Sunday, April 11, 2004

Saying U.S. plans to bring stability, security and democracy to Iraq have hit a rough spot is an understatement — for now, the situation appears chaotic.

To be sure, this is a time for steady, clearheaded thinking and, most important, resolve — the word President Bush uses to describe the stepped-up military response designed to defeat the forces trying to reclaim Iraq and restore despotism.

But if you are looking for clear thinking from Sen. John Kerry on this subject, forget it. In a National Public Radio interview, the Massachusetts liberal Democrat called the cutthroat leader of the insurgency a “legitimate voice” in Iraqi affairs. In other words, just another party leader.

That’s what Mr. Kerry called Sheik Mouqtada al-Sadr in a barely noticed NPR interview last Wednesday, when U.S. and coalition troops were battling to put down the military insurrection triggered by Sheik al-Sadr’s call for Iraqis to kill American forces wherever they find them.

Quickly realizing what he said, Mr. Kerry corrected himself and called the radical Shi’ite cleric just “a voice.”

Just “a voice”? This is the Iranian-backed Shi’ite fanatic who is wanted for murder — a terrorist leader of a band of extremist forces who have been killing U.S. troops and Iraqis alike, using women and children as shields. He is being sought by U.S. military forces for killing a senior Shi’ite cleric. He is definitely not just another political “voice,” as Mr. Kerry describes him.

But there is more to Mr. Kerry’s confusion about Sheik al-Sadr and the extremist newspaper he controlled, and that we were forced to close because it was inciting Iraqis to attack and kill U.S. forces and Iraqis who cooperated with us. Here’s what Mr. Kerry had to say:

“It’s interesting to hear that when they shut a newspaper that belongs to a legitimate voice in Iraq and, well, let me change the term ‘legitimate.’ When they shut a newspaper that belongs to a voice, because he has clearly taken on a far more radical tone in recent days and aligned himself with both Hamas and Hezbollah, which is sort of [a] terrorist alignment.”

Referring to Sheik al-Sadr and his newspaper as “a legitimate voice in Iraq,” no matter how fleeting, is bad enough, but to then benignly characterize them as merely “a voice” is beyond comprehension. It suggests Mr. Kerry has no understanding of the deadly forces seeking to drive us out of the country in an attempt to turn Iraq into an authoritarian, Islamic-ruled regime like Iran (which is why Iranian agents back him with money, weapons and manpower).

“Radical tone”? Is that all Mr. Kerry thinks is at work here? And what should we make of the senator’s watered-down description of two of the worst terrorist organizations in the world, Hamas and Hezbollah, as “sort of” terrorist in nature. Both are on the State Department’s list of top terrorist groups in the Middle East. There’s nothing “sort of” about them. They are the fanatic suicide bombers who have been killing civilians in Israel and elsewhere in the tens of thousands.

But if Mr. Kerry has trouble understanding the nature of the enemy we face in Iraq, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee also seems unable to spell out exactly what he would do differently in Iraq. He is all attack lines and no solutions.

Last week, when Americans were trying to sort out the deadly turn of events in Iraq, Mr. Kerry was not contributing to the dialogue over what to do next. He was playing politics and, worse, exploiting the deaths of more U.S. troops in an attempt to halt his precipitous decline in the polls.

America’s noble crusade to topple Saddam Hussein’s terrorist regime, free the Iraqi people and build a democracy in the heart of the Middle East was “one of the greatest failures of diplomacy and failures of judgment that I have ever seen in all the time that I’ve been in public life,” he said last week.

Now he seems to be adopting Ted Kennedy’s latest accusation that Iraq was turning into another Vietnam. “Since I fought in Vietnam, I have not seen an arrogance in our foreign policy like this,” Mr. Kerry said.

What is his strategy for wiping out the emerging insurgency in Fallujah, Ramadi and elsewhere in Iraq? He isn’t saying, and that isn’t leadership.

Compare this to Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle’s clearer and more sober view of Iraq that seems to support President Bush’s “stay the course” policy.

“Americans stand together today and always, to finish the work we started and bring peace and democracy to the citizens of Iraq,” Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said last week.

What a refreshingly principled statement from a Democrat who was one of Mr. Bush’s harshest war critics, but who now refuses to participate in the blame-America-first game being played by Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Kerry. The Democrats are about to nominate the wrong man.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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