Wednesday, October 20, 2004

When it comes to the question of when it is appropriate for the United States to use force abroad, John Kerry seems to have developed one general principle: It is only acceptable to risk American life and limb if the United Nations or supposed allies like France approve.

In a front-page story yesterday in The Washington Post, reporters Helen Dewar and Thomas Ricks wrote that Mr. Kerry’s “belief in working with allies runs so deep that he has maintained that the loss of American life can be better justified if it occurs in the course of a mission with international support.” Mrs. Dewar and Mr. Ricks then quoted a 1994 comment the senator made while discussing the possibility that American troops could be killed in Bosnia. “If you mean dying in the course of the United Nations effort, yes, it is worth that. If you mean dying American troops unilaterally going in with some false assumption that we can effect the outcome, the answer is unequivocally no,” Mr. Kerry said.

The Post article described the positions that Mr. Kerry has taken on major U.S. military interventions since the Cold War ended 15 years ago. It reveals that Mr. Kerry tended to support a more muscular, assertive American role if the United Nations and/or America’s European allies agreed. The major exception to the pattern was the first President Bush’s decision to use military force to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in January 1991.

Mr. Kerry did so even though the president went out of his way to win international backing for that war. At the time, George H.W. Bush had gone to the United Nations and received Security Council support. He had won pledges from foreign donors to finance the overwhelming majority of the cost, and he assembled a coalition of more than 30 nations. But Mr. Kerry opposed him anyway.

In Bosnia, several years later, Mr. Kerry joined then-President Clinton in fighting congressional efforts to lift the embargo on arms sales to Bosnian Muslims, who were being slaughtered by the vastly superior Serbian army. Mr. Kerry asserted that doing this would compel British and French peacekeepers to leave. In Kosovo, he supported a U.S.-led intervention in 1999, which took place without United Nations support. As for the current conflict in Iraq, Mr. Kerry voted to authorize the use of force, but has relentlessly criticized the current President Bush when he actually used it. He now suggests that American troops could be withdrawn and replaced with French and German soldiers — even though Berlin and Paris reject the idea.

Mr. Kerry’s foreign-policy principles, as they appear to have evolved over the years, amount to an incoherent muddle. He complains that America failed to win international backing for the current war in Iraq. But even though America won U.N. support for the previous war there, Mr. Kerry found other reasons to oppose it anyway. Yet he’s on record as stating in effect that he would only agree to risk American lives in Bosnia if the United Nations gives us permission. The country would be ill-served by the erratic, confused brand of multilateralism that Mr. Kerry seems to prefer.

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