Monday, September 20, 2004

As the polls suggest, John Kerry is losing ground against President Bush, he and his new campaign handlers (most of whom are retreads from the Clinton presidency) have reportedly decided on a novel strategy: Staking out just one position on the war in Iraq.

After months of embracing every position from damn-the-torpedoes and no-price-too-high-for-victory to parroting Howard Dean’s wrong-war, wrong-place, wrong-time formulation, the emerging party line is, as senior Kerry adviser Richard Holbrooke put it, “Iraq is worse than Vietnam.”

In other words, the Democratic candidate has evidently decided to run against the conflict in Iraq by arguing it is even more fouled up than the last war that became hugely unpopular, Vietnam. He is betting (not unreasonably) the situation on the ground there will get uglier in the next six weeks.

His latest incarnation will position him to draw support from swing voters who decide, in the end, they would rather cut-and-run from the “worse than Vietnam” quagmire than stand and fight. And, evidently, John Kerry wants them to know he is the man to do it — and with good reason.

To be sure, the man who “report[ed] for duty” at the Democratic Convention in Boston was determined to harken back to a different phase of his formative Vietnam experience. Then, it was all about medal-winning combat service and turning the boat into an attack. He and his surrogates insisted his service as a Vietnam War hero better equipped him than President Bush to win the war on terror, including in Iraq.

In remarks on Monday, moreover, the senator continued to hedge his bets a bit. He still talks euphemistically of “supporting the troops” and making “the right choices” in Iraq. And he blithely promises to “internationalize” the conflict, as though the key is not our success in restoring order and stability, but rather a new president’s diplomatic savoir faire.

Still, the Democratic candidate now sounds eerily like that other Vietnam-era John Kerry — the angry young man who, after leaving the theater, launched his public career less on having fought the war than his role in swiftly ending it. In New York on Monday, he declared: “Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions and, if we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight.”

Of his earlier antiwar persona, Mr. Kerry has lately said he regrets causing pain to comrades by sweepingly accusing them of war crimes. To date, though, Mr. Kerry has expressed no remorse whatsoever for the cumulative effect of his testifying, demonstrating, medal-throwing, book-writing and other antiwar agitation: the U.S. abandonment of the people of South Vietnam to brutal enslavement by their communist enemies from the North. Not only is he unapologetic about his contributions to the cutting-and-running that produced that tragic result; now he appears to hope it will be the credential that will put him in the White House.

There is, of course, a profound difference between the Vietnam War that John Kerry helped the United States to lose and the ongoing conflict in Iraq. The United States could — and did — walk away from many of its friends and allies in Southeast Asia. The result was pretty awful for them, but of no grave strategic consequence for us.

It is the height of irresponsibility to think a similar prospect awaits us if the United States once again follows John Kerry and abandons Iraq to its fate. Turning the Iraqis over to the tender mercies of Saddam Hussein’s loyalists, Saudi- or Iranian-backed Islamists and/or foreign fighters of other stripes will not simply ensure their country remains a festering sore in the Middle East. It is certain to subject us to a vastly intensified war by emboldened terrorist enemies with global reach.

Mr. Kerry has accused Mr. Bush of getting everything wrong about the war with Iraq. More objective observers and even Mr. Bush’s admirers can discern aspects of the conflict with which to find fault. And yet, on the single most important decision — whether to go to war in the first place — the president made a tough call, one with which Mr. Kerry at the time (and for years before) ostensibly agreed:

The United States and the world could not safely allow Saddam to wriggle out of sanctions, secure fresh infusions of funds from around the world, end the no-fly zones, expand his terror sponsorship, return to his ambitions to have weapons of mass destruction and, quite possibly, act on his stated desire for revenge against America for Operation Desert Storm.

Given the diplomatic trends at the time — notably, the insistence of France, Germany, Russia and China (the countries Mr. Kerry implies he will be able to get more help from on Iraq) that Saddam be let out of his “box” — the only way to prevent such a dangerous outcome was to act pre-emptively, together with such allies as would join us. It took vision and guts for President Bush to do so. It will take nothing less to make sure the resulting liberation of Iraq comes out right.

While Mr. Kerry would have us believe otherwise, it does not take particular vision or guts to respond, in rough going, to the popular sentiment to cut and run. It did not during Vietnam. It will not now. God help us if we fall prey once again to the “leadership” of someone who made that mistake before and who would have us make an infinitely bigger one now.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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