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John Edwards, Dove?

The VP candidate once called Saddam Hussein's Iraq an "imminent threat." What will he say tonight?

12:00 AM, Jul 28, 2004 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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According to previews of John Edwards's much-anticipated speech tonight, the junior senator from North Carolina will attempt to establish his foreign policy bona fides. At the center of the address, naturally, will be Iraq. The issue will be a tricky one for Edwards. Along with Senator Joseph Lieberman, Edwards was an unapologetic defender of the war throughout the Democratic primaries, even as John Kerry began his efforts to distance himself from his support of the war-efforts that culminated in Kerry's embrace of the "antiwar" label.

But since he became Kerry's running mate, Edwards has dismissed any connection between Iraq and al Qaeda and repeatedly suggested that the war in Iraq was "needless." In doing so, the man known for his "Two Americas" stump speech risks opening himself to charges that there are two "Two John Edwardses" on Iraq.

Although Democrats, including Kerry, had long paid lip service to a policy of regime change in Iraq, Edwards was one of the earliest and most outspoken Democratic hawks on Iraq following the September 11 attacks. On February 24, 2002, he described Saddam Hussein's regime as an "imminent threat" in an interview on CNN. "I think Iraq is the most serious and imminent threat to our country."

Later that year, on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Edwards said that the "time has come for decisive action" on Iraq-a statement still posted on his Senate website. "With our allies," he said, "we must do whatever is necessary to guard against the threat posed by an Iraq with weapons of mass destruction and under the thumb of Saddam Hussein." And what if the U.N. Security Council were to refuse support for such decisive action? "Then we must act with as many allies as possible to ensure Iraq meets its obligations to existing Security Council resolutions."

Edwards continued: "The terrorist threat against America is all too clear. Thousands of terrorist operatives around the world would pay anything to get their hands on Saddam's arsenal, and there is every reason to believe that Saddam would turn his weapons over to these terrorists. No one can doubt that if the terrorists of September 11 had had weapons of mass destruction, they would have used them. On September 12, 2002, we can hardly ignore the terrorist threat and the serious danger that Saddam would allow his arsenal to be used in aid of terror."

These words are striking not only because they echo the central arguments the Bush administration made in support of ousting Saddam, but because they came one month beforeCongress voted to authorize the war. Edwards, who today suggests that the Iraq War was "needless," warned in ominous language about the Iraqi threat in an October 10, 2002 floor speech: "I believe we must vote for this resolution not because we want war, but because the national security of our country requires action."

Edwards continued: "Almost no one disagrees with these basic facts: that Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and a menace; that he has weapons of mass destruction and that he is doing everything in his power to get nuclear weapons; that he has supported terrorists; that he is a grave threat to the region, to vital allies like Israel, and to the United States; and that he is thwarting the will of the international community and undermining the United Nations' credibility." The war, he said, would not undermine U.S. efforts to get Osama bin Laden. "I believe this is not an either-or choice. Our national security requires us to do both, and we can."

It's hardly surprising, then, that Edwards, asked whether the Bush Administration "misled" him on the case against Saddam, said no.

"No. I didn't get misled," he said on Hardball with Chris Matthews on October 13, 2003, almost a year to the day after he voted to authorize the Iraq war and some six months after major combat ended. "As you know," he went on, "I serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee. So it wasn't just the Bush administration. I sat in meeting after meeting after meeting where we were told about the presence of weapons of mass destruction. There is clearly a disconnect between what we were told and what, in fact, we found there."

Edwards used that same Hardball appearance to reiterate his support for the war, even without more support from our erstwhile allies. "I think we couldn't let those who could veto in the Security Council hold us hostage."
Will Edwards change his mind, now that he's in the national spotlight? He wouldn't be the first to do so. But if, as expected, he distances himself from his once-hawkish positions, one hopes that he will use tonight's speech to offer reasons why.