An Iraq Policy, Better Late Than Never

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, October 27, 2005

The good news: John Kerry settled on his Iraq policy yesterday.

The bad news: He did so 51 weeks after losing the election.

The vanquished presidential candidate, sadder but wiser, returned to one of his campaign venues -- storied Gaston Hall at Georgetown -- and delivered the plain and simple alternative to President Bush's Iraq strategy that aides had pleaded with him to deliver when it still counted.

Speaking from a pulpit beneath religious frescoes and a large inscription of the word "WISDOM," Kerry called for withdrawing 20,000 troops from Iraq by year-end and most others within another year. "Knowing now the full measure of the Bush administration's duplicity and incompetence, I doubt there are many members of Congress who would give them the authority they abused so badly," Kerry said of his vote to authorize war. "I know I would not."

It was a political do-over, the answer Kerry opted not to give in the summer of 2004, when Bush was demanding to know if the senator from Massachusetts would still vote for war "knowing what we know now" -- that is, the absence of WMD. Instead, standing at the Grand Canyon on Aug. 9, Kerry uttered the words that may have cost him the presidency: "Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for the president to have."

To reach this moment of clarity, Kerry had to jettison some earlier, inconvenient positions. For example, he had, nine months ago, emphatically opposed a "specific timetable" for withdrawal from Iraq. During the campaign, he alternately suggested increasing troops, withdrawing troops and leaving it to the generals.

In other words: I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.

From Republican National Committee headquarters came the inevitable rebuttal: flip-flop. "It is doubtful," spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said, "that those who follow John Kerry are surprised that his latest of numerous attempts to deliver a cohesive message on Iraq does anything but."

Kerry's speech -- and Bush's latest defense of his Iraq policy on Tuesday -- brought back memories of last year's electoral choice: between a president who wouldn't shift course no matter what, and a challenger who seemed to shift course perpetually. A year later, Bush still won't budge, and Democrats still don't agree on an alternative.

Kerry, for his part, is having difficulty in his bid for a political second act. A Pew Research Center poll this week found that 52 percent view Kerry favorably -- putting him behind likely 2008 rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards. Kerry's five previous speeches this year billed as "major" did not grab the national imagination, and the transcription services that rush to record major events in Washington did not bother yesterday to post Kerry's speech.

That's too bad, because Kerry was noteworthy yesterday. "I accept my share of the responsibility" for the Iraq war, he said, "but the mistakes of the past, no matter who made them, are no justification for marching ahead into a future of miscalculations."

He called Iraq "one of the greatest foreign policy misadventures of all time," and asserted: "It is time for those of us who believe in a better course to say so plainly and unequivocally." (Although the normally articulate Kerry pronounced it "unequivocably.")

There were reruns of some of his favorite lines from the campaign -- Saddam Hussein "deserves his own special place in hell" -- and some amendments to previous lines. "We are entering a make-or-break six-month period" in Iraq, he said, nine months after announcing "this is the last time, chance for the president to get it right."

But the college students were forgiving, as a wistful Kerry allowed that he had "had thoughts of coming back in a different role." They applauded liberally and tossed him gentle questions. The university official who introduced Kerry even vouched that the senator "grew up in Massachusetts" when in fact he did that in Washington, Switzerland and New Hampshire.

Kerry, in electric red tie, drew roars for saying, in response to a question, that Americans should care about the caskets returning from Iraq because "it's more important than Nick and Jessica's breakup." And they applauded his introduction of a "great citizen" in the front row -- Teresa Heinz Kerry."

"If only more of you had moved to Ohio," Kerry joked.

At times, Kerry sounded like a candidate again, decrying "an administration that doesn't acknowledge facts," and saying that "for misleading a nation into war, they will be indicted in the high court of history."

But when question time came, Kerry toned things down. He allowed that the situation in Iraq "is not Vietnam." In response to another question, he stipulated that "I didn't come here to deliver a partisan, boot-stomping political speech." He had come to say what advisers wanted him to say 15 months ago.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company