On Native Ground
JOHN KERRY AND THE POLITICS OF FLEXIBILITY
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Two years ago this week, Sen. John Kerry gave a speech on the floor of the Senate explaining why he was voting in favor of giving President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq.
Most of us knew the main reason why Sen. Kerry - and every other prominent Democrat considering a run for the presidency - voted in favor of the war. The conventional wisdom at the time said that a vote against war would doom one's political chances.
The speech Sen. Bush made has been almost forgotten, but it's worth revisiting in the wake of the constant "flip-flopper" portrayal of Sen. Kerry by the Bush campaign.
While Sen. Kerry correctly assumed that any military operation against Iraq would be a walkover, he was prescient in warning of the risk of going it alone.
"The international community's support will be critical because we will not be able to rebuild Iraq singlehandedly," he said. "We'll lack the credibility and the expertise and the capacity."
On the issue of preemptive attack, Sen. Kerry said that "every nation has the right to act preemptively, if it faces an imminent and grave threat, for its self-defense under the standards of law. The threat we face today with Iraq does not meet that test yet."
In Sen. Kerry's mind, he would not support a unilateral war against Iraq unless the Bush administration exhausted every possible effort to get other nations on board in the war planning.
While Sen. Kerry was skeptical of Saddam Hussein - "It would be naive to the point of grave danger not to believe that, left to his own devises, Saddam Hussein will provoke, misjudge or stumble into a future, more dangerous confrontation with the civilized world" - he was equally skeptical of the Bush administration's timing in seeking war with Iraq. Sen. Kerry said that it had "politicized and complicated the national debate and raised questions about the credibility of their case."
In the end, Sen. Kerry said he would vote to support the president "for one reason and one reason only ... In giving the president this authorization, I expect him to fulfill the commitments he made."
Sen. Kerry took President Bush at his word that he would seek to build a true international effort - similar to what his father had done in the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War - and would not seek war unless it was unavoidable.
Look over Sen. Kerry's words of Oct. 9, 2002, and you see clearly how the man operates. He voted for the war to save his presidential ambitions, but left enough rhetorical wiggle room so that he could credibly criticize President Bush on the war.
Some would call this nuancing your position. Certainly, I have called it that. Last December, I thought Sen. Kerry was dead for the simple fact that he voted for what has become one of America's most tragic foreign policy disasters. I failed to see how Howard Dean would get clobbered by the tag team of the corporate press and the Democratic Party establishment and how Sen. Kerry's position on Iraq was merely a crafty political ploy.
As Daniel Oppenheimer of the Valley Advocate, a Massachusetts alternative weekly, wrote in the Sept. 30 issue, Sen. Kerry "was forced into an uncomfortable vote by circumstance and a militaristic administration, and since then he's been absolutely consistent in his desire to have it both ways. He is, in other words, a politician, like the president, and the choice for Americans in November is between a politician who wouldn't have gone to war though he kinda said he would have, and a politician who was dead set on going to war, though he kinda said he wasn't."
Sen. Kerry has been a politician a long time, far longer than President Bush. He knows the things that have to be said and done when one is in politics. He is smart enough to know that the vote you make today can be used against you in a future campaign. He is also smart enough to know that circumstances change, and the decision you make today may be not be a good idea to stick to when you are confronted by those changes.
Some say the biggest problem with liberalism is that most of its tenets cannot be boiled down into a bumper sticker. Certitude always wows the crowds at a political rally, but it doesn't make for good public policy.
Mr. Bush has flip-flopped as much as Sen. Kerry over the last three years on many issues. It's the nature of politics. You make a statement today - for example, the President's opposition to any serious investigation into the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks - and then quietly, subtly change your position as public opinion and shifting political realities tell you that your original stance isn't a good idea. Change your mind, and ultimately the public policy, subtly enough, and people will eventually forget that you originally opposed the idea.
That's what President Bush has done, yet he escapes the flip-flop tag by virtue of his political style of absolute, resolute stands on the issues. But as we've seen in Iraq, absolute, resolute stands based on faulty information and flawed strategy means trouble.
There are times where you have to admit mistakes. It isn't sending "mixed messages," as Mr. Bush said so often in the Sept. 30 debate. It is called governing. If you try something, and it doesn't work, you try something else that does work and use as much political finesse as possible to make the change possible.
It's not as if we need more reasons to vote for Sen. Kerry, but this reason is certainly another - inflexibility and an inability to learn from one's mistakes are not positive qualities for a leader, and certainly not positive qualities for a president.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.