What is Kerry's position on the Iraq war?

What is Kerry's position on the Iraq war?

What is Kerry's position on the Iraq war?

Politics and policy.
Aug. 12 2004 6:36 PM

Would Kerry Vote Today for the Iraq War?

No.

Why won't he just tell us?
Why won't he just tell us? 

Last Friday, President Bush challenged Sen. John Kerry: "My opponent hasn't answered the question of whether, knowing what we know now, he would have supported going into Iraq." On Monday, pressed by a reporter to answer Bush, Kerry said, "Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a president to have."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Bush argues that this is yet another Kerry flip-flop and that Kerry now endorses Bush's war. At a campaign rally on Tuesday, Bush asserted,

My opponent has found a new nuance. He now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq. After months of questioning my motives and even my credibility, Senator Kerry now agrees with me that even though we have not found the stockpile of weapons we believed were there, knowing everything we know today, he would have voted to go into Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power.

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Does Kerry now agree with Bush's decision? Would Kerry have gone into Iraq? Would he have voted to give Bush the authorization had Kerry known what he now knows about the absence of WMD and about how Bush would use the authorization?

The answer, if you look closely at Kerry's statements over the past three years, is no. But Kerry refuses to make this clear, so let's go to the videotape—specifically, a 12-minute videotape of Kerry's statements, compiled by the Republican National Committee and posted on the Web. These statements, in the RNC's judgment, make the strongest case that Kerry has flip-flopped on Iraq.

The first significant clip shows Kerry on The O'Reilly Factor on Dec. 11, 2001. "We ought to put the heat on Saddam Hussein," he says. Kerry adds that when U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler provided evidence that inspections should continue, "I criticized the Clinton administration for backing off of the inspections."

Summary: Kerry wants pressure and inspections.

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The next significant clip shows Kerry on Hardball on Feb. 5, 2002. The host, Chris Matthews, asks Kerry whether Iraq "can be reduced to a diplomatic problem—can we get this guy to accept inspections of those weapons of mass destruction potentially and get past a possible war with him?" Kerry answers: "Outside chance, Chris. Could it be done? The answer is yes. He would view himself only as buying time and playing a game, in my judgment. Do we have to go through that process? The answer is yes."

Summary: Kerry doubts Iraq would comply with inspections, but he thinks we have to go through the process of trying.

The next significant quote comes from Kerry's speech to the Democratic Leadership Council on July 29, 2002. "I agree completely with this administration's goal of a regime change in Iraq," Kerry says. He calls Saddam a "renegade" who has betrayed the terms of his 1991 cease-fire. However, the RNC omits Kerry's next two sentences: "But the Administration's rhetoric has far exceeded their plans or their groundwork. In fact, their single-mindedness, secrecy, and high-blown rhetoric has alienated our allies and threatened to unravel the stability of the region."

Summary: Kerry agrees that regime change is a "goal." He doesn't clarify how he would pursue it. The part edited out by the RNC suggests that Kerry doesn't like the way Bush is pursuing the goal, particularly because it "alienated our allies."

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The video then shows Kerry speaking at a Democratic presidential primary debate in South Carolina on May 3, 2003. Kerry tells moderator George Stephanopoulos, "I said at the time I would have preferred if we had given diplomacy a greater opportunity. But I think it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein. And when the president made the decision, I supported him, and I support the fact that we did disarm [Saddam]."

Stephanopoulos' question, edited out of the video, was, "On March 19, President Bush ordered Gen. Tommy Franks to execute the invasion of Iraq. Was that the right decision at the right time?" Kerry takes the question in two parts: No to the timing ("I would have preferred if we had given diplomacy a greater opportunity"), yes to the "decision to disarm." But in his final sentence, Kerry conveys that his agreement with Bush on the decision is more important than their disagreement on the timing: "When the president made the decision, I supported him, and I support the fact that we did disarm [Saddam]."

This appears to be the first time Kerry endorses the war as Bush conducted it.

It also appears to be the last. The next clip in the RNC video shows Kerry on Meet the Press on Aug. 31, 2003. "In the resolution that we passed, we did not empower the president to do regime change," says Kerry. That's consistent with Kerry's previous statements calling for "heat," "inspections," "process," and cooperation with "allies."

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The video shows Kerry announcing his presidential candidacy on Sept. 2, 2003. "I voted to threaten the use of force to make Saddam Hussein comply with the resolutions of the United Nations," he says. The video omits Kerry's next sentence: "I believe that was right, but it was wrong to rush to war without building a true international coalition and with no plan to win the peace."

No conflict here. Kerry thinks he was voting to turn up the heat and get compliance with inspections. He thinks Bush betrayed two of Kerry's principles: process and allies.

The video shows Kerry on ABC's This Week on Oct. 12, 2003. The administration "rushed to war," Kerry complains. "They did not give legitimacy to the inspections. We could have still been doing inspections even today."

This is a telling remark. Take Kerry's stated principles: inspections, process, allies. Apply these to the trends of the winter of 2002-03: restored inspections and grudging Iraqi concessions. Combine the principles and the trend with the evidence we have today that Iraq's WMD programs had disintegrated. The most plausible conclusion is that if Kerry were president, we would still be doing inspections, as he suggests.

