With Republicans up to and including the President blatantly distorting what John Kerry said about defending America during the first Presidential debate, let’s review the Democratic nominee’s remarks again so that there can be no mistake. It is important not only to understand what Mr. Kerry said, but also why George W. Bush and his supporters insist on misrepresenting him.
“What is your position on the whole concept of preemptive war?” asked Jim Lehrer, the PBS anchor who moderated the debate.
“The President always has the right, and always has had the right, for [a] preemptive strike,” the Massachusetts Senator replied, according to the published transcript. “That was a great doctrine throughout the Cold War. And it was always one of the things we argued about with respect to arms control.
“No President, through all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to pre-empt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America.
“But if and when you do it, Jim, you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people, understand fully why you’re doing what you’re doing, and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.”
Note Mr. Kerry’s use of the phrase “the right to pre-empt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America.” Note also his use of the past tense in that final clause: “and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.”
What is unclear about the meaning of those words? Plainly, Mr. Kerry would reserve the right to act as needed in our defense, with or without the assent of allies. And just as plainly, he would exercise that right responsibly, upholding the international prestige and leadership of the United States.
Within days, however, the President was warning about a dangerous “Kerry doctrine.” According to Mr. Bush, his opponent had “said that America has to pass a global test before we can use troops to defend ourselves.” That is precisely the opposite of what Mr. Kerry actually said, as should be obvious to anyone who understands the meanings of “did” and “before.”
Perhaps Mr. Bush doesn’t understand what those words mean. While he demonstrated a remarkable range of strange faces and fidgety stances at the debate, he also proved once more that use of the English language is not and has never been among his keenest talents. So perhaps his inaccurate parsing of Mr. Kerry’s answer can be excused as simple incomprehension.
That same excuse is not available to others who promoted Mr. Bush’s distortion. William Safire, the conservative Times columnist who writes books about English usage, referred to “Kerry’s notion that such a [pre-emptive] attack had to have prior world-public approval,” although the Democrat said nothing of the kind.
Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Advisor who once served as provost of Stanford University, said on CNN that she couldn’t figure out Mr. Kerry’s meaning. “I don’t understand ‘proving to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons,’” she complained to Wolf Blitzer. She also didn’t seem to understand how grimly ironic that assertion sounded in the midst of the CNN interview—which chiefly concerned the Bush administration’s intentional fabrications about the nuclear “threat” posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Like the President and other members of his cabinet, Ms. Rice has pretended that during the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, everyone believed the Iraqi dictator would soon possess nuclear weapons. The truth is that the International Atomic Energy Authority and the U.N. inspectors in Iraq had already disproved those phony claims.
And now, thanks to an exhaustive if somewhat belated investigation published by The New York Times on Oct. 3, everyone knows that the most important evidence cited by administration officials to justify the war had been thoroughly debunked by the government’s own top atomic experts. As early as the fall of 2001, scientists in the Energy Department had explained that the aluminum tubes imported by Iraq could not be used in a nuclear centrifuge. The long, heavy, anodized tubing intercepted in Jordan was suited to launching conventional rockets, not enriching uranium.
Ms. Rice claims that she didn’t know about those warnings, although scientists at the IAEA publicly echoed them well before the invasion. Along with the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of State, she ignored all the evidence that contradicted their ranting about an Iraqi “mushroom cloud.” Blinded by incompetence and ideology, they proceeded to mislead the American public and the world. They have done irreparable damage to our reputation as well as their own, at a time when we need allies and credibility in a struggle against very real enemies. As their criticism of Mr. Kerry suggests, they still have no idea what terrible damage they have done.