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Sunday, July 11, 2004

The Iraq War Resolution, Yet Again

Just when you think the October 2002 vote has safely passed John Kerry by, it reemerges as a dangerous campaign issue for him. In fact, the Kerry-Edwards camp seems to be pushing the faulty rationale for war as a major talking point, at least according to the bizarre Nagourney/Wilgoren NYT front-pager. They tell us that, "Mr. Kerry had shed his shoes" for the interview, but they direct us to the Times web site for the full text of the candidates' remarks. Nice to see the Times is continuing to put emphasis on the trivial.

Anyway, I see red flags in the way Kerry and Edwards are discussing the Iraq war in retrospect. They raise all sorts of questions about how it's been pursued and criticize the president a lot, but they refuse to say the war was a mistake. By voting to grant the president the war-making authority, don't they bear some responsibility for what has happened? They refuse even to entertain the notion that, knowing what is now known about intelligence failures, they might not have voted for the resolution. As Edwards told the Times:

I'm not going to go back and answer hypothetical questions about what I would have done had I known this, had I known that thing at the time. My job is to talk about what I will do going forward.

That sounds a lot like George Bush refusing to acknowledge a mistake to me. We want leaders who can learn from mistakes of course, but it's also rather damaging for a candidate for the highest office to admit such a fundamental error on the biggest issue of the last few years. It doesn't give voters much faith that such a senator deserves a promotion, and therein lies the risk of the campaign strategy of emphasizing hindsight on Iraq. If all the criticisms of Bush are correct, so is one of two unflattering conclusions about Kerry and Edwards: either they were duped into believing administration lies, or they were simply wrong on this.

Being easily duped by faulty intelligence obviously isn't something we want in a commander in chief, and Kerry came close to saying he was fooled on Larry King last week:

I went to a briefing at the Pentagon where we were shown photographs and we were told, with specificity, what's in the photographs. And when you would try to find -- well what's the source for this? Do we have a -- well, we have you know -- this is from the following sources. We can't share all the sources, and so forth.

The fact is that with their sources, had I been president, would've raised remarkable doubts at that moment. Because when we've learned after the fact who the sources are, many of us knew those sources at that time, and we would have put doubt in them.

Why the hell didn't Kerry demand more solid information about the sources back in fall 2002? He should've taken his responsibility as a senator voting on the resolution as seriously as he would take it as president, I feel. I watched the Colin Powell presentation to the UN and I wasn't convinced. I remember saying, "How do they know those things in the satellite pictures contain what they say they contain?" If more senators had demanded more solid evidence, we might have averted some of the mess this war has brought on. It makes it look like Kerry, Edwards and many of their senate colleagues acted as a rubber stamp.

Kerry's defense has been that he voted for a "process" whereby he understood the president would keep working hard diplomatically and would only go to war as a last resort. As he said on 60 Minutes tonight:

"What I voted for was an authority for the president to go to war as a last resort if Saddam Hussein did not disarm and we needed to go to war," says Kerry. "I think the way he [Bush] went to war was a mistake."

Kerry's mistake, then, was trusting the president too much. But why agree with this process to begin with? I distrusted the president even back then, and I felt in my gut that he was determined to invade Iraq regardless. If I saw it coming months in advance, I think others should've too. Kerry should've demanded that Bush keep going with the diplomacy until the point when congressional authorization for war became absolutely necessary. If Bush still pressed for a vote on this in October, months before an invasion, I would've voted no on this rationale, and I think it's a defensible position that Congress should only make such a vote when it's time to decide whether to invade.

My points above could be criticized in two ways. First, some might say Kerry didn't have authority to have all the intel sources cleared with him. My response is that we need some sort of a better system than we we had in the run-up to the Iraq war because the people's elected representatives need better information upon which to make these decisions. I'll defer to the experts on how the intelligence community should be reformed, and I'll say that had I been in Kerry's shoes, with insufficient info on which to make the call, the pragmatic step seems to me to be a no vote. Second, others might say the authorization of force needed to be granted as a diplomatic tool to force Iraq to open itself up to inspections and stay in compliance. Maybe so, but I'm still troubled by the way this gives such complete discretion to the executive in the months prior to war.

The fact remains that Kerry and Edwards both voted for the Iraq war resolution as a political maneuver. They thought they had to position themselves as tough on issues of national security in the upcoming campaign, and the decision has dogged them ever since. This is all reminding me of why Howard Dean was in some ways so attractive.