Can Kerry Just Be Himself?

As the presidential campaign settles down into that crucial back-stretch period, progressive commentators continue to argue that Sen. John Kerry needs to explicitly articulate an Iraq exit strategy.

The latest to take up this position is Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, whom I greatly respect for past and present work.

"At Bush's prompting," Mr. Scheer writes in a recent column, "reporters asked Kerry if he, knowing what we all know now about Iraq's lack of weapons of mass destruction, would still have voted, as he did in October 2002, to authorize the president to use force against Iraq. Instead of smacking that hanging curveball out of the park by denouncing the Bush administration for deceiving Congress and the nation into a war, Kerry inexplicably said yes.... Unfortunately, then and now, it is the wrong answer to the wrong question.... Half the country now thinks invading Iraq was a bad idea, and nobody can be comfortable with the way it has turned out. The American people want to know how we got into this mess, how we can get out and how we will avoid making such stupid mistakes in the future. To win the debates and the election, Kerry needs to establish himself as the clear alternative to a president who has lied us into a quagmire."

Respectfully, I disagree. This is a case, I think, of progressives fighting the last anti-war.

The great anti-war protests of '67 and '68 helped fuel the insurgent, anti-war challenge of Sen. Eugene McCarthy to sitting President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 presidential election. McCarthy came within a few percentage points of beating Johnson in the New Hampshire primary and that event – coupled with the entrance of Robert Kennedy into the Democratic race on a rising anti-war tide – forced Johnson to announce his decision not to run for re-election. Richard Nixon won the presidency over Vice President Hubert Humphrey later that fall, partly on a pledge that he had a "secret plan" to get the U.S. out of Vietnam.

But that was then. This is now.

There are two reasons why progressives should not look to the election of 2004 as a reprisal of '68. The first is that – unlike 1968 – there is not yet a broad consensus among anti-war Americans as to what should be done about Iraq. And second, John Kerry is not a formidable advocate of his positions, and would probably fumble the attempt to explain in detail an exit strategy. And fumble it badly.

In 1968 – with ever-growing numbers of U.S. military casualties – the belief solidified across a large section of America that U.S. forces should be unilaterally withdrawn from Vietnam. The smaller group of this coalition was made up of those who felt that Vietnam was an illegal, immoral, unjustified colonial war. But the larger – and eventually decisive – element was made up of a broad group of citizens who felt it was an unnecessary war, at least from the point of view of United States security. And later events, of course, proved that view to be correct.

Jump, now, to the present. There is no such unconditional withdrawal consensus concerning the war in Iraq, for one quite obvious reason: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. While my friend, Mr. Scheer, is entirely correct in his statement that "half the country now thinks invading Iraq was a bad idea, and nobody can be comfortable with the way it has turned out," the "how" of the getting back out is another thing entirely. Many – and I count myself among that many – believe that it is the U.S. military presence in Iraq that is exacerbating the problem. We are developing two new terrorists for every one who U.S. soldiers manage to kill, and an immediate, unconditional U.S. withdrawal is the first, necessary step for healing the wounds and promoting homeland security. But many other Americans – thoughtful, reasonable friends and neighbors – while now believing that we never should have invaded, also believe that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would make things infinitely worse, helping to advance the terrorist cause. These folks believe that it is our responsibility to clean up the mess we have caused.

These are two legitimate but opposing views holding – almost certainly – a majority of the Democratic Party between them. One would have hoped that the spring Democratic primaries could have been used to debate these positions, as the primaries were used to debate the pro-war and anti-war Democratic Party positions in 1968. But elections aren't run that way, these days. John Kerry became the Democratic Party nominee precisely because he fudged his positions on Iraqi withdrawal, straddling the great American divide: yes, we shouldn't have gone in, but how we should leave is a matter yet to be determined. Turning from that course in either direction would now tip the balance and lose Kerry one wing of the Democratic Party or the other, dumping all of us into the abyss.

There is another problem with pushing Kerry to clarify his exit strategies. We have heard John Kerry, and he is no Gene McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy. Under relentless attack from the Bush camp on the charge of "nuancing" and "flip-flopping," Senator Kerry and his advisors have so far flubbed the explanation of his two key Iraqi war votes – the war authorization vote and the $87 billion funding vote – in a way that has put Kerry on the defensive when he should not be.

The charge from the Bush camp? That Sen. Kerry voted for the war, but later voted against the money to fund it.

The perfectly reasonable and obvious explanation: Senator Kerry voted to authorize President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq, believing that the president would use that authorization in the manner that recent presidents would almost certainly have done – presidents Reagan and Clinton and Mr. Bush's own father, for example – building a powerful international coalition and using threat of war to force concessions out of the Saddam Hussein regime, but only using war as a last resort.

Instead, President Bush screwed it up, going to war as a first resort and, in doing so, causing the mess in which we presently find ourselves. In other words, Bush misplayed a good hand. The United States Congress was thereafter presented with an $87 billion appropriation bill by the Bush administration, $67 billion of which was to go to fund U.S. troops, $20 billion which was supposed to go to some sort of "reconstruction aid" to Iraq. Sen. Kerry felt that there was no solid plan or safeguards for the spending of the $20 billion "reconstruction aid" money, and voted against the entire appropriation while asking that the troop money be brought back for separate consideration. In fact, Sen. Kerry was absolutely right on that issue. There is considerable controversy over that $20 billion, much of it apparently unspent, some of it possibly misspent, with the Coalition Authority going out of business before a full accounting. There should have been better safeguards and a detailed spending plan.

If Senator Kerry cannot handle explanations for these perfectly reasonable past positions, I don't have much confidence that he can make his way through the quagmire of Iraqi withdrawal – not while the election is going on. And entering that quagmire probably ensures his defeat.

Let Kerry be Kerry and keep vague on what he may or may not do, leaving the specifying and educating part in the capable hands of folks like Mr. Scheer. That's the only way Sen. Kerry is going to win, and the only way the nation will have a chance – within the next four years – of pulling itself out of this Middle East mess. If Mr. Bush wins, we go in deeper, without a doubt. If Mr. Kerry wins, we may not. It's not the best of choices. But it's the best choice we're going to get.


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