George W. Bush said Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime had chemical and biological weapons and a revived nuclear weapons program. It did not. He said Saddam’s government was in cahoots with Al Qaeda. It was not (according to the 9/11 Commission and the CIA). He declared that Iraq was an “immediate,” “direct” and “gathering” threat. That was not so. It is undeniable: Bush took the country to war on the basis of untrue assertions. His allies maintain that he was misinformed by the intelligence community, but the evidence is clear that Bush overstated the flawed intelligence provided him and ignored important disputes among intelligence analysts. And what is worse–if that’s possible–is that Bush embarked on this elective war without adequately preparing for the postinvasion period. I could go on about other Bush misdeeds–his tax cuts for the wealthy; his gargantuan deficits; his undeclared war on the environment; his weak response to job losses; his failure to address various crises in the healthcare system–but given his rash invasion of Iraq and his irresponsible handling of the war, I would vote for practically anyone–Dan Quayle, Jerry Springer, Donald Trump, Al Sharpton–over Bush. He has been derelict in his duty as Commander in Chief. He is a national security threat that must be neutralized.
Fortunately, voting for John Kerry need not be an act of desperation. He is more than an Anybody But Bush alternative. I have watched Kerry for nearly two decades in Washington. He can be frustrating. His penchant for pondering and for less-than-passionate politicking is well-known, and it has hindered his campaign this year. But during his time in the Senate, he has been a consistent–yes, consistent–champion of environmental protection, abortion rights, campaign reform and a forward-looking foreign policy. He was a leader in the battle against Bush’s tax cuts for the rich. He voted against the antigay Defense of Marriage Act. He has advocated boosting the minimum wage. During this campaign, he has proposed a massive effort to develop alternative energy sources and has touted a healthcare proposal that is not national health insurance (or a “government takeover,” as Bush falsely claimed) but that would extend coverage to millions.
On occasions Kerry has displayed flashes of courage. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Kerry, a former prosecutor, spearheaded investigations in the Senate that targeted the CIA’s relationship with suspected drug traffickers during the contra war in Nicaragua; the connection between Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and the US government; and the crimes of BCCI, a corrupt global bank frequented by drug dealers, terrorists and intelligence services (including the CIA). During the CIA-contra-drug inquiry, fellow Democrats asked him why he bothered engaging in such a thankless task–especially when it rendered Kerry a target of White House retribution. And during the BCCI probe, Democratic colleagues in the Senate complained because the bank was linked to prominent Democrats. Yet Kerry did not relent. All this work required guts and resolution–rarely on display in the Senate–as did Kerry’s combat activity in Vietnam and his subsequent antiwar activism. He has opposed the death penalty, a brave move for a politician with national aspirations.
I could cite issue areas where Kerry has not distinguished himself. The Middle East and trade come to mind. But Kerry’s shortfalls are less significant when the White House is in the hands of a man who has done (and could still do) much damage at home and abroad. Kerry’s vote to authorize Bush to use force in Iraq was an error. His reasoning was theoretically plausible: Enable the President to threaten military action in order to compel a tyrant to comply with UN resolutions. Kerry did say he expected Bush to pursue inspections and diplomacy as far as possible before resorting to war. But he miscalculated. One should not give a loaded pistol to a man who cannot be trusted. Without knowing what was in his head, I suspect Kerry was influenced by political considerations. Yet as Representative Barney Frank, who has campaigned for Kerry, tells antiwar Democrats, a legislator often must choose between options presented to him or her, but a President can craft the choices. Despite Kerry’s inartful descriptions of his Iraq stance, it is obvious: He would not have launched this war. That’s worth the price of admission.
Moreover, Kerry, who once eloquently wondered, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” is far better able (and will be better positioned) to clean up–that is, try to clean up–Bush’s grave mistake in Iraq. It’s not that the Iraq plan Kerry has repeatedly pitched–internationalize the mess, speed up the training of Iraqi security forces, quicken the pace of reconstruction–carries any guarantee, or even likelihood, of success. It might work–Kerry might be able to recruit more foreign partners than the guy who told the international community to get lost–and it might not. But a man of Kerry’s talents and sensibilities (internationalist and nonmessianic) will have a greater chance of fixing what could be an unfixable situation, and also of successfully contending with other challenges (most notably, the threat of loose nukes) Bush has neglected. In short, it’s the man, not the plan. There is no doubt that Kerry is as committed as the current Commander in Chief to protecting the United States from the threat posed by Al Qaeda and others; he has spent years thinking, debating and legislating many aspects of national security. But he is fully aware of the perils of arrogance and hubris, and he understands the dangers of predicating foreign policy on rhetoric and doctrine rather than reality and expertise.
Kerry, an imperfect candidate, has not fired up the electorate. But he is a thoughtful (maybe too thoughtful) and intelligent man who has demonstrated that he can and will fight for certain progressive causes. He ought to win the election simply because he did not mislead the nation into war. But he offers more than that. If Kerry is elected, there may be reason not just for relief but for hope.