What would Kerry do?

Posted: Jul 16, 2004 12:00 AM

 "They were wrong, and soldiers died because they were wrong." Thus spoke Sen. John Kerry last week about the administration's decision to topple the Saddam Hussein regime.

 There are a number of problems with Kerry's formulation. Let's begin with the fact that Kerry voted for the war. Oh yes, he has since attempted to weasel out of responsibility for that vote by saying that he meant only to give the president negotiating room. He memorably added that he didn't know that Bush was going "to f--- it up."

 But that's nonsense. Everyone knew at the time that the congressional vote was an authorization for war. It permitted the president to "use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq." If Kerry had not wanted to authorize armed force, he could have voted with Rep. Barbara Lee, who proposed a resolution that would have urged the president to use diplomacy and work through the United Nations rather than use the U.S. military.

 But at the time, Kerry agreed with Democratic Rep. Howard Berman, who said: "Confront Saddam Hussein now or pay a much heavier price later. The idea of Saddam Hussein with a nuclear weapon is too horrifying to contemplate, too terrifying to contemplate."

 Sen. John Edwards, who also voted in favor of the war resolution, was emphatic about the threat Saddam posed. "We know," Edwards declared in 2002, "that for at least 20 years Saddam Hussein has obsessively sought weapons of mass destruction through every means available. ... Each day he inches closer to his longtime goal of nuclear capability -- a capability that could be less than a year away."

 So if Bush was wrong, so were Kerry and Edwards. But -- despite all the hyperventilating by the Democrats, Michael Moore, "60 Minutes" and the Los Angeles Times, Bush was not wrong. And the press should demand to know how Kerry would have handled things differently.

 In their anti-Bush zealotry, the liberals are saying two contradictory things. On the one hand, they claim that Bush failed to "connect the dots" before Sept. 11. Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that Bush had connected the dots and urged forceful action against the Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. How many Democrats would have voted for military action against Afghanistan on Sept. 10?

 Democrats and liberal opinion makers are simultaneously arguing that Bush was trigger-happy in Iraq (presumably he should have waited for more dots). Some go further and suggest that he duped the American people into an unnecessary war. But as the two reports released last week by the House of Commons and the Senate Intelligence Committee make clear, Bush and Blair acted in good faith on the basis of the available intelligence. Bush did not, the bipartisan Intelligence Committee report stressed, attempt to pressure the CIA to produce intelligence that pointed only one way.

 So what would the chastened Kerry, who now believes the Iraq war to have been a mistake, have done in 2003? While Saddam was in power, the United States spent a fortune maintaining the "no-fly zones." Iraq was a known aggressor in the Middle East that had attacked three of its neighbors and had used chemical weapons on its enemies as well as on its own citizens.

 The sanctions regime, which everyone acknowledges hindered Saddam's pursuit of advanced weapons, was breaking down. France, Jordan, Russia, Syria and others were violating it pretty openly. The U.N. "oil for food" program was keeping Saddam's ruling class well fortified while doing nothing for the suffering Iraqi people. Saddam was defying the U.N.'s demand that he account for missing WMDs. Terrorists and other international outlaws were finding a haven in Baghdad. Iraqi intelligence agents were implicated in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. Saddam's government had attempted to assassinate a former president of the United States, and openly cheered the 9-11 attack. There were reports that members of Al Qaeda were forging more cordial relations with the Iraqi government than they had enjoyed in the past.

 All of this had to be evaluated while the smoking ruin in lower Manhattan was still fresh. Is Kerry now saying that Bush was wrong to go to war and that he himself was wrong to vote in favor? If so, he should be forced to say so clearly. I want a president who will err, if he errs at all, on the side of caution -- on the side of safety. What would Kerry do?