a war referendum

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    A War Referendum
    September 22, 2004;

    If nothing else, John Kerry's apparent decision to close out the 2004 Presidential campaign as the "antiwar" candidate would seem to be true to himself and to the party he now leads.

    The Democratic nominee entered public life, after all, questioning both America's policy and its purposes in Vietnam. He's now staking his bid for the White House as a critic of the boldest and most divisive American foreign policy initiative since. In the process, Mr. Kerry just might offer us all a clarifying debate over the proper scope and scale of the war on terror, and his Democratic base a badly needed sense that its misgivings about Iraq in particular have gotten a fair hearing.

    At least that's what we're hoping. Although we'll make no secret of the fact that we disagree with much of what Mr. Kerry had to say is his speech at New York University on Monday, the Senator finally did offer an internally coherent alternative to the Bush foreign policy of the past four years.

    "We must have a great honest national debate on Iraq. The President claims it is the centerpiece of his war on terror. In fact, Iraq was a profound diversion," Mr. Kerry said, in what was a fairly accurate summary of the strategic differences between the two men. Whereas Mr. Bush has argued for tackling not just terrorists but their state sponsors -- as well as for a broad "forward strategy of freedom" against terrorism's root causes in the Middle Eastern despotism and poverty -- Mr. Kerry wants to limit the fight to "the battle against our greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden and the terrorists."

    In Iraq, Mr. Kerry said without equivocation that "we have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure." The Democrat painted a sad picture of life in that country without Saddam Hussein, and suggested he could do a more competent job than President Bush handling the "mess" that America now finds itself in. In other words, he now agrees with Howard Dean that the war he voted to authorize was a mistake.

    As for what to do now, Mr. Kerry continues to insist that he will do a better job attracting international support for our efforts. That, he says, will help us train Iraqi security forces more quickly, which will help create the right conditions for elections, which will in turn allow American forces to start withdrawing next summer: "The principles that should guide American policy in Iraq now and in the future are clear: We must make Iraq the world's responsibility..."

    When it comes to the war on terror's grand strategy, readers probably won't be surprised to learn we prefer the Bush version. Limiting the definition of the enemy to bin Laden and his associates makes little sense in an age when terrorists cavort with rogue states and multiply like blades of grass in the despotic soil of the Middle East. Without an Iraq-type plan for changing the region, the U.S. would seem condemned to a century of playing terrorist whack-a-mole. If Mr. Kerry has an alternative root-causes strategy, he has yet to articulate it.

    When it comes to Iraq specifically, Mr. Kerry's picture of the country is unrealistically bleak and many of his proposals are already in motion. Iraqi security forces are being trained, after all, and Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Allawi remain committed to the January elections. As for getting other countries to share more of the burden, good luck. Sometimes we think we might enjoy a Kerry victory just for the spectacle of watching a Secretary of State Biden or Holbrooke try to convince the Europeans to accept responsibility for their own security, never mind Iraq's.

    The line about making Iraq "the world's responsibility" was perhaps the most revealing in Mr. Kerry's speech. Whereas John F. Kennedy's Democrats pledged to "pay any price, bear any burden" in the promotion and defense of liberty, today's Vietnam-scarred party sees little or no special role for American providence in the world. And the world knows it. Such statements risk encouraging our Baathist and jihadist enemies in their belief that we lack staying power. Likewise, they signal to our potential Iraqi allies that it would be wise to avoid choosing sides until November.

    Let us be clear: We're not questioning Mr. Kerry's patriotism or his right to make an issue of Iraq. But let's not kid ourselves either that the words of Presidential candidates don't have consequences.

    Which brings us to the gamble inherent in Mr. Kerry's decision to mount an antiwar campaign: He risks being seen as hoping for an October of unprecedented violence in Iraq. Despite all the challenges to date, current polls show clear if not overwhelming American support for the war. While it may be possible to run an antiwar campaign without appearing to root for the enemy, the record of others who've tried would not seem encouraging. Mr. Kerry would be on stronger ground if his criticism of Mr. Bush's war management included a vow to win the war, rather than a promise to leave Iraq at the earliest possible moment.

    As we've noted before, one of the striking trends in recent years has been the complete role reversal of our two major parties in their philosophy of foreign policy, with Republicans pushing idealism and Democrats deriding it as "neocon" folly. This campaign is shaping up to be no exception.

    Mr. Kerry is offering a minimalist conception of the war on terror, focused on al Qaeda and a rapid exit from Iraq. Mr. Bush spoke to the United Nations yesterday again pushing his democracy-for-the-Middle-East line. No one will be able to say voters weren't offered a clear foreign policy choice come November.
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