What do Americans need in their president, post-9/11? Strong leadership, of course. Clear vision. Common sense. And in a dangerous, fast-changing world, the capacity to learn from past mistakes would be helpful.
Senator John Kerry, the Democrat who hopes to elbow President George Bush from office on Nov. 2, promises all of the above and more. But there was little of it on display Monday, when Kerry responded to Bush's challenge to spell out where he stands on the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Rising to Bush's bait, Kerry said he would have cast the same Yes vote in Congress that he did on Oct. 11, 2002, to authorize the president to launch a pre-emptive war that began March 19, 2003, even if Kerry had known that Saddam Hussein had no ties with Al Qaeda terrorists, no weapons of mass destruction and posed no real threat to the world.
"I believe it's the right authority for a president to have," Kerry now says. Only he would have used that power more "effectively."
This amounts to a sweeping claim by Kerry that America has carte blanche to make war on even bogus grounds, and in defiance of the United Nations and world opinion, so long as the war is waged effectively.
It's depressing from a candidate who has attacked Bush for "misleading" the nation, who promises a better direction and who claims to want to re-engage with the world.
Kerry's vote in 2002, while misguided, was defensible. Bush had exaggerated Saddam's threat, and had won over 7 in 10 Americans to the view that the Iraq war was justified.
But since then, the U.N. has been vindicated. Saddam was contained; there were no ties to the 9/11 terrorists; and Iraq had no nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
That leaves most Americans feeling misled, or duped. They can see the damage to U.S. prestige internationally. The loss of more than 1,000 American and allied lives, and 16,000 Iraqi lives . A $200-billion cost.
And they see no easy exit.
All this is baggage Bush should carry to the polls, alone. But Kerry has just re-endorsed his misguided policy, if not its clumsy delivery.
No wonder Kerry is struggling to pull ahead in a race with a president who has not delivered promised jobs and who is seen as a friend of the rich and powerful.
Practical politics undoubtedly prompted Kerry's reply. He is loath to admit he cast a foolish vote in 2002. He does not want to alienate voters who were similarly duped, and who are not keen to be reminded of it. And he must not be seen as "soft" on Saddam.
But Kerry comes off looking like "Bush lite" on Iraq, rather than as a candidate with better values and a sounder program. He seems weak. Muddled. Has he learned nothing from a slew of American investigations that have exposed the sloppiness of U.S. intelligence and the shabbiness of the rationale for war?
This is a letdown for American voters who yearn for a real alternative, and a healthier direction. It is not good news for the world, either.
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