On Truman’s Train, Kerry Comes Down On War-He’s For It

It’s the war, stupid.

Pretty much everybody seems to get that.

Delegates to the Democratic National Convention sure did: They thought Iraq was the issue. Not the economy. Not health care. Not the environment, civil rights, freedom of choice, separation of church and state, or anything else the Bush administration has turned into pretzels-Iraq.

Out there in the great red state/blue state beyond, it’s basically the same story. When pollsters call, Iraq’s the word they hear more than any other-the first time a war has dominated a Presidential election since 1972.

Hard to blame folks, really. Something that kills nearly a thousand Americans; wounds, maims and cripples more than five times that many; costs $127 billion, to date; and has no end in sight-it does get your attention.

Most people’s, anyway.

But if some didn’t have a different opinion, then this great, big, wonderful country of ours wouldn’t be a democracy, would it? And if we weren’t a democracy, then not only would there be no need for elections, there wouldn’t be any terrorists, either, because our being a democracy is why they hate us (at least, that’s what George Bush says). And that goes for Saddam Hussein, too. So if you’ve been wondering why we really and truly had to go to war with Iraq, now you know: We’re a democracy.

Which brings us, at long last, to John Forbes Kerry, one of those people with a differing opinion on the importance of Iraq. He puts it at No. 7 on the list of reasons why he’d be a better President than Dubya. Truth is, Mr. Kerry doesn’t like to talk about it much, particularly whether he thought it was such a hot idea in the first place, now that it turns out that Saddam didn’t have the W.M.D.’s Mr. Kerry thought he did, when he was handing Mr. Bush a blank check to wage war whenever and however he wanted. That , Mr. Kerry wouldn’t talk about at all.

Until this week.

Inspired perhaps by the scenic wonders glimpsed from his campaign train as it chugged its way through the Southwest (or maybe fed up with the nagging of The New York Times ‘ editorial board), Mr. Kerry finally fessed up on Monday that he would, indeed, have supported Mr. Bush’s war, even if he’d known that W.M.D.’s were a George Tenet air-ball. “Yes,” he said, “I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a President to have.”

In coming to his position, Mr. Kerry is following the lead of Hillary Clinton, who two weeks ago told Nightline she was all for the war (a continuation of her husband’s policies, she’s called it), W.M.D.’s or no W.M.D’s. So did 29 other Democratic Senators, including Chuck Schumer, who demanded that Vice President Cheney “apologize” for continuing to insist that Saddam was the glove to Osama’s hand, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Fabled for his love of TV cameras, Mr. Schumer would have gotten more face time had he lumped Hillary with Dick. But apparently Mr. Schumer was tied up with Gabe Pressman on that October day in 2002 when his junior colleague took to the Senate floor to denounce Saddam for providing “aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including al Qaeda members.”

In any event, now that Mr. Kerry has gotten the “would-he-or-wouldn’t-he-have” question behind him, he can go back to speechifying about topics he does like. Such as how it would be nice for everyone to have a job, affordable health care, a good education, and kids who don’t mainline or stick up bodegas. Sentiments, in short, even Dick Cheney could share. This week in New Mexico, for instance, Mr. Kerry was saying we ought to treat Indians better. Who but descendants of George Armstrong Custer can quarrel with that? Our forefathers and -mothers did, after all, steal the country from them (a fact not mentioned by Mr. Kerry, concerned perhaps that Custer kin might be in the audience), and in the swing-state “Land of Enchantment,” Native Americans account for 10 percent of the vote.

Which is not to say Mr. Kerry never declaims about Iraq. He does frequently-though only about the mess Dubya’s made of it. Evidence was piling up yet again this week: bloody, bitter, hand-to-hand fighting in supposedly secure Najaf; the shooting down of another U.S. helicopter (over Baghdad, yet); more kidnappings and bombings; the announcement of 27 criminal investigations into where the reconstruction money went (since it wasn’t to reconstructing); and the issuing of a warrant on charges of counterfeiting for Ahmad Chalabi, the convicted bank-looter and accused Iranian spy Wolfowitz & Co. thought would make a swell replacement for Saddam. But that things are “untidy” in Iraq, as Don Rumsfeld likes to put it, ain’t a news flash.

