Votes on wars follow Kerry


Senate: The Democratic front-runner finds his positions on Iraq and Afghanistan provide ammunition for his rivals.

February 26, 2004|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - At the last presidential debate, John Kerry was asked about his Senate vote giving President Bush authority to invade Iraq. Did he feel any responsibility for the costs and casualties of the war?

Kerry offered a longwinded explanation, prompting his rival, Sen. John Edwards, to land a not-so-gentle punch at the front-runner: "That's the longest answer I ever heard to a yes-or-no question."

From the start of his presidential bid, Kerry has struggled to reconcile his vote in favor of the war with his caustic attacks on Bush's decision to use force. Questions about his vote have trailed Kerry from town hall meetings to debates, even past a string of victory nights.

Now that question is serving to highlight his varying positions on Iraq through the years, and Republicans are seizing on that record to accuse the senator of having an inconsistent, even incoherent, policy on Iraq.

At the heart of the debate are three seemingly conflicting votes: Kerry's 1991 vote against the Persian Gulf war, his 2002 vote to give Bush authority to invade Iraq, and his 2003 vote opposing the president's request for $87 billion for reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The senator has explained them all individually, to the satisfaction of many Democratic primary voters.

He has said he voted for the 2002 war resolution based on intelligence about Iraqi weapons that now seems to have been wrong and based on the belief that Bush would go to war only as a last resort.

Yet together - and in light of his condemnations of the war (he has since called the war "a miscalculation of colossal proportions") - Kerry's votes have raised questions about his overall vision on Iraq.

Perfect consistency?

"Does it look like a coherent foreign policy? No," says Thomas Mann, a political fellow at the Brookings Institution. "His explanations sound a little lame."

But Mann and others say it's not reasonable to expect a politician's record to align perfectly.

I.M. Destler, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland, found it "ironic" that Kerry voted against the 1991 gulf war, which "had a much more unambiguous justification," and for the invasion of Iraq last year. And he finds Kerry's vote for the 2002 war resolution hard to reconcile with his later resistance to Bush's post-war request for money.

Still, he says, "Kerry probably has a more consistent world view than that would imply. It's very unlikely he would have gone to war if he had been president."

The Iraq war has been the background noise in the Democratic primary race - at the core of many candidate speeches, the focus of nearly every debate and one of the chief lines of attack on the president.

Early on, anger about the war ignited the passions of Democratic primary voters. As Kerry struggled to explain his support for the war resolution, a little-known ex-governor with a bold anti-war message, Howard Dean of Vermont, rocketed to the front of the pack.

Even Kerry's past as a decorated Vietnam veteran did little to convince voters he had the strongest hand on national security.

Still, as the primary season progressed, Kerry's "yes" vote on the war became less of an albatross. Saddam Hussein was captured, emboldening those who backed the war resolution.

After illicit weapons failed to turn up, Kerry and others charged, somewhat effectively, that the administration had either hyped or distorted the pre-war intelligence on which lawmakers based their vote.

Exit polls from the primaries and caucuses have shown support for Kerry even among those who have opposed the war.

Still, Kerry's record on Iraq provided fodder for opponents. Earlier in the primary season, anti-war candidates such as Dean charged that Kerry's record signaled a lack of judgment. These days, Republicans are zeroing in on what they call Kerry's "flip-flops" on the war.

"John Kerry's record as a United States senator and his rhetoric as a presidential candidate don't match up," said Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. "His rhetoric and record demonstrate the worst kind of political opportunism and hypocrisy."

Kerry's supporters counter that each of his votes holds up in the context of its time and circumstances, and that were all within the mainstream of Democratic centrist thinking.

David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, says the senator always believed Hussein should be held accountable but favored doing so with an international coalition. "He believes multilateralism is a strength, not a weakness," the spokesman said.

Kerry stands by his vote for the war resolution - Edwards also backed it - arguing that Bush broke his vow to exhaust all diplomatic options and to use force only as a last resort.

Broken promises

His vote "was not a vote specifically to go to war," Kerry said, explaining it recently on NBC's Meet the Press.

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