Going back to the U.N.? For what?

Posted: Apr 23, 2004 12:00 AM

  WASHINGTON -- In 1952, a presidential candidate running against an administration that had gotten the U.S. into a debilitating and inconclusive war abroad pledged: ``I will go to Korea.'' He won. A half century later, a presidential candidate running against an administration that has gotten the U.S. into a debilitating and (thus far) inconclusive war abroad, pledges: ``I will go to the U.N.''  

     Electrifying, is it not? And Democrats are wondering why their man is trailing a rather wounded George Bush not just overall, but on Iraq -- and precisely at a time when Iraq is going so badly.

      ``If I'm president,'' Kerry said, ``I will not only personally go to the U.N., I will go to other capitals.'' For Kerry, showing up at Kofi Annan's doorstep and sweeping through Allied capitals is no rhetorical flourish, no strategic sideshow. It is the essence of his Iraq plan: ``Within weeks of being inaugurated, I will return to the U.N. and I will literally, formally rejoin the community of nations and turn over a proud new chapter in America's relationship with the world.''

     This is an Iraq policy? Never has a more serious question received a more feckless answer. Going back to the U.N.: What does that mean? It cannot mean the General Assembly, which decides nothing. It must mean going back to the Security Council.

     There are five permanent members. We are one. The British are already with us. So that leaves China, indifferent at best to our Middle East adventure, though generally hostile, and Russia, which has opposed the war from the very beginning. Moscow was so wedded to Saddam that it was doing everything it could to prevent an impartial Paul Volcker commission from investigating the corrupt oil-for-food program that enriched Saddam and, through kickbacks, hundreds of others in dozens of countries, including Russia.

     That leaves ... France. What does Kerry think France will do for us? Perhaps he sees himself and Teresa descending on Paris like Jack and Jackie in Camelot days. Does he really believe that if he grovels before Jacques Chirac in well-accented French, he will persuade France to join us in a war that it has opposed from the beginning, that is now going badly, and that has moved Iraq out of the French sphere of influence and into the American?

     The idea is so absurd that when Tim Russert interviewed Kerry and quoted Democratic foreign policy adviser Ivo Daalder as saying that handing political and military responsibility to the U.N. and other countries is not realistic, Kerry simply dodged the question. There was nothing to say.

     Which might help inside-the-Beltway Washington find its way out of its  conundrum over the latest polls. No one can understand how, with the president being pummeled daily on the front pages by Richard Clarke, the Sept. 11 hearings, the Woodward book, and the eruption of Iraq into open warfare again, Bush nonetheless has gained over Kerry on the issue of national security.

     The answer is simple: Americans are a serious people, war is a serious business, and what John Kerry is offering is simply not serious. Americans may be unsure whether Bush has a plan for success in Iraq. But they sure as hell know that going to U.N. headquarters, visiting foreign capitals and promising lots of jaw-jaw is no plan at all.

     I give Kerry credit for not taking the easy antiwar path. He agrees that abandoning Iraq would be catastrophic for the United States and for the war on terror. Kerry did flirt with Howard Dean in the primaries, but has consistently opposed ``cut and run.''

     True, it would be politically suicidal to zigzag yet again on the war. After having voted No on the Gulf War, Yes on the Iraq war, No on the $87 billion for reconstruction, and today advocating a firm Yes on finishing the job, to now reverse himself once again and advocate pulling out would be a politically fatal flip-flop.

     But his tortuous path to his current position has left him politically bereft on Iraq. Ralph Nader has now made himself the antiwar candidate by calling for a pullout in six months. With that, his candidacy found a rationale beyond mere vanity, and may indeed draw some serious Democratic support. Many liberals and left-wingers will find it hard to support a Democratic candidate who, like Hubert Humphrey in 1968, advocates staying the course on a war they hate.

     Kerry's political problem is that he supports Bush's Iraq objective and differs only on the means. Unfortunately for Kerry, ``I will go to Turtle Bay'' is not the stuff of legend. Unless he comes up with something better, Kerry may lose the war issue that was his for the taking.