THE AGONIZING difficulties in Iraq give rise to two legitimate questions: Was the war a mistake, and what is to be done now? The second is the more vital, but both are important subjects for the campaign. President Bush has unambiguous answers. He believes the war was right and necessary, and he maintains that his plan of training Iraqi forces while facilitating elections will help Iraq move toward stability and democracy. Both positions are subject to challenge, and we will be returning to them in future editorials. But it isn't clear where Sen. John F. Kerry stands on either point.
Mr. Kerry got pretty badly battered by friend and foe alike a couple of weeks back when he said he would still, knowing everything he knows now, have voted to authorize war in Iraq. Democratic partisans couldn't understand why Mr. Kerry wouldn't just attack the war forthrightly; Republicans said he was flip-flopping again, or negating his criticism of the war, or both. We were more sympathetic, maybe because as an editorial page we found ourselves in a similarly nuanced position. Like Mr. Kerry, we believed in 2002 that it was essential to hold Saddam Hussein accountable for his failure to honor U.N. resolutions; also like Mr. Kerry, we criticized Mr. Bush for not trying harder to recruit allies and for not preparing for, and warning Americans of, the likely difficulties of postwar reconstruction. But we expected that chemical and biological weapons would be found, and we failed to expect a long and bloody insurgency, even though some experts warned of it; we were wrong on both counts.
Was the war justified, even with all its faults of implementation, with the insurgency and although no weapons have been found? In our view the answer is partly unknowable, because no one knows how Saddam Hussein would have behaved if left to run his country, and partly knowable, only after we see how things evolve in Iraq. But we believe that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was right when he said, at the Republican convention, that the choice in Iraq "wasn't between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war" but "between war and a graver threat" -- that the consensus behind sanctions had eroded and that Saddam Hussein, freed from international pressure, would have rebuilt his arsenal. Or, as Mr. Kerry said on Oct. 9, 2002, in his speech explaining his vote to authorize military action, "It would be naive to the point of grave danger not to believe that, left to his own devices, Saddam Hussein will provoke, misjudge or stumble into a future, more dangerous confrontation with the civilized world."
We don't want to mischaracterize Mr. Kerry's speech, which also stressed the importance of working through the United Nations and which said that only disarming Saddam Hussein -- and not liberating Iraq from an appalling dictator, however welcome that would be -- could justify a war. But given Mr. Kerry's recent statements, it's worth recalling how he saw the strategic picture. "He has supported and harbored terrorist groups," he said. "There is no question that Saddam Hussein represents a threat. . . . Who can say that this master of miscalculation will not develop a weapon of mass destruction even greater -- a nuclear weapon. . . . And while the administration has failed to provide any direct link between Iraq and the events of September 11, can we afford to ignore the possibility that Saddam Hussein might accidentally, as well as purposely, allow those weapons to slide off to one group or other in a region where weapons are the currency of trade? How do we leave that to chance?"
Now Mr. Kerry says that Iraq was "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." What does that mean? He says that Mr. Bush should have given the weapons inspectors more time to work. But once they reported that they had found no caches, would Mr. Kerry's view of the dangers of leaving Saddam Hussein "to his own devices" have changed? And if not, how would he have handled what he described as the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and his possible ties to terrorists?
Mr. Kerry says he would lead U.S. policy in Iraq in a new direction. That would consist of persuading allies to pay more of the costs and assume more of the risks of occupation; and training more Iraqi soldiers and police officers and training them faster and better. This would be "the right way to get the job done and bring our troops home." But allies are not going to shoulder this burden; they are falling short even in Afghanistan, a war they supported from the start. It's not clear how Iraqis can be trained faster or better than Gen. David H. Petraeus is doing now. And Mr. Kerry no longer says what "the job" really means.
At this point, the candidate seems to be trying to give the impression that he is opposed to the war, without actually saying so. He talks about bringing troops home in six months but resists pressure, including within his own campaign, to commit to such a withdrawal. It is to his credit that he resists taking such an irresponsible position. But his stance does not help Americans understand where he would really lead the nation and U.S. troops in Iraq.
In 2002, Mr. Kerry warned that "if we go it alone without reason, we risk inflaming an entire region, breeding a new generation of terrorists, a new cadre of anti-American zealots, and we will be less secure, not more secure, at the end of the day, even with Saddam Hussein disarmed." Those words now resonate as evidence of a wiser caution than the administration displayed. But Mr. Kerry also said that, if the United States did go to war, "we will have an obligation, ultimately, to the Iraqi people with whom we are not at war. . . . That effort is going to be long term, costly and not without difficulty, given Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions and history of domestic turbulence . . . we must be prepared to stay the course over however many years it takes to do it right."
We believe that position was and remains correct. The question is whether Mr. Kerry still agrees with it.