Commentary

Kerry has Muffed the War Issue

By William A. Niskanen
May 19, 2004

Senator John Kerry has made increased international support for the security and reconstruction of Iraq the primary theme of his speeches on this issue. For the following reasons, however, Kerry’s position is not likely to have any significant effect on U.S. policy toward Iraq:

  1. The Kerry position does not now differ much from that of President Bush, in part because Bush has also recently asked for increased international support for the reconstruction of Iraq.
  2. Increased international support is not likely. The United Nations and the governments of France and Germany are not likely to accept an increased responsibility for the reconstruction of Iraq that is subordinate to U.S. authority, in part because U.S. forces have yet to restore minimally satisfactory security.
  3. Increased international support is not likely to be effective. The Iraqi insurgents have been as hostile to the United Nations and to non-U.S. foreign troops as to the U.S. civilian and military authorities. The insurgents bombed the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad early during the guerilla campaign and have killed or kidnapped Italian, Japanese and Spanish troops. All foreign civilian and military authorities are now regarded as occupiers.
  4. The Kerry position has no political traction. For most Americans, like most Iraqis, one’s attitude toward the war in Iraq is not much dependent on the breadth of the coalition supporting U.S. policy.

Moreover, Kerry’s position on Iraq is probably a political loser. With no significant debate about the war in Iraq between the candidates of the major parties, those who have strongly opposed the war in Iraq are most likely to vote for Ralph Nader, and most of these votes would otherwise have been for almost any Democratic candidate.

Kerry has an obvious handicap in making the continued war in Iraq a major issue of his campaign for president: He voted for the war resolution and against the reconstruction funding.

For Kerry to make a major issue about the war in Iraq — to capture the votes of those whose views range from growing concern to outrage — he would have to do something that is very brave for any politician: admit a mistake. He would have to say something like the following:

I voted for the war resolution, but that was a mistake. Like many Americans, I have learned or remembered a lot over the past two years about the limits of U.S. power to oppose injustice in some distant land, about what awful things that the prosecution of a war does to us, even with the best of motives. President Bush initiated the war in Iraq, but he has yet to acknowledge any such mistake. My increasing difference with President Bush about the war in Iraq will not erase the recent history in that tragic land but will bear primarily on which of us is most likely to avoid another Iraq, another tragic war that is unjust because it is not necessary to defend America’s vital interests.

In the meantime, whatever the difference in our views about the war in Iraq, we now have an obligation to restore enough security to give the Iraqis a chance to create a government of their own choosing and then to withdraw U.S. forces as soon as possible on completion of that task.

There are still six months remaining in the presidential campaign, but I do not expect Kerry to make the type of statement that I have described above. That is too bad, because it precludes any debate between the major party candidates on the conditions in which the United States should engage in another such war.

In that case, we will all go into the voting booth in November with no choice on any major issue other than who ought to be president. In that case, with most of those who opposed the war in Iraq voting for Ralph Nader, President Bush is almost sure to win reelection.

William A. Niskanen is chairman of the Cato Institute.