Kerry on Going to War

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Robert Siegel interviewed John Kerry yesterday on NPR and asked him some not-too-hard but still important questions, some of which I hadn't heard him answer before. One thing really struck me. Siegel distinguished between two different situations, being in the president's shoes knowing what the president had access to at the time (which Kerry did, by the way, since he was on the intelligence committee) and being in the president's shoes knowing what he now knows. Kerry has said in the past that he would have made the same decision he (Kerry) had made even knowing what we now know, which was to give the president the authority to act if necessary. He just doesn't think it was really necessary in retrospect, at least not necessary yet at the time Bush made his decision to go in. I assume he leaves it open that he might have thought later that it had become necessary at some point, but I think he believes it to have turned out that it wasn't really necessary at all. What he didn't clearly answer, which is really the more important question, is what he would have done at the time given what intelligence the president (and therefore also Kerry) had access to. That's the one I really want to know the answer to. I know the answer for Clinton. He went on record saying he would have done the same thing given the same intelligence. I want to know if Kerry would have. I suspect not, given the conditions he listed for allowing such a thing. He listed three, and he said they all need to be true or the war isn't justified.

1. Saddam Hussein needs to have had weapons of mass destruction.
2. There needs to have been an imminent threat.
3. There needs to have been a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

Now what's obvious to me from the 9-11 Commission's report is that Kerry's first and third criteria are satisfied. He made it clear that he doesn't think they were, but they definitely are satisfied the way he stated them. He said the war was wrong because there were no WMD, there wasn't an imminent threat, and there was no connection between Iraq and bin Laden.

If he changed 1 to be about stockpiles of WMD or 3 to be about coordination of attacks, that would be different. There weren't any large stockpiles of WMD found, but we still haven't ruled out that the trucks we have satellite photos of pulling up to inspection sites the night before might have ended up in Syria, and we know full well that he had programs to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, with actual chemical and biological agents in his position that could have been used against the U.S. if he had gotten them into the right hands. There were talks between Saddam's people and bin Laden's people about moving their operation to Iraq if they had to leave Afghanistan. It's not a coordination of any specific attack, but it's clearly some sort of alliance, and that's enough information to be sure that if Saddam had wanted to put the WMD he had into the hands of those who could do something with it then he could have. That's not an imminent threat, so number 2 isn't satisfied, but it is the kind of threat Bush called it -- the kind that needs to have something done about it before it becomes imminent.

But Kerry didn't say conditions 1 and 3 in a careful enough way that they would come out not satisfied, so I'll focus on the one that really wasn't satisfied. This seems to be the main Howard Dean claim, so those who are saying Kerry has turned tail and taken the Dean position seem to have something right. Dean was saying all along that we shouldn't have gone to war without an imminent threat. He was also falsely claiming that President Bush said there was an imminent threat, but that's just historical revisionism. Bush's explicit statement was that we should not wait until there is an imminent threat. Kerry now seems to want to deny that. He wants us to wait until the threat is imminent.

I can't in good conscience let a statement like this stand when it's made by someone who could very well be the next president. Dean's basic idea was that you can't go to war unless it's in self-defense (which actually contradicts his backing of Kosovo on the basis of protecting and defending others, which Bush was using as an argument all along for Iraq in addition to everything else, but this isn't about Dean). Then he added that you can't have a pre-emptive self-defense policy. Robert Byrd said the same sort of thing, and he finds his source on this in traditional just war theory. Traditional just war theory was formulated when the worst someone could do to you was shoot an arrow through your window or get you with a blow-dart while you're not looking. They couldn't sneak into your city and blow it up with a nuke or deposit biological agents in the water supply. They couldn't hijack a plane and fly it into a building. When you can't see someone coming, and they can't do you much damage, maybe you can wait until the threat is imminent, though even then it's going to be hard to be ready for it. When the kind of damage we've already seen is at issue, waiting for an imminent threat is just stupid. The only way you'll know it's imminent is if you catch the terrorist in action with all their stuff ready to go. How easy is that? That's why pre-emptive self-defense should count as a just cause.

Anyone who supported going into Afghanistan and taking out al Qaeda (and the Taliban who protected them) on the grounds of preventing another attack already believes in pre-emptive self-defense, though in that case it you also can say it's retaliation for an attack that already occurred, which isn't the case with Iraq (and was never claimed to be the case with Iraq except in the general sense that terrorism and those who support terrorism had become more of a threat since 9/11, and they had now become part of that war in the same way Italy and Germany had in World War II once we were attacked by the Japanese). We weren't attacked by Iraq, so there is that difference. However, we weren't attacked by Afghanistan either, and retaliation is not a just cause according to traditional just war theory anyway, so that doesn't make much difference. That's why I think those who had no problem with Afghanistan should at least be open to Iraq in principle in terms of whether the just cause requirement is satisfied. There are other issues, but I don't see any decent argument against just cause, and that's what Kerry needs to make this claim.

The rest of the interview was pretty strange. He had a clear view on some matters that he's had a hard time settling on. I think it's been because he wants to satisfy both the anti-war crowd and those who thought it was a good idea but done wrongly. Some have thought it was because he really didn't know what to think. Well, now he's stating a clear view on a number of issues, including the ridiculous one above.

But some of the stuff he was doing in this interview sounded really lame. One time he fully dodged a question, simply changing the subject in an obvious way, which really frustrated Siegel. Another time he in effect conceded to the false assumption the question seemed to be directed toward getting him to deny. Siegel asked him if he was simply running a campaign about some things he would have done differently from how the president handled them or if he has future policies to present, and Kerry said that he's not just criticizing Bush on some things but on everything and then went on to list a whole bunch of past things he's criticizing. Siegel wanted him to discuss the future, but he wouldn't. It sounded as if he was responding to whether he'd stopped beating his wife by saying he hadn't just stopped beating his wife but he'd stopped beating his kids too.

A few times Siegel asked him what sorts of things he'd do in the future that would be different from Bush, and he gave some answers to some of them, but many times he'd just say that he can't predict how many more blunders Bush will make before then, so he couldn't answer. I have no problem with not being able to predict what you're going to do. That's usually my response when someone asks me about a situation I can't understand because I'm not in it. But if you're running for president you need to have a plan at each moment and to be able to say what you would do if you were president and things were as they now are, and if something changes you then adjust that plan. You don't just wait until inauguration to see how things are at that time to decide what you will do. You don't get elected president if you do things like that. It's prudent to realize that all such plans are tentative, but you need to have them. You can modify your views as a situation changes, but you can't just say you don't have any views on a matter until you're actually president and then hope people will still vote for you. I commend him for finally taking a stand on some issues he had wavered on. To be a clear candidate, you need to do such things. Whether people should trust him on this is another matter, since we don't know if he's just saying it to be a clear contrast with Bush, but at least he's officially got some stances now. Still, this kind of question-dodging just seems to me to be a ploy for not wanting to think about hard questions, and the clear stances he's taken (even if I disagree with them) don't really come off as avoiding the waffling charge if he's still going to sound as if he doesn't know what to say to questions asked of him. All said, I don't think he came off too well in this interview.

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