As a former Presidential candidate now long out of politics, Bob Kerrey has become the unleashed id of the current Democratic candidates for President.
In response to Rudy Giuliani’s recent remarks doubting the ability of Democrats to keep America safe from terrorism, the Vietnam veteran and former Navy SEAL questioned whether the former Mayor is himself qualified for the job.
“It’s an outrageous statement,” Mr. Kerrey said about Mr. Giuliani’s assertion that a Democratic President would make the country more vulnerable to a similar terrorist attack. “His record of preparing New York between World Trade Center attack No. 1 and attack No. 2—it wasn’t exemplary.”
Far from it, argued Mr. Kerrey in an interview. The former Nebraska governor and then Senator said that he thinks Mr. Giuliani showed solid leadership in the hours and days after the attack, but he just won’t stand for the idea that Republicans—and especially President Bush—did a better job than Democrats at keeping danger at bay.
“When he turned and said to Bernie Kerik, ‘Thank God George Bush is President,’” said Mr. Kerrey, echoing one of Mr. Giuliani’s favorite (but now retired) 9/11 anecdotes. “What he should have said was, ‘Why the fuck didn’t George Bush call us and tell us this was going to happen?’ That was a more appropriate response.”
Not exactly the stuff you heard from the Democratic presidential candidates at the debate in South Carolina. But not far, one supposes, from what the candidates are actually thinking, either.
Mr. Giuliani’s campaign declined to respond to Mr. Kerrey’s remarks.
Mr. Kerrey, who lost part of his leg in Vietnam and was one of the most vocal Democratic boosters of the war in Iraq, has never been accused of shyness. He arrived in New York in 2001 to take over the New School, bringing with him a Senatorial mane of greying hair, a reputation for dating movie stars and a whiff of Mayoral ambition.
Mr. Kerrey’s most public duties these days usually tend towards the ceremonial: introducing Bill Clinton at the annual Parsons Fashion Benefit and Fashion Show, as he did on Monday night, or debating angry liberal teenagers upset about his invitations to John McCain and Newt Gingrich to speak at New School forums.
But he is by no means disengaged from politics.
Asked to rate the foreign-policy platforms of the various Democratic candidates, he was unflinching.
Joe Biden, he says, is the most serious thinker on Iraq, even though his plan smacks too much of micromanaging. Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd and Governor Bill Richardson are likewise in the top tier of foreign policy.
Barack Obama lacks experience, but is uniquely equipped, given his Muslim heritage, Christian faith and peripatetic childhood, to face the foreign-policy challenges of the 21st century.
John Edwards has made strides in foreign policy since he last ran for President, though he is still stronger on domestic issues.
Mr. Kerrey, who sat as the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, also has some specific criticisms of their plans for dealing with Iraq.
He thinks, for example, that Mrs. Clinton’s plan, which maintains funding for American troops but threatens to slash money for the American-trained Iraqi security forces, is misguided.
“I think we have under-funded the Iraqi military,” said Mr. Kerrey. “They don’t have enough helicopters; they don’t have enough of the basic necessities to confront an enemy, either domestic or foreign. So the idea that we are going to provide them an incentive by cutting back on their military—I don’t understand that.”
Worse, said Mr. Kerrey, is that such a move would help America’s enemy in the region.
“Iran will step into the breach,” he said. “If we don’t want to be Iraq’s ally, there are a lot of people in the region who we don’t like who will be willing to fill the gap.”
Mr. Kerrey, who once joined former Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Mr. McCain on the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a group that advocated regime change, also said that he respected Mrs. Clinton’s refusal to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing the President to go to war.
“She is saying: ‘Look, I’m not going to throw myself at the mercy of the court and have an abject apology—it looks weak, because it is weak—just to appease an audience,’” Mr. Kerrey said.
Mr. Kerrey thinks that Mr. Edwards—who, by contrast with Mrs. Clinton, has apologized profusely, even theatrically, for his vote—has “traveled a long distance from 2004, when people would say he seems awfully thin. Now what I hear people say is that there is too much attention to domestic policy and not enough to international, other than ‘I’m against the Iraq War and I made a mistake to vote for it.’”
Mr. Obama, he says, is “inexperienced,” but “on the foreign policy side, his big strength is that his name is Barack Hussein Obama.” He argued that Mr. Obama’s foreign-language skills, connection to Muslim countries and personal background uniquely qualify him to send the message that “we are not your worst enemy, unless you make us so. And then we’re your worst enemy.”
Of course, Mr. Kerrey no longer bears the responsibility of taking public positions on the issues of the day, and his own Iraq policy isn’t wholly defined. He argues that the United States achieved its goal of regime change in Iraq by deposing Saddam Hussein, and that it is not America’s role to police the nation, train its soldiers, or even stand in the way of widespread sectarian bloodshed. At the same time, he advocates robust military operations in the majority-Sunni Anbar province with the goal of wiping out Al Qaeda cells, and behaving like a “good ally” to an Iraqi government under siege by an insurgency.
Unlike Mr. Biden, who he says has “a very, very serious proposal of what to do” in Iraq, Mr. Kerrey is convinced the country should not be split up into ethnically homogonous regions and believes that it wants, at its core, to be unified. To that end, Mr. Kerrey wished that Washington would stop “meddling” in Iraq’s affairs.
At the same time, Mr. Kerrey is still very obviously suspicious of the ascendant out-of-Iraq portion of the Democratic electorate.
“Had we not invaded Iraq and overthrown Saddam Hussein—and if Iraq was experiencing the kind of sectarian violence that they are experiencing today—liberals would be advocating, as they are in Darfur, that we use military force to go in,” said Mr. Kerrey. “For any Democratic candidate, they are facing a very anti-war audience. And that’s reality.”
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