Kerry, Vietnam and Iraq

Twenty-four-year-old Marine Michael Hoffman feels betrayed by John Kerry. Hoffman took part in the invasion of Iraq and served there for a year before returning home recently to tell Americans what he saw. "The troops aren't fighting for what Bush is espousing on TV," he says. "Basically, they're just fighting for their lives now."

Traveling up and down the Eastern seaboard, speaking at rallies for Military Families Against the War and Veterans for Peace, Hoffman sees a growing movement of dissent against Bush's Iraq folly. "The troops know it's not true that they're there because there were weapons of mass destruction or to bring democracy to Iraq," Hoffman says. Instead, as he sees it, the troops are stuck in a complex and ugly situation, with no clear mission and no way out.

In his anger and forthrightness, Hoffman sounds a lot like another young soldier who returned home from an ill-conceived war to protest against it: John Kerry. But that was back in the early 1970s. Today, Democratic Presidential candidate Kerry is singing a different tune.

In his April 18 appearance on Meet the Press, Kerry distanced himself from his younger, anti-war incarnation. Host Tim Russert showed a clip of the young Kerry in uniform, just back from Vietnam, telling of the atrocities he and his fellow soldiers had taken part in, and saying that the United States had engaged in war crimes in Vietnam. "Atrocities?" Russert asked Kerry. The candidate squirmed and tried a stiff joke, making light of his own earnest image in that early video footage: "Where did all that dark hair go, Tim? That's a big question for me," he said, chuckling awkwardly. He went on to say that his description of burning villages and machine-gunning women and children as "war crimes" was "over the top"--just the bluster of an angry young man.

On other issues of war and peace, Kerry sounded similarly defensive and eager to portray himself as a hawk. He bobbed and weaved and qualified his way out of his eminently sensible statement that the war on terror is not primarily a military endeavor. He reminded Russert that he supported more troops in Iraq and more money for the military budget. He left no daylight at all between the Bush Administration's staunch support of Ariel Sharon's aggressive policies in the Occupied Territories and his own.

"I'm incredibly disappointed in Kerry so far," says Hoffman. "I can relate to what he was saying right after he got back from Vietnam. That's where I am right now." To this young soldier, Kerry's support for the war in Iraq "feels almost like a stab in the back."

"He's the one who said, 'No one wants to be the last man to die for a mistake,'" says Hoffman. "That's what he's asking the troops to do right now."

The worse things look in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the Bush Administration's hapless "war on terror," the more the question arises: What can be done to put the genie back in the bottle? Would a Kerry Administration rein in military adventurism, and restore some sense of security to a country seemingly determined to provoke more and more resentment around the globe, making us more of a target for further terrorist attacks?

Some of candidate Kerry's statements sound encouraging. In a speech last December to the Council on Foreign Relations, Kerry said: "Simply put: The Bush Administration has pursued the most arrogant, inept, reckless, and ideological foreign policy in modern history." What the Administration has done in Iraq, he said, is to win a military victory, "yet make America weaker." Our "foreign policy of triumphalism," he said, "diminishes Islamic moderates and fuels the fire of jihadists."

The solutions Kerry offers sound sensible. "I will immediately convene a summit with European and world leaders to discuss a common anti-terrorism agenda," he says. He would fight back the warlords who are taking over Afghanistan and shore up the Karzai government. He would hold the Saudi royal family accountable for its support of terrorism.

In a speech on fighting the war on terror at UCLA in February, Kerry even got to the point about our "corporate and energy dependence" on the Saudis: "If I am President, we will embark on a historic effort to create alternative fuels and the vehicles of the future -- to make this country energy independent of Mideast oil within ten years. So our sons and daughters will never have to fight and die for it."

He also warned the Council on Foreign Relations that "George Bush is poised to set off a new nuclear arms race by building . . . smaller and, some incredibly believe, more 'usable' nuclear bombs. I don't want a world with usable nuclear bombs."

It is time to "replace unilateral action with collective security," Kerry told the Council, in conclusion. Among the most important steps on the road to peace is bringing together the Israelis and Palestinians. "In the first days of a Kerry Administration, I will appoint a Presidential Ambassador to the Peace Process. . . . President Carter, former Secretary of State James Baker, or . . . President Clinton."

