Bush Winning Iraq Debate

NYT – Bush’s Mocking Drowns Out Kerry’s Explanation of Iraq Vote [RSS]

For five days now, as the long-distance arguments between President Bush and Senator John Kerry have focused on the wisdom of invading Iraq, Mr. Kerry has struggled to convince his audiences that his vote to authorize the president to use military force was a far, far cry from voting for a declaration of war. So far, his aides and advisers concede, he has failed to get his message across, as Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have mocked his efforts as “a new nuance” that amount to more examples of the senator’s waffling.

Mr. Kerry’s problems began last week when President Bush challenged him for a yes-or-no answer on a critical campaign issue: If Mr. Kerry knew more than a year ago what he knows today about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, would he still have voted to authorize the use of military force to oust Saddam Hussein? As Mr. Bush surely knew, it is a question that can upset the difficult balance Mr. Kerry must strike. He has to portray himself as tough and competent enough to be commander in chief, yet appeal to the faction of Democrats that hates the war and eggs him on to call Mr. Bush a liar.


But the decision, in the end, was Mr. Kerry’s. He chose to take the bait on Monday at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Asked by a reporter, he said he would have voted for the resolution – even in the absence of evidence of weapons of mass destruction – before adding his usual explanation that he would have subsequently handled everything leading up to the war differently.

Mr. Bush, sensing he had ensnared Mr. Kerry, stuck in the knife on Tuesday, telling a rally in Panama City, Fla., that “he now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq.” The Kerry camp says that interpretation of Mr. Kerry’s words completely distorted the difference between a vote to authorize war and a decision to commit troops to the battlefield.

Mr. Kerry’s answer is being second-guessed among his supporters, some of whom argued that he should have been more wary of the trap. “I wish he had simply said no president in his right mind would ask the Senate to go to war against a country that didn’t have weapons that pose an imminent threat,” said one of Mr. Kerry’s Congressional colleagues and occasional advisers.
Senator Biden argued that Mr. Kerry is being “asked to explain Bush’s failure through his own vote. I saw a headline that said ‘Kerry Would Have Gone to War.’ That’s bull. He wouldn’t have. Not the way Bush did. But that wasn’t the choice at the time – the choice was looking for a way to hold Saddam accountable.”

Such distinctions don’t exactly ring as campaign themes. On Wednesday, Vice President Cheney did his best to worsen Mr. Kerry’s troubles. He issued a statement noting that Mr. Kerry “voted for the war” but turned against it “when it was politically expedient” and now has his aides “saying that his vote to authorize force wasn’t really a vote to go to war.” “We need a commander in chief who is steady and steadfast,” he said.

This is excellent gamesmanship, without a doubt. It’s more than that, though. Kerry is trying to have it both ways, wanting credit for appearing “tough” in the national security arena while trying to escape all blame for things that have gone wrong in the war. Cheny is right: steadfastness is a necessary quality in a wartime president. Kerry is a thoughtful guy, but perhaps too much so. A leader can’t second guess himself with every minor setback. Perhaps Bush is a bit too steadfast, stubbornly holding onto positions well after the facts show a policy to be failing. Neither extreme is ideal. If forced to pick between the two, I’d rather have the guy who’s a bit too cocky than one who can’t make a decision.

Update: Steven Taylor agrees, noting “Indeed, to call it ‘mocking’ is to reduce a serious policy debate (perhaps the debate of the campaign) to what sounds like a petty tit-for-tat contest.”

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, Iraq War, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    It also shows (again) the power of incumbency. When the Prez asks the challenger a question, the challenger has to answer it. That’s not as true going the other way.

    Kerry was a fool to answer… but he had no choice.

  2. American Cuban in Miami says:

    I can’t imagine having to fight the civil war tody. Lincoln would have been impeached under todays media expectations. He switched military commnaders 5 times. We were losing every major battle and lost 12,000 men in one battle in one day alone, with no victory on the horizon.

    We have been in Iraq a little over 15 months, the average Iraqi life has improved. The strategic importance of establishing and Arab democorcacy in the middle east can’t be overlooked. Not too mention the adddes bonus of removing the biggest threat Saddam. Irrespective of his WMD capability. People talk about Iran. How can you make a move on Iran with Saddam as your neighbor and the largest standing army in the middle east.

    Leadership is sticking it through the ups and dowsn even when people feel there is no victory in site even when people feel you are stubborn. That’s leadership.

  3. jd watson says:

    Mr. Joyner:
    I strongly disagree with your suggestion that Kerry is ‘too thoughtful.’ A thoughful person obtains all information possible, weights the pros and cons, and considers any counter-arguments. If the issue is complex and not pressing, he may decide to suspend judgement. Critical issues are decided by the carefully judged superiority of one position over the other.

    If Kerry were a thoughtful person, he would have staked-out a position on Iraq (surely a critical issue) early in his campaign. If he were a thoughtful person, he could not have been forced to eventually take a position by his challenger’s questions. If he were thoughtful, there would not be so many contradictory statements in his past. And finally, if he were thoughtful, he would be able to defend his position by strong rational arguments, having anticipated objections, rather than trying to ‘nuance’ the language of his statement and claim misinterpretation.

    I don’t see Kerry as thoughtful, but rather as a muddled thinker with poor decision-making skills.

  4. sqd says:

    Let me state up-front that I’m neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but I know what I believe.

