Skeptics on the left point out that Kerry voted for the Iraq war in October 2002 and thus is no better than Bush.
Skeptics on the right point out that Kerry voted for the Iraq war in October 2002, but say that he's a "flip flopper" for criticizing the war and the occupation.
Inspired by Howard Labs, I decided to take a closer look at what Senator Kerry actually said when he voted in October 2002. What did he say on the floor of the US Senate?
What did he think he was doing?
Much of the speech, particularly at the beginning, focuses on the alleged threat from Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Like the Bush administration, Kerry was apparently wrong about Iraq's alleged WMD.
For Kerry, the only reason to go to war was Iraq's alleged WMD threat. He did not support war merely for regime change, or because of barely existent links to al Qaeda:
The reason for going to war, if we must fight, is not because Saddam Hussein has failed to deliver gulf war prisoners or Kuwaiti property. As much as we decry the way he has treated his people, regime change alone is not a sufficient reason for going to war, as desirable as it is to change the regime....regime change in and of itself is not sufficient justification for going to war--particularly unilaterally--unless regime change is the only way to disarm Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction pursuant to the United Nations resolution.Kerry did not try to imply that Iraq was somehow behind 9/11. Indeed, he noted instead that "the administration has failed to provide any direct link between Iraq and the events of September 11."
As bad as he is, Saddam Hussein, the dictator, is not the cause of war.
Kerry noted, moreover, that the administration had even by October 2002 undermined the credibility of its WMD claims by talking about going to war even before a clear justification had been agreed among the international community:
By beginning its public discourse with talk of invasion and regime change, the administration raised doubts about their bona fides on the most legitimate justification for war--that in the post-September 11 world the unrestrained threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Saddam Hussein is unacceptable, and his refusal to allow U.N. inspectors to return was in blatant violation of the 1991 cease-fire agreement that left him in power. By casting about in an unfocused, undisciplined, overly public, internal debate for a rationale for war, the administration complicated their case, confused the American public, and compromised America's credibility in the eyes of the world community. By engaging in hasty war talk rather than focusing on the central issue of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the administration placed doubts in the minds of potential allies, particularly in the Middle East, where managing the Arab street is difficult at best.In short, Kerry said that Bush's goal seemed to be war and regime change, rather than Iraqi disarmament. Left-leaning critics made this same accusation at the time.
Kerry also noted the failure to build domestic political support, and the failure as of that time fully to address prominent criticisms that were being raised by the foreign policy elite (including many Republicans):
Indeed over the course of the last 6 weeks some of the strongest and most thoughtful questioning of our Nation's Iraq policy has come from what some observers would say are unlikely sources: Senators like CHUCK HAGEL and DICK LUGAR, former Bush Administration national security experts including Brent Scowcroft and James Baker, and distinguished military voices including General Shalikashvili. They are asking the tough questions which must be answered before--and not after--you commit a nation to a course that may well lead to war. They know from their years of experience, whether on the battlefield as soldiers, in the Senate, or at the highest levels of public diplomacy, that you build the consent of the American people to sustain military confrontation by asking questions, not avoiding them.Since these critics were saying that an Iraq war would distract from the "war on terror," this is a pretty serious disagreement with the administration. Indeed, Kerry clearly distinguishes Iraq from the war on terror in this speech and criticizes the administration for failing to fulfill its promises in Afghanistan.
This is the bottom line: Kerry would not have gone to war so long as the arms inspections were working:
I believe ultimately Saddam's unwillingness to submit to fail-safe inspections--is absolutely critical in building international support for our case to the world. That is the way in which you make it clear to the world that we are contemplating war not for war's sake, and not to accomplish goals that don't meet international standards or muster with respect to national security, but because weapons inspections may be the ultimate enforcement mechanism, and that may be the way in which we ultimately protect ourselves.Put differently, if Saddam started playing games with the inspections, even the French would support war.
Additionally, Kerry claimed in October 2002 that he would not have supported a congressional resolution that allowed the President to take the US to war without the UN:
I want to underscore that this administration began this debate with a resolution that granted exceedingly broad authority to the President to use force. I regret that some in the Congress rushed so quickly to support it. I would have opposed it. It gave the President the authority to use force not only to enforce all of the U.N. resolutions as a cause of war, but also to produce regime change in Iraq, and to restore international peace and security in the Persian Gulf region. It made no mention of the President's efforts at the United Nations or the need to build multilateral support for whatever course of action we ultimately would take.Obviously, Kerry later learned it was a bad idea to trust the administration on this score.
I am pleased that our pressure, and the questions we have asked, and the criticisms that have been raised publicly, the debate in our democracy has pushed this administration to adopt important changes, both in language as well as in the promises that they make.
