Wrong question, wrong answer

By Tim Grieve
Published August 10, 2004 8:15PM (EDT)

Last week at a picnic in New Hampshire, George W. Bush said it was time for John Kerry to put up or shut up about Iraq. "My opponent hasn't answered the question of whether, knowing what we know now, he would have supported going into Iraq," Bush said. "That's an important question and the American people deserve a clear 'yes' or 'no' answer."

Kerry gave a clear "yes" or "no" answer Monday, but it wasn't to the question Bush asked. At a campaign stop at the Grand Canyon Monday, a reporter asked Kerry about Bush's New Hampshire speech. "Yes," Kerry said, "I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a president to have." But, Kerry added, "I would have done this very differently from the way President Bush has."

At a campaign rally in Pensacola, Fla., today, Bush jumped on the Kerry comment as further proof of his flip-flopping ways. "Now, almost two years after he voted for the war in Iraq, and almost 220 days after switching positions to declare himself the anti-war candidate, my opponent has found a new nuance," Bush said. "He now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq."

That's not what Kerry said, of course. Kerry didn't say it was right for Bush to go to war; he said it was right for Congress to give Bush the authority to go to war. And on that point, at least, there's nothing new about Kerry's position. In a Salon interview in May, we asked Kerry if his vote on the resolution was a mistake. Kerry said almost exactly what he said at the Grand Canyon Monday: "My vote was the right vote. If I had been president, I would have wanted that authority to leverage the behavior that we needed. But I would have used it so differently than the way George Bush did."

The October 2002 resolution authorized Bush to use force in Iraq if he determined it "to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding Iraq." Just before voting for the resolution, Kerry said on the Senate floor that "only Iraq's weapons of mass destruction meet" those "two criteria."

Putting Kerry's speeches and statements together, this is what you get: Kerry voted for the resolution, he has repeatedly affirmed that it was the right vote, but the resolution authorized Bush to use force only to combat the WMDs. Although Bush still clings to hope that WMDs will be found -- he spoke in the present tense today when he said "we all believe" that the WMDs "were there" -- the weapons haven't been found yet.

That's all well and good. If the resolution really meant no war without WMDs, then Kerry's campaign can say that Kerry's vote was right even if Bush's war was wrong. But here's the catch. As the Washington Post reported over the weekend, Kerry national security adviser Jamie Rubin said that Kerry "in all probability" would have launched an attack against Saddam Hussein if he were the president. Kerry, the Post notes, so far has said only that he "might" have gone to war.

Why? Why go to war if, as we seem to know now, there were no WMDs and no linkage between Iraq and 9/11? Why undercut the arguments about cooked intelligence by saying that you would have gone to war no matter what? Remember when Kerry said in Boston that he'd "never mislead" the country into war? Is it all just "no harm, no foul" now?

They're fair questions -- they're crucial questions -- and they're ones that a lot of anybody-but-Bush Democrats are asking themselves today.

So far, at least, the Kerry campaign doesn't have a lot of answers. In a hastily called conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Ret. Gen. Wes Clark and Kerry national security adviser Susan Rice repeated the mantra that Kerry would have handled the run-up to war differently. But if there were no WMDs and there was no link to 9/11, why go to war at all? "Sen. Kerry always believed that we should hold Saddam Hussein accountable," Clark said. Accountable for what, he didn't say.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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