-esque military build-up to the current war. The Powell Doctrine, for instance, prompted the US to send 500,000 troops to the Middle East during 1991 Gulf War; compare that with the 300,000 troops initially deployed for last month’s invasion, which is clearly a much more complicated enterprise than was the first go-around with Saddam.
KERRY HAS ALREADY taken aim at Bush’s handling of the war against terror, and it provides a glimpse of what he might do in a presidential campaign match-up focused on the prosecution of the war in Iraq. The Massachusetts senator was the first prominent Democrat to criticize Bush for the military’s handling of the war in Afghanistan. Speaking to Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press, in June 2002, Kerry came across as incredulous — even furious — that Bush had committed to the use of some military force against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, but not enough. That situation permitted bin Laden to get away. At issue was whether Bush’s plan to use a largely Afghan force, assisted by US special-operations forces, could be expected to encircle Al Qaeda and eliminate bin Laden.
" Al Qaeda, a thousand strong, was gathered in one single mountain area, Tora Bora, and we turned to Afghans, who a week earlier had been fighting for the other side, and said, ‘Hey, you guys go up there in the mountains and go after the world’s number-one terrorist and criminal who just killed 3000-plus Americans,’ " Kerry fumed. " I think that was an enormous mistake. I think the Tora Bora operation was a failed military operation.... And the fact is that the prime target, Al Qaeda, has dispersed and in many ways is more dangerous than it was when it was in the mountains of Tora Bora. "
Kerry’s critique of US military operations in Afghanistan, which infuriated the Bush administration, were informed, Kerry sources say, by contacts he has made over the years as chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations, a post he relinquished when the Republicans retook the Senate in January. In the months after the battle of Tora Bora, Kerry began to hear from Pentagon and Delta Forces sources that the operation had been an avoidable disaster. Over a period of months, Kerry talked to numerous special-operations officials and experts to verify what he was being told.
We should expect a similar critique of the war in Iraq in the coming months, and certainly during the presidential campaign. As the war wears on, Bush’s failings as a communicator will be magnified (see " Speech Therapy for Bush, " This Just In, page 8). Eventually — with any luck — the conflict will move from explicit combat to a slow winding down in which the US will have to navigate a morass of political, military, and diplomatic tangles. In that context, the more long-winded, yet thoughtful John Kerry may seem infinitely more appealing than the succinct but Manichean Bush. The question is whether Kerry can channel his rhetorical gymnastics and careful forethought into a crisp and decisive persona. It’s a question upon which the results of the next presidential election could hinge.