Where Kerry stands on Iraq.

Where Kerry stands on Iraq.

Where Kerry stands on Iraq.

Politics and policy.
Sept. 20 2004 6:27 PM

Where Kerry Stands on Iraq

A Kerry-English translation.

Kerry speaks up on Iraq
Kerry speaks up on Iraq

If you've had trouble figuring out where John Kerry stands on Iraq, today is your lucky day. The senator finally clarified his position in a speech at New York University. Here's a summary.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

1. "Iraq was a profound diversion from" the war on terror. This puts Kerry squarely at odds with President Bush, who says the invasion was a blow against terror.

2. Kerry voted for war authority to scare Saddam Hussein into allowing inspections. In Kerry's words, "Congress was right to give the president the authority. … This president—any president—would have needed the threat of force to act effectively. … The idea was simple. We would get the weapons inspectors back in to verify whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And we would convince the world to speak with one voice to Saddam: disarm or be disarmed. … Instead, the president rushed to war without letting the weapons inspectors finish their work." This account is consistent with all but one of Kerry's previous statements on Iraq. But it doesn't explain how Kerry would have enforced a U.N. Security Council threat to "disarm" Saddam—or what Kerry would have done if Saddam, rather than Bush, had refused to let the inspectors "finish their work." Nor does it explain how Kerry would have determined that the work was, wasn't, or could never be "finished."


3. The United States shouldn't have invaded Iraq. Kerry asks, "Is [Bush] really saying that if we knew there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al-Qaida, the United States should have invaded Iraq? My answer is no—because a Commander-in-Chief's first responsibility is to make a wise and responsible decision to keep America safe." Kerry has often said that he wouldn't have invaded Iraq the way Bush did. But this is his clearest statement that he wouldn't have invaded, period. Bush depicts this as a reversal of what Kerry said a month ago. That depiction is false.

4. We should have "tightened the noose" instead. Kerry says, "I would have tightened the noose and continued to pressure and isolate Saddam Hussein—who was weak and getting weaker—so that he would pose no threat to the region or America." Kerry doesn't explain how he would have done so, given the Security Council's itch to lift the Iraq sanctions.

5. Bush's unilateral conduct of the war has cost us lives and money. Kerry cites 1,000 dead American troops, 90 percent of the coalition casualties, and $200 billion.

6. The war has impaired our ability to confront graver threats. These are what economists call "opportunity costs": Saddam was a problem, but other problems were worse, and now it'll be harder to solve them. Specifically:

A) The war diverted us from pursuing Osama Bin Laden. In Kerry's words, it "diverted our focus and forces from the hunt for those responsible for Sept. 11."

B) It diverted us from the two worst members of the "Axis of Evil." Kerry says it "took our attention and resources away from other, more serious threats" such as "the emerging nuclear danger in Iran" and "North Korea, which actually has weapons of mass destruction, including a nuclear arsenal, and is building more under this president's watch."

C) Bush's false statements about Iraq squander the credibility we need to confront these graver threats. According to Kerry, "the American people are less likely to trust this administration if it needs to summon their support to meet real and pressing threats to our security. Abroad, other countries will be reluctant to follow America when we seek to rally them against a common menace." This argument applies to Bush's postwar statements about Iraqi links to al-Qaida, as well as to his prewar statements about Iraqi WMD.

7. We're worse off than we were before the war. This is what Howard Dean said last year. At the time, Kerry charged that Dean "didn't even know that it was good to get rid of Saddam Hussein." Dean's position was relative (that capturing Saddam was good, but not worth the direct costs and opportunity costs); Kerry misrepresented it as absolute (that capturing Saddam wasn't good). Now Kerry is embracing Dean's position. "Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell. But that was not, in itself, a reason to go to war," says Kerry. "We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure." He adds that "the invasion of Iraq has made us less secure and weaker in the war against terrorism."

In response, Bush is already doing to Kerry what Kerry did to Dean: misrepresenting the critic of the war as doubting that in absolute terms, it was good to get rid of Saddam.