Anyone paying minimum attention to the 2004 presidential campaign knows that John Kerry is a Vietnam War veteran. His combat record offers tangible evidence of physical courage and leadership under enemy fire. Voters are also learning that Vietnam is a place where Kerry met men for whom war was not a choice, and that shared combat duty forged intimacy that continues today. They also know that Kerry opposed the Vietnam War when he returned home and boldly asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 23, 1971: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Now -- with all due respect for Kerry's service, his band of brothers, and the made-for-TV water taxi ride they took together yesterday across Boston Harbor -- what about Iraq?
Kerry's Vietnam saga goes only so far in this presidential campaign, even against George W. Bush, whose National Guard duty falls far short of John Wayne heroics.
Voters understand the basic Kerry/Vietnam plot: Privileged, idealistic Yale graduate volunteers for war, serves bravely, and returns to oppose the conflict. Here's what they don't know: What lessons did Kerry take from Vietnam? How do they apply in connection to his vote authorizing Bush to invade Iraq? How do those lessons apply to resolving America's Iraq involvement?
"What I voted for was an authority for the president to go to war as a last resort if Saddam Hussein did not disarm and we needed to go to war," Kerry told CBS reporter Lesley Stahl during a "60 Minutes" interview on July 11. When Stahl followed up to ask if Kerry now thinks the Iraq war was a mistake, Kerry replied, "I think I answered your question. I think the way he went to war was a mistake."
Kerry did not answer Stahl's question. He may win election without ever answering it. At this point it is more important to spell out his postelection Iraq policy. That is what the country cares about.
Delegates to this Democratic National Convention should demand at least that much from their nominee. Nine out of 10 of them believe the United States should not have gone to war in Iraq and say the gains from war were not worth the loss of American lives, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.
Other Democrats are not afraid to call the war a mistake. On Tuesday night, Senator Edward M. Kennedy called the Iraq conflict "a misguided war," a much tamer than usual assessment from Kennedy, who voted against the Iraq war resolution. At a women's luncheon Tuesday afternoon, the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, called the invasion of Iraq "a radical doctrine of preemptive war unprecedented in our history" and "a war of choice, George Bush's choice."
Outside the convention hall, Michael Lee White, 28, a delegate for Dennis Kucinich from Boulder, Colo., spoke of his frustration regarding Kerry and Iraq: "So far, what he said about his plans is a bit vague for me. We'd love to know more details. Maybe he's been saving that for the convention. Added White: "He says we need to internationalize the war effort. We say we need to internationalize the peace effort."
A call to "internationalize the peace effort" is a concept Kerry might want to borrow. A war veteran, of all people, should be able to talk strongly about peace without fear of sounding weak. How can anyone call a decorated soldier a coward? That's why Kerry's Vietnam service is an advantage in this campaign and why the Republicans are trying so hard to undercut it.
Republicans are also exploiting Kerry's evolving opinions regarding Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, and the rationale for invading Iraq. Yesterday the Republican National Committee released a video showing Kerry's conflicting public statements on Iraq since the mid-'90s. The Kerry campaign labeled the criticism a "stale, old attack." However, stale and old does not necessarily mean inaccurate.
It's time for clarity.
More than 900 American military personnel have died in Iraq since the invasion was launched. Yesterday a suicide car bomb exploded outside a police recruiting center 35 miles north of Baghdad, killing at least 68 Iraqis and "turning the city's busy streets into a bloody tangle of twisted metal and bodies," the AP reported. It was the deadliest explosion since the United States transferred sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 28.
What about Iraq?
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