IRAQ HAS BEEN a vexing issue for John Kerry. Every time he takes a position, the domestic political ground seems to shift under his feet. He supported the use-of-force resolution in 2002, only to find that Democratic audiences hated the war and were flocking to Howard Dean. So Kerry adjusted his rhetoric to sound more like the Vermont governor. Then, once assured of the nomination, he began tacking back to the center to court moderate, general-election voters. Now, just as much of the country is moving left on the war, Kerry has moved right. He supports more troops if commanders in the field want them and has called for a high commissioner in Iraq who can bypass the U.N. bureaucracy. What’s more, after opposing last year’s $87 billion Iraq supplemental, he is prepared to support Bush’s new $25 billion request.
This shift comes as public support for the war is plummeting. Asked in a recent Gallup poll if it was worth going to war in Iraq, 54 percent of Americans said it was not, an increase of 18 points since January. Forty-seven percent of Americans now want to withdraw some or all of the troops from Iraq immediately. These views are clearly affecting the public’s support for President Bush, whose overall job approval is at an all-time low of 46 percent.
That Kerry appears to be standing steadfast in the face of growing public opposition to his own recommendations—and growing hand-wringing on the right—may be a function of his brand of liberal realism, which never embraced a Pollyannaish view about what we could accomplish in Iraq. For all the twists and turns in his rhetoric, Kerry never bought into the neoconservatives’ grand designs for the Middle East. “I talked to John about this in September and October of 2002, in August, September, and October of 2003, and as recently as last night at nine forty-five,” says Jonathan Winer, a longtime friend and foreign policy adviser to the senator. “There has been a tremendous continuity, a tremendous concern about bad choices and wanting the country to be cautious.” This concern seems to have made Kerry realize that we need to stick it out in Iraq. But there are problems with that stand. The big question is whether, when confronted with them, the Democratic candidate will stay the course himself.
IT RECEIVED LITTLE attention, but two weeks ago Kerry detailed what he would do in Iraq if he were president right now. The speech, at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, was shaped by Kerry’s foreign policy kitchen cabinet. Rand Beers, the former National Security Council counterterrorism aide who resigned in disgust from the Bush administration, chairs the group, which includes outside big-name advisers like Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright, and Dick Holbrooke, as well as less well-known people like Winer and Nancy Stetson, Kerry’s longtime Senate foreign policy aide. The early drafts of the speech were penned by Bill Woodward, an aide to Kerry in the early ’90s and a former writer for Albright and Michael Dukakis. “He is a secret force within the Democratic Party,” says Winer of Woodward. “He’s playing a very important role behind the scenes. He’s very sober and has a low tolerance for B.S.” Wendy Button, a much-praised former speechwriter for Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, who recently joined the Kerry campaign, wrote the later drafts. Of the brand-name advisers, aides say Holbrooke had perhaps the biggest role in shaping the content of the speech.
The speech laid out several proposals for Iraq, all of which echo Kerry’s past calls to get Iraqis and the international community more involved. The senator endorsed U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s plan for an interim Iraqi government. He called on Bush to get nato to help train Iraq’s new army, take control of its borders, oversee the northern part of the country, and perhaps assume responsibility for the Polish sector, where it already plays a small role. Kerry also wants to appoint a high commissioner for Iraq—an internationally respected figure, not bound by the U.N. bureaucracy, who would work with the United States, the interim Iraqi government, and the world community to pave the way for elections, the drafting of the new Iraqi constitution, and the reconstruction. Finally, Kerry argued that Europe and Iraq’s Arab neighbors need to be convinced that Iraq’s success is in their own self-interest and that they should therefore help create a viable Iraqi security force, without which “there is no successful exit for us and other nations.”
These are all practical and worthy ideas. But there are three problems with Kerry’s plan. One is that it was conceived and unveiled before Abu Ghraib. Since the prison scandal exploded, Kerry has been campaigning on a tightly disciplined message-of-the-day schedule that has emphasized domestic issues like health care. He has paused to renew his call for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation and to express disgust at what was done by the American jailers, but he hasn't recalibrated his ideas to the dramatically changed situation. There’s been no official word on whether he wants to move up the date of elections, and no comment on whether Abu Ghraib has given him second thoughts about sending more troops to Iraq or speeding up their departure. (Advisers around Kerry, however, acknowledge that the scandal may alter things. “The prison situation does accelerate the need for a change of control of Iraq back to Iraqis, because a foreign occupation clearly won't be tolerated at a political level much longer,” Winer says.)
The second problem with Kerry’s Iraq plan is that Bush seems to be pursuing it himself. Bush long ago embraced Brahimi. At his April 13 press conference, the president hinted that he wants NATO to police Iraq’s borders and take over for the Poles. Over the next few weeks, Bush will have a series of diplomatic opportunities to convince old allies to help us in Iraq. He will go to Paris to meet with President Jacques Chirac on June 5 and then commemorate D-Day. When he returns to the United States, he’ll attend the G-8 summit in Sea Island, Georgia, and then fly to Ireland for the U.S.-EU summit on June 25. Then it’s off to Istanbul for the NATO summit on June 28. The massive protests that will greet Bush during his travels could remind Americans how low our standing in the world has sunk. But some Democrats concede that the president's diplomacy could lead to more international involvement in Iraq, leaving Kerry without much to criticize. “There’s going to be a lot of diplomacy in the next forty- five days,” says one senior Democratic foreign policy adviser. “My sense is, we need to get further out. [Bush is] going to get nato involved, and we're going to be stuck saying ‘We need to get natomore involved,’ or, ‘We should have done this a year ago.’”
Finally, there is the Ralph Nader factor. Kerry staked out what he thought was a responsible position on the war in 2002, only to see an antiwar candidate almost snatch the nomination away from him. With support for the war plummeting, Nader’s bring-home-the-troops argument might resonate. This means Kerry finds himself facing the same choices he has faced before: change his position to reflect the public's mood, or stick to his guns and hope the voters respect a principled stand. He tried the former during the primaries. He’d be better off doing the latter now.
This article appeared in the May 24, 2004 issue of the magazine.