Nor is Mr. Kerry’s oft-recommended fix: having the U.N., NATO, defanged Muslim nations and presumably whoever else wishes to wade neck-deep in the Big Muddy help out. With three catches. First, prospective rescuers of American chestnuts have to promise to forgive Iraq’s multibillion-dollar debt. Then, they have to chip in their “fair share” to finance Iraq’s reconstruction. Finally, they have to agree to us telling their troops what to do.

Is that a deal or what? George W. Bush seems to think so. He’s been frantically peddling virtually the same package for months. Takers so far: zero. Defectors from the “Coalition of the Willing” during the same period: four (with several more thinking about it, and the continued participation of another-Australia-dependent on upcoming election results.)

But Mr. Kerry is convinced that he’ll succeed where Mr. Bush failed. Why? Basically, because he says so.

He sure talks better than Mr. Bush, who last week was declaring, “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.” Unlike Dubya, who relies on the Lord for policy instruction, a circumstance that permits little wiggle room, Mr. Kerry has demonstrated that he’s educable. Until lately, for instance, his peace plan for Iraq called for the dispatch of an additional 20,000 G.I.’s, the theory being that the extra heft would make traversing Iraq’s sand-swept highways and byways less like a vehicular version of Russian roulette. That got dropped when one of the army of foreign-policy experts Mr. Kerry consults gently pointed out that more bodies equals more targets.

Let’s assume for a moment that Mr. Kerry’s proposal is not the Lewis Carroll confection it appears to be, and that our European friends are just fibbing when they say they want no part of it. How long till everybody gets to come home ?

Mr. Kerry’s answer depends on when you catch him. Usually, he doesn’t specify. Shortly after the convention, however, he allowed that if he hadn’t made a good start on withdrawal by the end of his first term, he’d count it “a failure”-a feeling doubtless shared by the 138,000 currently in harm’s way. Then on NPR the other day, Mr. Kerry moved up the date, saying that within six months or so of being inaugurated, he planned to “significantly reduce American forces in Iraq.” Hardly were the words out than campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter was straight-facedly telling reporters that’s what Mr. Kerry had been saying all along. Apparently thinking he’d gotten away with it, Mr. Kerry trotted out the six-months-after-taking-over refrain again this week, during a session with journalists at the rim of the Grand Canyon-nice place to expose a credibility gap. “Obviously we have to see how events unfold,” said Mr. Kerry, hedging, lest the gap grow. “The measurement has to be … the stability of Iraq, the ability to have the elections, and the training and transformation of the Iraqi security force itself.” Chat over, Jamie Rubin, Mr. Kerry’s newly-minted “National SecurityAdvisor,” stepped forward to “clarify.” What his boss left out, said Mr. Rubin, who used to sweep up after Madeline Albright, was that six months was “best case.”

Six months, six years-Mr. Kerry’s “trust me” vagueness about how the Mesopotamian hip bone will connect to the Babylonian thigh bone reminds old-timers of another Presidential candidate who had a “secret plan” for ending another divisive war. The year was 1968, and the candidate was Richard Nixon, who beat Hubert Humphrey in a contest as close as this is expected to be. The war? That was Vietnam, which bled on for another seven years.

Mr. Kerry’s obvious hope is that by imitating Mr. Nixon’s tactics, he’ll duplicate his success. But his latest pronouncements will make it a struggle. No one could have been more cheered by his W.M.D. shrug-off than Ralph Nader, who has a six-month withdrawal plan of his own-only difference, everybody’s out, no ifs, ands, buts or best-cases. And Dubya-whose syntax, as if by magic, becomes powerfully comprehensible when Presidential debates roll around-must be relishing the questions he’ll get to put to Mr. Kerry:

What took you so long to decide that Saddam was a menace worth going to war to be rid of, whatever weapons he had?

If you were so convinced of the dangers to our fighting men and women, why did you vote for-and then against-the very resources required to protect them?

And if you believe so fervently that victory in Iraq requires the internationalization of the conflict, please explain why you voted against the first Gulf War when the U.N. was with us, and the greatest coalition of allies ever assembled fought at our side?

And the rest of us? We’re left with a man whose convictions on the single most important issue of the day-of any day in decades-appear to be based on the findings of focus groups in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s only 33 years ago, but it seems infinitely longer: A young ex-Navy lieutenant in combat fatigues moved a nation by leaning over the green baize of a Congressional witness table to demand, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

That was then, this is now.

People don’t change. Ambitions do.