Published on Wednesday, June 14, 2006 by the Boston Globe
Kerry Demands US Troop Pullout
Regrets his vote for war resolution
by Rick Klein
WASHINGTON - Senator John F. Kerry is placing himself at the center of congressional action over the war in Iraq this week with a crisply worded resolution to require President Bush to withdraw almost all US troops by the end of this year.
The measure has exposed Kerry to attacks from Republicans and some Democrats, as critics rushed to tag the plan as a ``cut-and-run" strategy. But it also has made him a rallying point for antiwar activists.
The sweeping resolution amounts to the senator's sharpest condemnation of the war and his broadest repudiation of his own vote to authorize force. It also stands in contrast to his handling of the war issue during his campaign for president two years ago.
``My friends, war is no excuse for its own perpetuation," Kerry said before a group of cheering liberal activists who had gathered in Washington yesterday for a ``Take Back America" conference. ``It is essential to acknowledge that the war itself was a mistake -- to say the simple words that contain more truth than pride. . . . It was wrong and I was wrong to vote for that Iraqi war resolution."
It was a concise distillation of principles that Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, did not produce in the presidential campaign, during which his language on Iraq prompted attacks from the Bush campaign that he was weak and inconsistent.
His effort to spell out his views on the war in the clearest possible terms now appears to be partly an attempt to remake his image for a possible second run for the presidency.
In an interview after the speech, Kerry said he has learned from the mistakes of his campaign, including his inability to articulate an easily understood position on the war. Now, drawing on his experience as a Vietnam-veteran-turned-war-critic in the early 1970s, he is making clear that he is a full-throated opponent of the Iraq war.
``It was right to dissent from a war in 1971 that was wrong and could not be won," Kerry said in his speech. ``And now, in 2006, it is both a right and an obligation for Americans to stand up to a president who is wrong today, [and] dissent from policies that are wrong today, and end a war in Iraq that weakens the nation each and every day we are in it."
The proposal would keep US troops in Iraq to train Iraqis and a significant force elsewhere in the region. But the provision to withdraw almost all other troops from Iraq by the end of the year appears to be certain to fail in a lopsided vote. Democrats control only 44 of the 100 Senate seats, and even many Democrats say they do not believe setting a firm deadline for troop withdrawals is advisable, because it could encourage the insurgency.
Kerry said he is working with Senate Democratic leaders to negotiate possible changes to his resolution that could unite the Democratic caucus; a vote is likely to be held tomorrow . Several prominent Democrats have endorsed a gradual drawdown of troops, which they refer to as a ``phased redeployment," with a looser deadline than Kerry would set.
Yet Kerry said he is adamant that there be a firm date for troops to leave Iraq, so that responsibility for Iraqi security will clearly shift to Iraqis. Kerry's insistence on bringing his proposal up for a vote puts some Democrats in a difficult spot, and is likely to be viewed as an early test for 2008 Democratic presidential contenders.
At least five other Senate Democrats are also exploring runs for president.
All of them will be forced to weigh in on an issue that has split the party when they cast votes on Kerry's resolution.
Indeed, shortly before Kerry spoke at the meeting of liberal activists, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the front-runner in many Democratic polls for president, was greeted with scattered boos when she said she opposed setting a certain date for troop withdrawal.
``I do not agree that that is in the best interests" of the United States, Clinton said, drawing some jeers. When she left the stage, a small group of audience members began to chant, ``Bring home the troops." Later, when Kerry said that members of Congress must help set a course in Iraq, one attendee shouted, ``Tell Hillary!"
Kerry struggled with his position on the war throughout the 2004 campaign, and Bush attacked him consistently for supporting the war resolution but voting against war funding. During the campaign, Kerry said repeatedly that he would not have invaded Iraq if he were in Bush's place, but he maintained that he was right to vote to give Bush the authority to use force, to strengthen the president's hand in international negotiations.
In August 2004, at an event at the Grand Canyon, Kerry said he still would have voted for the war even if he had known that the United States would not find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. After the election, Kerry said he had misheard the question.
In October, almost a year after the election, Kerry said for the first time that he had been wrong to vote to give the president the authority to remove President Saddam Hussein by force. He said he was convinced by a variety of factors -- including what he described as the Bush administration's manipulation of prewar intelligence, the mishandling of the war, and the way the war had eroded the nation's standing in the international community.
But yesterday's speech -- in which he flatly declared that the war was wrong and that his vote for the war resolution had been misguided -- represented his most dramatic repudiation yet.
Kerry's push for a quick withdrawal could help him with liberals, but it could also play into Republican hands. Republicans are eager to knock down Kerry's proposal -- particularly in the wake of the president's visit to Baghdad yesterday and the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- as a way to exploit Democratic divisions and portray the Republican Party as steadfast in its commitment to defeating terrorism.
``Just tucking tail and pulling up and leaving and losing is not an option," said Senator George Allen, a Virginia Republican and a potential 2008 contender.
In the House, which is scheduled to have a debate on Iraq tomorrow, Republican leaders intend to use the forum to draw contrasts with Democrats. In a memo sent yesterday to Republican House members, House majority leader John A. Boehner wrote that GOP members should highlight Democrats' ``weak approach" to fighting terrorism.
``Democrats . . . are prone to waver endlessly about the use of force to protect American ideals," Boehner, an Ohio Republican, wrote in the memo, a copy of which was made available to The Boston Globe. ``Capitol Hill Democrats' only specific policy proposals are to concede defeat on the battlefield and instead merely manage the threat of terrorism and the danger it poses."
Kerry said he is tuning out Republican criticism as ``scare tactics" designed to avoid a real discussion of the Bush administration's war position.
``It's time to stand up and make clear to them we're not going to get pushed around," he said in the interview.
In his speech, Kerry attacked the war's architects as ``armchair warriors whose front line is an air-conditioned conference room," and dropped in a pointed reference to Bush's not having fought in Vietnam.
``I understand fully that Iraq is not Vietnam; after all, President Bush is even there today," Kerry said. Bush served in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam era, which allowed him to avoid being deployed to Vietnam.
© 2006 Boston Globe