An echo, not a choice

August 13, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - John Kerry is a man of great personal courage, which served him well as a naval officer in the Vietnam War. But the man who takes the inaugural oath in January won't be asked to lead a bayonet charge. A more vital quality in a president is moral courage. And trying to detect evidence of that attribute in Mr. Kerry is like expecting Mikhail Baryshnikov to show up at the county fair.

The latest proof that Mr. Kerry's backbone is made of goose down was his statement that even if he had known what he knows now about Iraq's yet-to-be-found weapons of mass destruction and mythical partnership with al-Qaida, he still would have voted for the resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war. "I believe it's the right authority for a president to have," he said.

The Iraq war is shaping up to be the greatest American foreign policy debacle since Vietnam. It has killed nearly 1,000 American soldiers and wounded more than 6,000, while tying down 140,000 troops who are cruelly undermanned. Its price tag has reached $150 billion, with more costs to come. The war and occupation have alienated our friends, inflamed anti-Americanism in the Arab world and diverted us from the war on al-Qaida. If those facts don't convince Mr. Kerry that his vote was a mistake, it's hard to imagine what would.

Actually, it's not so hard to imagine what would cause Mr. Kerry to recant: political expedience. The Massachusetts senator firmly believes something he firmly believed when he voted for the war resolution, which is that he should take the politically safe course no matter what. So he's happy to straddle the fence by criticizing Mr. Bush for taking us down the wrong road in Iraq while refusing to say Congress should have stopped him. And he figures he can stand by his vote because opponents of the war have nowhere else to turn. But they can always turn to Ralph Nader, or just stay home. When it comes to Iraq, after all, Mr. Kerry sounds an awful lot like the guy who got us into this mess.

Like Mr. Bush, he wants help from the United Nations, hopes our allies will send more troops and plans to bring our soldiers home when Iraq is stable. In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran for president on the slogan, "A choice, not an echo." Mr. Kerry is all echo and no choice.

None of this should come as a surprise. Mr. Kerry had opposed the 1991 Persian Gulf war, which turned out to be a military and political triumph, and he was not about to repeat the mistake. This time, he favored a compromise requiring the president to return to the Senate before invading Iraq. But when it failed, Mr. Kerry joined the parade to war.

Why? "Bush was saying, `I dare you to vote against this war,'" a Kerry aide recently explained to Time magazine. "Of course, John had his substantive reasons for voting for the war. ... But I'm pretty sure there was a political calculation too. John decided not to give Bush what he really wanted: a no vote." Put in plain English, Mr. Kerry was not about to take any political risk just because it might help avert a disaster.

A lot of Democrats have had to suppress their gag reflex to line up behind someone with this record. During the primaries, Howard Dean said the resolution "was an abdication and a failure on the part of Congress. And Sen. Kerry was part of that failure." But such truths are no longer expressed out loud.

Mr. Kerry's impulse to evade the issue also shows up in his plans for Iraq. Accepting the Democratic nomination, he devoted only one paragraph to his solution, which was pure cotton candy: sweet but lighter than air. His remedy is "a president who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, reduce the cost to American taxpayers and reduce the risk to American soldiers." In other words, a president with a fairy godmother.

But this is the same guy who, during the first Persian Gulf war, sent form letters to constituents taking both sides of the issue. And it's the same guy who said before the vote on this war resolution, "I have the ability either way to make substantive arguments for what I'm doing." Can anyone doubt him on that?

Critics complain that President Bush, after bungling his job in the Iraq war, has stubbornly refused to admit he was wrong. The same goes for John Kerry.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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