It’s Time for Kerry to Step Up to the Plate on Iraq

Posted June 16, 2004 at 2:40pm

It’s finally time for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to make clear that his election as president would not be a victory for America’s enemies. Doing so would not only be good for the country, it would also establish an important credential for him in the campaign. [IMGCAP(1)]

Before some readers burst a blood vessel, let me make clear that I am not suggesting “terrorists favor Kerry,” or that Kerry is “soft on terrorism.” The United States’ enemies aren’t hoping for President Bush’s defeat because they are “pro-Kerry.” They just want to punish Bush and prove their superiority over the West.

But like it or not, Kerry surely must understand that al Qaeda and other enemies of the United States would see Bush’s defeat as a victory for them, and as a sign that the American public doesn’t have the stomach for a protracted, deadly fight against the forces of Islamic fundamentalism. A Bush defeat would, in short, encourage their course of action.

That’s why Kerry needs to assert, unambiguously and prominently, that he would prosecute the war on terrorism — and the fight to establish a free Iraq — with the same commitment and tenacity as Bush. And he should pledge to do so with the support of our allies when possible, but without them if necessary.

Of course, this is not so easy for the Massachusetts Democrat, even though nothing would be particularly controversial about either statement. Any president must do what he thinks is right to protect the nation’s security, regardless of what our allies think. And nobody in his right mind opposes the war on terror.

Since he is in the middle of a presidential race, Kerry cannot merely embrace Bush’s policies or rhetoric. Instead, he must find a way to send a message of toughness to al Qaeda, while also keeping some distance from Bush’s specific policies.

The problem for the Massachusetts Senator is that many Democrats are not merely opposed to Bush’s Iraq policy. They also harbor a broader skepticism about the projection of American military power which jibes with their liberal worldview.

If Kerry makes a major foreign policy speech in which he promises to use U.S. military power as necessary, he could upset the same people in his party who supported the nuclear freeze in the 1980s and opposed the Persian Gulf War in the 1990s.

Many Democrats chafe at the suggestion that they are “weak” on national defense. But all but the most partisan of them admit privately that there is a kernel of truth to the GOP’s caricature of the Democratic Party.

A considerable segment of the party has consistently opposed weapons systems and defense spending, favored endless negotiation over the use of force, and found reasons to blame and criticize a muscular foreign policy at every turn.

Kerry needs to ensure that the international community knows his commitment to prosecuting the war on terror. And a foreign policy speech aimed at demonstrating the Massachusetts Senator’s toughness — even if he were to point out differences with Bush’s policies — wouldn’t hurt him domestically either.

Iraq is now at the center of the 2004 presidential campaign, and it is Bush’s great vulnerability. Kerry can blather all he wants about the tax code — as he did recently — or prescription drugs, pensions, jobs, kids and the environment, but the November election is boiling down to Iraq.

Some suggest that if Kerry gives a tough foreign policy speech that emphasizes his willingness to use American military power, he’ll be handing Ralph Nader a loaded gun. I strongly doubt it.

Nader’s threat to Kerry is probably overblown. Most liberals see Bush as so unacceptable that they will support Kerry no matter what he says. Those voters who back Nader this year are “Nader voters” in the truest sense. They won’t support a mainstream Democrat under any circumstances.

Terrorists shaped the outcome of an election in Spain with an attack, and they’d surely love to get rid of Tony Blair in Britain and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy. But their dearest prize would certainly be toppling Bush.

Kerry should make it clear that while he has had and continues to have disagreements with Bush’s foreign policy, including in Iraq, he should reiterate, forcefully, that his goals are the same as the president’s and that he will use whatever means he needs to accomplish them. A little saber-rattling from Kerry would aid his campaign, even if some in his party don’t approve, and it would also strengthen the United States regardless of who wins in November.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.