    Here’s how I see it. Kerry has been unfairly grilled for supposedly flip-flopping on Iraq. The Bush campaign early on latched onto the “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it” bit and has clung to that tightly, with success that boggles my mind. Clearly if Kerry supported a resolution early that didn’t pass, then the Republican Congress DID NOT support it. So Kerry supported an $87 billion package before the Republican senate did. It surprises me how few people go beyond the sound bite. And supporting one resolution while not supporting another is not a flip-flop. It’s how Washington works. FURTHER, even if it’s for the troops, you don’t just support ANY $87 billion resolution. That’s a lot of money. Republicans knew a bill would pass. Kerry knew a bill would pass. That’s why people didn’t feel the need to vote for a bill they didn’t like.

    Kerry’s position on Iraq has been pretty steady from the beginning. He’s supported “regime change” in Iraq for a few years. That’s actually been the official position of the US government since 1998 when Congress passed a bill and Clinton signed it. But regime change doesn’t necessarily mean military action. The Democratic Party platform supports “regime change” in Cuba. So what. They aren’t going to invade in the next four years. Kerry’s position is that he wanted to give Bush a strong negotiating hand with Iraq and the international community, so he gave the president the AUTHORITY to use force. The president, in order to get sufficient votes from Congress, promised he would exhaust every diplomatic and weapons inspection option before invading. He exhausted neither. (If you want, read what the inspectors had to say. Contrary to Bush claims, the inspections were going pretty swimmingly.)

    Then there’s the little matter that the Bush administration did what it could to exaggerate the threat from Iraq. Senators have access to intelligence, but the Bush administration presented brand new claims. They said Saddam could hit US cities with aerial drones, and things like that. And they built support for the war among Americans by claiming a significant link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, when there was none.

    I believe Kerry should have known better than to vote to give the president authority to go to war. In early 2003 I looked at all the evidence, and I saw no compelling reason whatsoever to go into Iraq right then. It’s distracted us from important priorities, cost us a fortune, helped to spur terrorist recruiting abroad, distracted from the hunt for bin Laden, alienated important allies, and the list goes on and on. Meanwhile we’re underfunding homeland security, and Greenspan warns that our fiscal outlook is bleak unless we make major changes.

    So that’s my take. As I said, I’m not a Democrat. I’m not a pacifist either. But I don’t believe in jumping into JUST ANY war.

  5. Attila Girl says:

    I’m glad Sqd showed up; I thought we needed an objective voice.

  6. LJD says:

    Kerry has been unfairly grilled for supposedly flip-flopping on Iraq.

    Unfairly how? Kerry has flip-flopped on many issues… That is, the ones he has shown up to vote on. His campaign has demonstrated very clearly that he will say whatever is popular at the time to get elected. Reference the presidential debates, when he said “I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a real and grave threat to our security.” Now that the media has convinced the public that things have not gone well for the Bush Administration in Iraq, it is very convenient for him to qualify those statements towards the anti-war sentiment.

    …the Bush administration did what it could to exaggerate the threat from Iraq.

    Says who? Every intelligence agency in the world believed that the threat was real. Further, we still do not have any explanation for where the weapons, that Saddam himself disclosed, have gone to. Many believe they are in Syria, or Sudan. It was made abundantly clear after 9/11 that we are no longer playing games with Rogue States.

    …claiming a significant link between Iraq and al-Qaeda, when there was none.

    We may not have proof that there were Iraqis involved in 9/11, but they absolutely are involved in supporting Al Qaeda, and other terror groups. It is widely known that Saddam supported Palestinian terror with cash payments. (Oil -for-food money perhaps?) Regardless, Al Qaeda is now in Iraq and they seem to be flocking there. Why not take them out in Iraq instead of in the U.S. It seems like brilliant policy to me.

    I saw no compelling reason whatsoever to go into Iraq right then.

    I carefully watched all of the news and briefings in 2003. It sounded good enough to me. As a veteran, I was convinced simply by the persistent attacks on our forces securing the no-fly zones, and the blatant disregard for sanctions. I might add that these were conditions of the cease-fire in the first Gulf War. They were put in place to prevent the United States from rolling into Baghdad when we should have. Violating these restrictions made the cease-fire null and void.

    On a side note, I couldn’t believe that we were being required to show a “smoking gun”. I hate that term by the way. A “smoking gun” alluding to one that has recently been fired, presumably at US.

    It’s distracted us from important priorities, cost us a fortune, helped to spur terrorist recruiting abroad, distracted from the hunt for bin Laden, alienated important allies, and the list goes on and on.

    This is the Democratic by-line; that we have somehow strayed from our mission. On the contrary, this is precisely our mission. We have two choices for foreign policy: international involvement, or isolation. If we choose the former, as a world power we inherit the great responsibility to provide security and justice in the world.

    The U.N. has no credibility. It is fraught with corruption. It has consistently allowed ethnic cleansing and atrocities (Bosnia, Kosovo- I have been there and seen the mass graves that could have been prevented- another product of the Clinton White House, like 9/11). Its members are solely concerned with their own economic development. (How ironic since that is what we have been accused of).

    We are making great strides in the War on Terror. We have successfully gained support from countries in a position to help, like Pakistan and the liberated Iraq. We have captured key operatives and undoubtedly foiled terror plots against us. The United States has not seen a repeat of 9/11. The only War we have not won, is that against the liberal media, that does not report the news, but rather the “story”, completely motivated by politics. It’s a damn shame.

  7. William Armstrong says:

    I would like to second LJD’s comments from one who has been in all three places with the military. If anyone would do a Google or Yahoo search on Salman Pak, they would see exactly where all of the terrorists in 9/11 got their hijack training. This alone made it worthwhile to go into Iraq.