Kerry's `Yes, but' war stance

January 27, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Before an overflow crowd in a Georgetown University lecture hall the other day, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, one of the first to declare his quest for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, quickly got a taste of what that will entail.

After a serious one-hour Kerry critique of President Bush's foreign policies, including a prospective invasion of Iraq, a student asked him how he squared what he had just called Mr. Bush's "rush to war" with his own Senate vote for the Bush war-making resolution.

"Your actions speak louder than your words," the student admonished. "It's quite clear you might not have us rush to war but go slowly nonetheless. ... This strategy might get you elected to the presidency, [but] it seems as if you are ignoring your core constituency. ...

"Perhaps this middle-ground policy will get you elected president, but ... you would still send our brothers and sons to war against an enemy who represents no proven threat to the United States. ... What becomes of our country and our political system when people like yourself pursue the Democratic Party nomination to advance their personal ambitions for the presidency rather than pursuing the presidency to advance ... [Democratic] values?"

Mr. Kerry, drawing laughter, replied: "I am on a campus, aren't I?" He continued: "I respect your question ... and I respect especially the people who are demonstrating against the war. I've been there."

The reference was to Mr. Kerry's active dissent at home against the Vietnam War after having been wounded in combat and decorated in it. He proceeded to claim no inconsistency between his October vote and his criticism of the Bush "rush to war." That vote, he said, was the culmination of a long effort by himself and other Senate Democrats "to move [the administration] away from unilateralism to go to the U.N."

At the same time, Mr. Kerry said, he did recognize Saddam Hussein as a threat who had to be obliged to act on U.N. disarmament demands. It was, he said, "a `but' vote ... yes, but I want to make sure you're going to the U.N."

On the Senate floor, Mr. Kerry said, he noted that if the president "decides to go pre-emptively without cause, or he decides to go alone without building the coalition, and again, as a means of circumventing the inspection process if it's working, I will oppose him. So there is no inconsistency whatsoever. ...

"I will continue to hold the president accountable ... [but] anybody who leaves Saddam Hussein to develop these weapons of mass destruction, based on his record, is courting danger to the American people. ... I'm not prepared to defend America by sitting around and ignoring a United Nations resolution that holds him accountable for the weapons of mass destruction or his past behavior, and that's why I voted the way I did."

The test of that position may come today when U.N. chief inspector Hans Blix is to present his report on what has and hasn't been found, and on the degree of Iraqi compliance and cooperation. The question for Mr. Kerry is whether Mr. Bush in the end decides, as Mr. Kerry put it, "to go pre-emptively without cause" or "as a means of circumventing the inspection process if it's working."

The president has already said he has cause to take pre-emptive action, and Security Council members such as France, Russia and Germany no doubt will hold that he will be circumventing an inspection process that is working if he attacks Iraq without waiting for further inspections.

Mr. Kerry, in his speech, assaulted "the Bush administration's blustering unilateralism" while also criticizing "those who reflectively oppose any U.S. military intervention anywhere ... [and] place a higher value on achieving multilateral consensus than necessarily protecting our vital interests."

This nuanced position, however, could cost him some liberal Democratic support in a race for the party nomination that already includes other candidates who take a more categorical position against war with Iraq. But Mr. Kerry appears ready to stick to his guns as one who doesn't want war yet, but will support it if it has to come.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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