The Magazine

Taking Flip-Flops Seriously

From the September 20, 2004 issue: on fundamental matters of war and peace, John Kerry will not or cannot hold to a position under pressure.

Sep 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 02 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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I said at the time I would have preferred if we had given diplomacy a greater opportunity, but I think it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein. And when the president made the decision, I supported him, and I support the fact that we did disarm him.

John F. Kerry, May 3, 2003

Those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe that we are not safer with his capture, don't have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president.

December 16, 2003

Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it's the right authority for a president to have. But I would have used that authority as I have said throughout this campaign, effectively.

August 9, 2004

Iraq was "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time."

September 6, 2004

We should not send more American troops. That would be the worst thing.

John F. Kerry, September 4, 2003

If it requires more troops . . . that's what you have to do.

April 18, 2004

I will have significant, enormous reduction in the level of troops.

August 1, 2004

We're going to get our troops home where they belong.

August 6, 2004

We should increase funding [for the war in Iraq] by whatever number of billions of dollars it takes to win.

John F. Kerry, August 31, 2003

$200 billion [for Iraq] that we're not investing in education and health care, and job creation here at home. . . . That's the wrong choice.

September 8, 2004

THE JOHN KERRY "flip-flop" has been a humorous leitmotif of this campaign. But we single out these particular reversals because they are too important to be merely funny or to be chalked up simply to an inability of the Kerry campaign to "hone" its "message." Nor is the real problem simply Kerry's inability to make up his mind. Rather it is that on fundamental matters of war and peace, and on the major strategic and tactical questions that follow from them--such as how many troops to send and how much money to commit to a conflict--John Kerry will not or cannot hold to a position under pressure.

Kerry voted to authorize war in Iraq in the fall of 2002 because he was afraid a vote against the resolution would ruin his chances to become president. He voted against the $87 billion to support the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan in the fall of 2003--when Howard Dean was riding high-- because he was afraid that he couldn't win over Democratic primary voters if he seemed to be supporting the war. After the capture of Saddam Hussein, Kerry briefly returned to a hawkish stance and criticized Dean when it seemed that distinguishing himself from Dean's excessive dovishness would be politically beneficial. Now, after a dip in the polls against President Bush, Kerry has come out against the war and against the money spent on the war, because he is afraid that he cannot win running as a quasi-hawk. We understand that many people don't like President Bush. But can there be anyone out there, Democrat or Republican, who does not honestly worry: If this is how John Kerry behaves during the campaign, how would he react to the real pressures of being president and commander in chief?

Readers of THE WEEKLY STANDARD know that we have not been great admirers of the way the Bush administration, and especially the Pentagon, has conducted operations in Iraq since the end of the successful invasion a year ago last spring. Still, in some respects, things in Iraq have gone better than might have been expected. Most promising has been the evident commitment on the part of the Iraqi people to persevere in the effort to build democracy in the face of the many difficult challenges that confront them. The recent settlement of the Najaf crisis demonstrated great will and courage on the part of both American military forces and Iraqi authorities, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric. In other respects, however, there remain reasons for concern. Above all, there are the problems of Falluja and the Iraqi areas that were ceded to insurgents and terrorists earlier this year. With national elections scheduled for January, these problems must be addressed urgently.

What should be beyond doubt is the vital necessity of succeeding in Iraq. Partly we have a profound moral obligation to the Iraqi people: To betray them by premature withdrawal or insufficient support would be a shameful act. And if you think the world is unhappy with us now, wait until the world sees the United States pull out of Iraq, leaving behind either chaos, a terrorist base, civil conflict, a regional war, or, very likely, all of the above. Nor can there be any doubt that failure in Iraq would constitute a strategic defeat in the larger war on terror.

Given this reality, it seems to us there has always been a responsible and defensible stance for a Democratic presidential candidate to take. It would be the position taken, for example, by Senators Joseph Biden, Evan Bayh, and Joseph Lieberman--supportive of the war but critical when necessary. Each has been unwavering on the importance of rebuilding Iraq. Each supported the $87 billion supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan. Each has expressed unhappiness with the Bush administration, while insisting that the United States must remain committed to achieving success in Iraq. These senators are not alone. This is also the view of much of the Democratic foreign policy establishment. It is the view of most former Clinton administration officials, people like Sandy Berger, Richard Holbrooke, and Thomas Donilon.

Unfortunately, it is not currently the view of John Kerry. Maybe Kerry will change his position again, under a different set of pressures. But that won't alter the fundamental truth about his character. If Kerry can throw Iraq overboard in this campaign, he will do so as president. It is that lack of commitment today, much more than anything in his past, that makes John Kerry unfit for command.

--Robert Kagan and William Kristol