- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

One of the more interesting parts of the Bush-Kerry debate in Coral Gables, Fla., was Sen. John Kerry’s reference to the elder George Bush’s Gulf war decision not to go to Baghdad 13 years ago because there was no viable exit strategy.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Kerry meant to needle President Bush with this fatherly reference of caution, and perhaps Mr. Kerry chooses to associate himself with the elder Mr. Bush’s foreign policy. But like most of Mr. Kerry’s arguments, this too contains the flawed seeds of contradiction and equivocation.

Regrettably, the current President Bush did not seize the moment to remind 55 million television viewers that on Jan. 12, 1991, Mr. Kerry actually voted against S.J. RES. 2, the congressional authorization that empowered the former President Bush (41) to liberate Kuwait after Saddam Hussein’s cruel invasion. This little bit of history sheds much light on Mr. Kerry’s past and casts a dark shadow over any of his new promises to successfully execute today’s war in Iraq.

Time and again on the campaign trail, Mr. Kerry argues for a grand international alliance to win the Iraq war. He repeated this in the debate. But in 1991, the United States headed a grand alliance of 36 nations fully backed by a U.N. resolution. And Mr. Kerry still opposed that war to liberate Kuwait.

The U.N.-backed coalition included Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar. All the pieces were there, including the cause of justice. Still he voted against it.

How, knowing this, can anyone believe Mr. Kerry when he says he will now show how better to defeat our terrorist enemies?

If ever a military action passed the “global test” Mr. Kerry urged in the debate, the Gulf war was it. It met overwhelmingly Mr. Kerry’s dubious standard, and still he opposed it.

This reveals a credibility problem of the first order. Almost defining credulity, Mr. Kerry in a brief statement on the Senate floor accompanying his vote against the Gulf war, said: “The president made a mistake to unilaterally increase troops, set a date and make war so probable.”

Clearly, Mr. Kerry has a very strong aversion to using military power under virtually any circumstance. Of course, this raises serious questions about his ability to conduct any military operations against our fundamentalist radical-Islamist enemies.

Can we really believe the man who has called the war in Iraq a “grand diversion,” a “colossal error,” an “incredible mess,” and the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time” — pessimistic and defeatist statements all — is capable of waging a strong foreign policy and prosecuting a military action of any sort? What’s really left here is the portrait of a politician steeped in ambiguity and equivocation, who at bottom has a strong aversion to war of any kind, for any reason.

In one of his better moments in a somewhat unenergetic debating performance, President Bush did in fact take Mr. Kerry to the woodshed for his notion of a “global test.” So did Vice President Dick Cheney, at a postdebate campaign rally: “We will never seek a permission slip to defend America.”

It seems to me the American electorate knows full well what’s at stake come November is not the next secretary-general of the United Nations, but the next president of the United States. In Mr. Bush’s closing statement, he said: “I’ll never turn over America’s national-security needs to leaders of other countries… and will continue to spread freedom. I believe in the transformational power of liberty. And I believe both a free Afghanistan and a free Iraq will serve as a powerful example for millions who plead in silence for liberty in the broader Middle East.” This excellent content will triumph over some stylistic mistakes. Mr. Kerry’s poor content, however, may have dug him into a deeper electoral hole.

The latest Gallup Poll of 615 registered voters who watched the presidential debate has some startling results: On debate performance, Mr. Kerry won 53 percent to 37 percent. However, as to who would better handle the situation in Iraq, Mr. Bush won 54 to 43. Whom do these voters trust more to handle the responsibilities of commander in chief? Mr. Bush 54, Mr. Kerry 44. Who is more believable? Mr. Bush 50, Mr. Kerry 45. More likable? Mr. Bush 48, Mr. Kerry 41. And the grand whopper — Who is tough enough for the job? Mr. Bush 54, Mr. Kerry 37.

Surely this shows the good sense of the American voter. Debating points are one thing, but a truly strong national-security content is much more important.

Lawrence Kudlow is a nationally syndicated columnist and is chief executive officer of Kudlow & Co., LLC, and CNBC’s economics commentator.

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