Kerry: "No" circumstances justified Iraq war

Published September 15, 2004 4:14PM (EDT)

Over the course of the last two months, John Kerry has inched ever closer to saying that the war in Iraq was a mistake. This morning on the Don Imus show, he finally did it. Kerry has repeatedly said -- as he did Wednesday -- that it was a "mistake for the president to go to war in the way that he did." But he has stopped short of saying that the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq means there was no justification for war at all. Imus pressed him on the question Wednesday, citing a Washington Post column in which Richard Cohen said that Kerry's October 2002 vote to authorize Bush to use force in Iraq had left the candidate tongue-tied on the war.

Imus: Well, [Richard Cohen is] urging you to admit the war was a mistake and then start attacking these people. Why can't you do that?

Kerry: But I do. That's exactly what I am doing. I think the war -- I've said it a hundred times, I think it was a huge mistake for the president to go to war the way he did. I've said that a dozen times. I mean, the fact is that I . . .

So far, the standard Kerry answer. But then Imus pushed:

Imus: Do you think there are any circumstances we should have gone to war in Iraq -- any?

Kerry: Not under the current circumstances, no, there are none that I see. I voted based on weapons of mass destruction. The president distorted that and I've said that. I mean, look, I can't be clearer. But I think it was the right vote based on what Saddam Hussein had done, and I think it was the right thing to do to hold him accountable. I've said a hundred times, there was a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. The president chose the wrong way. Can't be more direct than that.

Of course, Kerry could be clearer and he could be more direct. He could say: "I voted to give the president the authority to go to war so that he would have the stick he needed to force inspections. If he'd used it that way -- the way he said he'd use it --- we might have had inspections and discovered before we went to war that the weapons of mass destruction weren't there. Instead, Bush chose to shoot first and inspect later, and now 1,000 U.S. soldiers are dead and Iraq is a bloody mess -- and for what?"

Maybe Kerrry will get there. With each passing day, he seems to be making his attacks on Bush a little clearer, a little more pointed. In the meantime, Bush will certainly seize on the Imus appearance as another Kerry "flip-flop" on Iraq -- we're starting our stop-watches now on how long it will take the Bush campaign to call it Kerry's "ninth distinct position" on the war. But if Kerry really believes that the war was a mistake, and if he can begin to say it more clearly, he may find in the belief a more solid footing for his still-emerging campaign theme: George W. Bush invariably makes the wrong choice and invariably lies about the consequences.

By Tim Grieve

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

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