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The video shows Kerry again on Hardball on Jan. 6, 2004. Chris Matthews asks him, "Are you one of the antiwar candidates?" "I am, yeah—" says Kerry. The video cuts off the rest of the sentence, which continues: "in the sense that I don't believe the president took us to war as he should have, yes, absolutely."

This is classic Kerry: emphasizing the right half of his position when it's convenient, then the left half when that's more convenient. But it isn't a change of position.

At this point, the video takes us back to Kerry's appearance on This Week on Feb. 22, 1998, when Saddam was harassing U.N. weapons inspectors. "We have to be prepared to go the full distance" to disrupt Saddam's regime, Kerry says. Cokie Roberts asks him, "Does that mean ground troops in Iraq?" Kerry replies, "I'm personally prepared, if that's what it meant." The RNC deletes the next seven sentences, so that Kerry's next words appear to be, "He can rebuild both chemical and biological, and every indication is because of his deception and duplicity in the past, he will seek to do that. So we will not eliminate the problem for ourselves or for the rest of the world with a bombing attack."

Sounds like a call for war. But let's read the whole quote, including the part the RNC left out:

I am personally prepared, if that's what it meant. I don't think you have to start there. I think there are a number of other options. But what I hear from the administration, thus far, is if he doesn't comply, then we will hit him. The obvious question is, after you've hit him, have you opened up your inspections? Well, I think the answer is probably not, certainly not in the near term. After you've hit him, is he still in power, capable of building weapons again? Every bit of intelligence John [McCain] and I have says within various periods of time, he can rebuild both chemical and biological, and every indication is because of his deception and duplicity in the past, he will seek to do that. So we will not eliminate the problem for ourselves or for the rest of the world with a bombing attack.

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This is the same position Kerry has stated all along: compliance, inspections, skepticism, process. He says we shouldn't start with an invasion. He rejects bombing not because it will fail to change the regime, but because it will fail to restore inspections. And look at the sentence the RNC cut in half, about Saddam having the ability to rebuild the chemical and biological weapons programs he had lost in the early 1990s. Notice what the RNC removed: Kerry's attribution of that assessment to the "intelligence" he had been shown.

If the basis of Kerry's concern about Iraqi WMD was the intelligence, and the intelligence turns out to be mistaken, does this change Kerry's view of the war?

That's the focus of the video's final clip. It shows Kerry's on 60 Minutes a month ago. Lesley Stahl tells him: "You voted for this war. Was that vote, given what you know now, a mistake?" Kerry answers: "What I voted for—Lesley, you see, you're playing here. 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." Stahl persists, "But I'm trying to find out if you today, now that you know about [the absence of WMD], think the war was a mistake?" Kerry stonewalls, "I think I answered your question. I think the way he went to war was a mistake."


Kerry sticks to his position. He doesn't answer Stahl's question. But this time, somebody who can speak English is sitting next to Kerry: John Edwards. Seconds after the RNC cuts away from the interview, Edwards steps in to rescue his running mate.

Edwards: I'm going to finish this. The difference is, if John Kerry were president of the United States, we would never be in this place. He would never have done what George Bush did. He would have done the hard work to build the alliances and the support system. …

Stahl: Why build an alliance if they didn't have weapons of mass destruction?

Edwards: We would have found out.

Kerry: That is it.
Edwards and Kerry (in unison): That's the point.

Kerry: That is exactly the point.

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There you have it. Edwards says if Kerry had been president, we would have found out Iraq had no WMD, and "we would never be in this place." Kerry emphatically agrees with this translation. It makes pretty clear that given Kerry's principles, and given what we now know about the absence of WMD, Kerry wouldn't have gone to war.

Last Thursday, Kerry gave the RNC more comic material. He told a conference of minority journalists,

I voted to hold Saddam Hussein accountable, because had I been president, I would have wanted that authority, because that was the way to enforce the U.N. resolutions and be tough with the prospect of his development of weapons of mass destruction. … Now, might we have wound up going to war with Saddam Hussein? You bet we might have—after we exhausted those remedies and found that he wasn't complying, and so on and so forth. But not in a way that provides, you know, 90 percent of the casualties are American, and almost all of the cost.

This is the kind of endless, backside-covering nuance that earned Kerry two months of "Kerryisms" in Slate. But it doesn't change his position: United Nations, WMD, compliance, process. And it includes a very important phrase: "[B]ecause had I been president, I would have wanted that authority."

Only when you remember that phrase does the meaning of Kerry's statement on Monday become clear. When Kerry says he would have voted for war authority because "it was the right authority for a president to have," the president he's thinking of—"a president," as he puts it—isn't Bush. It's himself.

So the question that now needs to be put to Kerry is this one: "Knowing what you know now—not only about the absence of weapons of mass destruction, but also about the way President Bush would use the authority given to him by that resolution—would you still have voted to give him that authority?" Good luck getting him to answer it.