For John Kerry, the upcoming debate offers a crucial chance to dispel the myths about him that have been propagated by the Republicans and to display the strong, honest leadership valued by American voters. Every two-minute answer will be an opportunity to explain how badly the Bush administration has botched policy in Iraq and elsewhere—and why we must change course.
Question: Senator Kerry, two years ago you voted for the Iraq war resolution, and you said recently that you’d cast the same vote again. Yet you also say that we are fighting the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Isn’t that a flip-flop?
Kerry: I’m so glad you asked. But I hope you will also ask the President why he has flipped his position on the purpose of the war resolution. Now he says it was a vote for war—but back then he told us that it was a vote to “keep the peace.” He said that if we gave him the power to use force, he would do so only as a last resort. I agreed that we had to force Saddam Hussein to allow the U.N. inspectors to return, so we could determine whether he still possessed weapons of mass destruction. Giving the president that authority was the right decision, at a time when we were asking the U.N. Security Council to issue an ultimatum to Saddam. But the President misused that authority.
My views about this war have been consistent from the beginning, and I invite you to check the record. Two months before we went to war, I warned that this administration had no plan to win the peace. Holding Saddam accountable was right. Rushing into war without building a strong coalition and without a sound exit strategy was terribly wrong. We are paying the price for that incompetence every day.
Question: What about your vote on the $87 billion appropriation for the war? You said you voted for it before you voted against it. Weren’t you having it both ways?
Kerry: You’re asking all my favorite questions tonight. But I hope you will ask the President why he repeatedly threatened to veto that same $87 billion bill. I suspect most Americans still don’t know about his veto threat.
He told us he would veto the $87 billion if we tried to share the burden with the Iraqis by making a loan instead of a grant. He said he would veto that bill if we allocated money to provide medical care for our veterans, and for our National Guard and Reserve families. He threatened a veto unless we agreed to add that $87 billion to the deficit, rather than reduce his most profligate tax cuts.
In the Senate, we knew that the needs of our troops would be met one way or another, but we sharply disagreed over the best way to do that. I wanted a fiscally responsible bill that provided medical care for military families. The President cared more about preserving tax cuts for those who need them least. And now we know that he has failed to spend nearly all of the $20 billion in reconstruction funding that Congress appropriated—while the costs of the war balloon toward $200 billion. The administration’s incompetence is costing American and Iraqi lives.
Question: Senator, you’ve accused the President of living in a “fantasy world of spin.” Aren’t you undermining the war effort?
Kerry: No. Wars are never won by misleading our people. Last Sunday, contradicting the President, Colin Powell admitted that conditions in Iraq are getting worse. Secretary Powell knows that the commander in chief owes the American people hard truths, not happy talk—especially when they are sacrificing the lives of our kids and billions of dollars in a mismanaged war.
Four years ago, George W. Bush told us that he had learned the lesson of Vietnam—another costly conflict that we entered without an exit strategy. Now we know that he ignored and dismissed his own advisors, who told him that we were going in without enough troops and without a postwar plan.
Months before the invasion, he ignored a clear warning from the intelligence community that our troops would face a deadly, widespread guerrilla insurgency after we ousted Saddam. Those intelligence officers weren’t “just guessing.” They were right, and the President was wrong. He dared our enemies to “bring it on,” but he wasn’t ready when they did.
A thousand lives later, the mission is far from accomplished. The President insists that we need only to stay the course—when we know that his policy is failing. We need a new strategy that stabilizes Iraq, persuades our allies to share the military and financial burden, and deals with the real threats we still face from Al Qaeda, North Korea and Iran. We don’t live in the President’s fantasy world—and we will imperil our future if we pretend that we do.