I'm sorry for quoting so much of this, but it is pretty damn important that the opponents of war realize that Kerry is neither a hawk nor a flip flopper on this issue:
If the President arbitrarily walks away from this course of action--without good cause or reason--the legitimacy of any subsequent action by the United States against Iraq will be challenged by the American people and the international community. And I would vigorously oppose the President doing so.By March, Kerry was making it clear that these standards had not been met. He opposed the timing of the war and supported the work of the inspections.
When I vote to give the President of the United States the authority to use force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein, it is because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security and that of our allies in the Persian Gulf region. I will vote yes because I believe it is the best way to hold Saddam Hussein accountable. And the administration, I believe, is now committed to a recognition that war must be the last option to address this threat, not the first, and that we must act in concert with allies around the globe to make the world's case against Saddam Hussein.
As the President made clear earlier this week, "Approving this resolution does not mean that military action is imminent or unavoidable." It means "America speaks with one voice."
Let me be clear, the vote I will give to the President is for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies.
In giving the President this authority, I expect him to fulfill the commitments he has made to the American people in recent days--to work with the United Nations Security Council to adopt a new resolution setting out tough and immediate inspection requirements, and to act with our allies at our side if we have to disarm Saddam Hussein by force. If he fails to do so, I will be among the first to speak out.
If we do wind up going to war with Iraq, it is imperative that we do so with others in the international community, unless there is a showing of a grave, imminent--and I emphasize "imminent"--threat to this country which requires the President to respond in a way that protects our immediate national security needs.
In his speech, Kerry specifically said that he would support war only if the situation on the ground worsened -- and that he was explicitly not voting to give the President the authority to wage preventive war:
Every nation has the right to act preemptively, if it faces an imminent and grave threat, for its self-defense under the standards of law. The threat we face today with Iraq does not meet that test yet. I emphasize "yet." Yes, it is grave because of the deadliness of Saddam Hussein's arsenal and the very high probability that he might use these weapons one day if not disarmed. But it is not imminent, and no one in the CIA, no intelligence briefing we have had suggests it is imminent. None of our intelligence reports suggest that he is about to launch an attack.Kerry spoke of an obligation to attempt to use inspections first; war must only be a last resort.
The argument for going to war against Iraq is rooted in enforcement of the international community's demand that he disarm. It is not rooted in the doctrine of preemption. Nor is the grant of authority in this resolution an acknowledgment that Congress accepts or agrees with the President's new strategic doctrine of preemption. Just the opposite.
I believe the work we have begun in this Senate, by offering questions, and not blind acquiescence, has helped put our Nation on a responsible course. It has succeeded, certainly, in putting Saddam Hussein on notice that he will be held accountable; but it also has put the administration on notice we will hold them accountable for the means by which we do this.To me, this does not read as if Kerry was supporting war. He wanted concerted UN action to bring back inspections.
It is through constant questioning we will stay the course, and that is a course that will ultimately defend our troops and protect our national security.
And he intended to hold the administration responsible if it failed to support inspections and garner international support.
His preferred policy was working, as Iraq did allow the return of the inspectors, who had unfettered access to every site in Iraq.
The policy failings started mounting up much later, once Bush said "time is up" and the US began bombing, invading and then occupying Iraq.
Update: Chris Young at Explananda isn't convinced and says Kerry knew that he was granting Bush carte blanche to go to war. Young says, "I agree with Payne that Kerry didn't want a war, and would have preferred to let inspectors continue their job. But that wasn't what the vote was really about, and Kerry either knew it or he doesn't deserve to be president."
Hmmm. I'm as cynical as the next guy and I thought war was pretty likely through the fall of 2002. However, I also thought that war critics (including Brent Scowcroft, Jim Baker and perhaps even the President's father) had set some traps for the administration by convincing them to work through the UN and allow for the inspections process to work. To me, war seemed avoidable, even for the Bush administration, into December. Once they denounced the massive Iraq report almost as soon as it was delivered, I knew they weren't serious about the UN. Nonetheless, plenty of smart people thought war was avoidable -- and there was reason to believe that the Republicans were pushing the congressional vote in 2002 for domestic political reasons.
Anyway, this is from a PBS New Hour Broadcast, November 25, 2002:
JOHN MEARSHEIMER: I think that two things have happened to the Bush administration over the past few months. One is, I think they've become more aware of the down-side risks of attacking Iraq. And secondly, I think they are aware that there is a lot of opposition in this country to a war against Iraq. And as a result, the Bush administration appears to be willing to let the U.N. inspections regime work, and then maybe declare victory and avoid a war.Other reasonable people made similar claims -- at the time.