John Kerry and War

Editorial

The New York Times

July 29, 2004

When he accepts the Democratic presidential nomination tonight, John Kerry needs to give the nation a clearer idea of how his choices would have differed from President Bush's - particularly when it comes to the war in Iraq. The nation deserves to be told whether Mr. Kerry would have voted to authorize the invasion if he had known that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Kerry, as the world already knows, is not a black-and-white kind of thinker, especially when it comes to foreign policy. That's good - it should give voters a real sense of choice this fall, given George Bush's tendency to view the world in absolutes. But it's not an excuse for fudging every issue. Mr. Kerry's history on the critical Iraq question has been impossibly opaque. He voted to authorize Mr. Bush to go to war. He voted against $87 billion to pay for extra costs - after offering an amendment to raise the money by increasing taxes on the wealthy. That produced the infamous explanation, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.''

Mr. Kerry is very, very sorry for that phrasing. His campaign is well aware that if he had simply said, "I voted to spend the money - I just opposed increasing the deficit," the Republicans would have been deprived of one of their most salient commercials. We hope he's also sorry that he tried to parse his votes both ways during the difficult days of the Democratic primaries, when Howard Dean's antiwar candidacy was breathing down his neck.

Mr. Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, have said that they voted to give the president the power to go to war to strengthen Mr. Bush's hand with the United Nations. They also had been given alarming intelligence reports, which they believed were accurate, showing that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling biological and chemical weapons and at least attempting to develop nuclear bombs.

Those reports were wrong, and Congress was wrong in presuming that Mr. Bush would go the last mile to get United Nations support. We can appreciate Mr. Kerry's complaints that he was misled on both counts. But he and Mr. Edwards have refused to say whether they would have acted differently if they had known then what they know now. That's unfair. When it comes to using force abroad, voters deserve a clear idea of how high Mr. Kerry would raise the bar from where Mr. Bush lowered it.

We know that Mr. Kerry does not rule out preemptive strikes if a country poses a clear and serious danger to the United States or its allies - that's longstanding American policy, and it's in the U.N. charter. But that was not the case with Iraq.

Saddam Hussein was a vicious dictator, certainly, who was continuing to disdain United Nations resolutions on weapons of mass destruction and refusing to give full access to weapons inspectors. But we know now that because of the resolutions and the inspections, Mr. Hussein no longer had the forbidden weapons, even if he still harbored ambitions of getting them someday. Knowing that, Mr. Bush still insists that he was right to invade. He says the war was justified because of Mr. Hussein's military ambitions and because Iraq is better off without him.

Voters need to know whether Mr. Kerry agrees. Or would he have held back on invading Iraq and chosen instead to pursue the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the destruction of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and to focus diplomatic resources on places like North Korea and Iran? Mr. Kerry's advisers don't want more accusations of flip-flopping, and they've told him to avoid hypotheticals. But while voters are certainly prepared to accept a candidate with a complex worldview, they also value the courage that comes with occasionally taking a leap and giving an answer that's straight and simple.