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.

8. Bush's pre-emption doctrine is running amok. On Friday, prompted by a weapons-inspection report that said Saddam intended to build WMD before the war but didn't have them, Bush said Saddam "had the capability of making weapons, and he could have passed that capability on to the enemy. And that is a risk we could not afford to take." Kerry points out: "Thirty-five to forty countries have greater capability to build a nuclear bomb than Iraq did in 2003. Is President Bush saying we should invade them?"

9. Bush keeps saying things that aren't true. Bush says Kerry habitually contradicts himself. Kerry's answer is that Bush habitually contradicts the facts. In his speech, Kerry cites Bush's claims about Iraq's WMD (contradicted by Bush's chief inspector), its links to al-Qaida (contradicted by the 9/11 commission), the trustworthiness of Ahmad Chalabi (contradicted by recent intelligence), and a host of postwar conditions—Iraqis' embrace of their liberators; the adequacy of the current number of troops; the size and readiness of postwar Iraqi security forces, and the trend of postwar fighting—all of which are contradicted by data and independent reporting on the ground.

10. Bush fires aides who tell the truth. According to Kerry, "the only officials who lost their jobs over Iraq were the ones who told the truth. Gen. Shinseki said it would take several hundred thousand troops to secure Iraq. He was retired. Economic adviser Larry Lindsey said that Iraq would cost as much as $200 billion. He was fired."

11. Kerry changes his mind when the evidence requires it. "It is never easy to discuss what has gone wrong while our troops are in constant danger. But it's essential if we want to correct our course," says Kerry. "I know this dilemma firsthand. After serving in war, I returned home to offer my own personal voice of dissent. I did so because I believed strongly that we owed it [to] those risking their lives to speak truth to power."

Kerry doesn't draw the contrast explicitly, because he's afraid of being called a flip-flopper again. But if you agree that he's an equivocator (I do, though I'd call him a leaner, not a flipper), this is the most charitable explanation: When presented with evidence that he's wrong, Kerry changes his mind. Bush doesn't—and the latter propensity is more dangerous than the former.

12. Iraq is now part of the war on terror. It wasn't before we invaded, but now it's "becoming a sanctuary for a new generation of terrorists who someday could hit the United States," says Kerry. This is the sort of distinction Bush loves to mock because it sounds fishy until you think about it. But both halves of the statement can be true, and in fact, they are. The problem is that Kerry doesn't clarify how the latter truth should guide us.

13. Use money, programs, and financial favors to get more done in Iraq. Kerry complains that Bush "prohibited any nation from participating in reconstruction efforts that wasn't part of the original coalition." He urges Bush to "give other countries a stake in Iraq's future by encouraging them to help develop Iraq's oil resources and by letting them bid on contracts." Translation: Give them a cut of the action. He says Bush should spend money more quickly on "high visibility, quick impact projects" that will "relieve the conditions that contribute to the insurgency." Kerry argues that "an Iraqi with a job is less likely to shoot at our soldiers." He says Bush should "expand the security forces training program inside and outside Iraq" and "use more Iraqi contractors and workers."

Solicitousness, spending, job training, public employment, crime prevention through economic aid. It sounds a lot like domestic liberalism. I'm sure Kerry would object to that simplification of his position. I'm sure he thinks all of his views are more complicated than I've outlined here. But we're about to have an election. We need a clear picture of how Kerry's position on Iraq differs from Bush's. This is it.

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