Unfortunately, Kerry promptly backed away from that list on Meet the Press, saying he'd no longer consider Carter or Baker. Apparently, some of his more hawkish advisers on Middle East policy didn't approve.

Kerry's foreign policy team is quite conservative. As Ron Brownstein pointed out in The Los Angeles Times, former Clinton Administration official Richard Holbrooke and Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, both of whom argued in favor of Bush's invasion of Iraq without U.N. authorization, are likely candidates for Secretary of State.

Other Clinton Administration officials close to Kerry -- Anthony Lake and Madeleine Albright -- are no more ringing in their indictments of Bush. "On preventive war, their argument is over tactics," says William Hartung of the World Policy Institute. "They say unilateral force should be an option, not a doctrine. We should be able to do this, but not brag about it from the rooftops."

Hartung, like a lot of progressives, is frustrated that Kerry is not taking more swings at Bush. "He could do more to say Bush is out of step," he says

Some of President Bush's advisers are so far out on the rightwing conspiracy-theory fringe they have even suggested that Iraq had a hand in the Oklahoma City bombings, Hartung laments. (Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy, a close friend of Donald Rumsfeld, promoted the claim that there was an Iraqi "third man" in Oklahoma.)

"These folks are certifiable and yet they are welcomed by the Bush folks as their colleagues," says Hartung. "I don't see why Kerry couldn't say it's time to restore balance and sanity to our foreign policy without being afraid of looking like a tall Michael Dukakis."

Overall, Kerry has some incisive criticisms of Bush. But he seems to lack the courage of his convictions, often sounding apologetic or defensive. It wasn't supposed to be that way. The argument for Kerry during the primaries was that, with his war record, he could easily overcome the Democratic phobia of appearing "soft on defense." With so much going wrong for this Administration, a tough critic could ride a wave of popular doubt.

Says Hartung: "I think he'd be smarter to think about whether he really wants, for example, his mantra about Iraq to be something other than 'stay the course' and 'finish the job.' That can lead to nothing but trouble. A larger U.S. troop presence is just going to provoke a larger backlash."

The anti-U.S. sentiment Bush is currently provoking throughout the Middle East will resonate for decades, Hartung and other critics charge. They say Kerry should make a clean break with Bush Administration policy.

"The hand he's been dealt is really terrible," says Erik Leaver at the Institute for Policy Studies. "But he's just trying to patch up what Bush has been doing." Instead, Kerry could be talking about repealing the law that lets foreign companies control Iraq's resources and seeking regional allies, not to mention talking about getting American troops out soon.

"It was really hopeful seeing how much support Dean got during the primaries," Leaver says. "It's dismaying that progressives are not taking a stronger tact -- everyone is trying not to tread too heavily on Kerry because they want to beat Bush."

But the left "can and should get its concerns out," says Leaver.

To this end, some progressive think tanks have been throwing around ideas of cabinet members who would represent a safer, saner set of policies for a Kerry Administration. Among them: AFL-CIO Vice-President Linda Chavez-Thompson for Secretary of Labor; David Bonior, former Representative from Michigan, for U.S. Trade Rep; Representative John Conyers for Attorney General; economist and New York Times op-ed page gadfly Paul Krugman for the Council of Economic Advisors; former Republican Senator Jim Jeffords for EPA; and for Secretary of Defense, former Reagan Administration assistant defense secretary Larry Korb, who has argued that the U.S. must admit it was wrong about weapons of mass destruction, that the war is going badly, and move quickly to internationalize peace-keeping and nation-building efforts in Iraq.

As he continues speaking out against the war in Iraq, Hoffman sees a groundswell of public opinion for change. "This is the beginning of something," he says, "but it's going to be an uphill fight."

And he hasn't given up on Kerry.

"I do think we've got a better chance changing Kerry's mind than Bush," Hoffman adds. "But as someone said at a Veterans for Peace meeting recently, even if we do like Kerry, we'll be protesting and fighting the day after he takes office."


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