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JOAN VENNOCHI

Muddled message on the war

"BRING IT ON" is the mantra of John Kerry's presidential campaign. So why complain when President Bush does just that, with campaign commercials that portray images of the destroyed World Trade Center?

 

Foreign policy and national security is the debate that Kerry says he wants; if so, Sept. 11 is where the debate begins. The planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field were a declaration of war. The country's foreign policy and national security debate runs directly from those ashes and ruins to America's war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Families of 9/11 victims bear a special, private burden from that terrible day, but they do not own it. The country respects their individual losses, but during a presidential campaign it cannot be expected to separate the politics from the events of Sept. 11. Are we fighting the right enemy the right way? Those questions, along with questions about Bush economic policies, lie at the crux of the Democratic challenge to Bush's reelection. Kerry and the rest of the Democratic pack of now-vanquished challengers have been asking them for more than a year.

They are fair, necessary, political questions that deserve answers.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Bush looked like a leader to much of the country. Congress -- including Kerry -- followed where Bush said we should go. Today, questions dog Bush regarding what the country's leaders knew in advance of the attacks and the decisions made after them, at home and overseas. It doesn't get any more political than that.

As others have noted, Kerry has no problem politicizing the Vietnam War. A Kerry political advertisement from Iowa ran footage of his dramatic testimony before Congress from 30 years ago, when he famously queried: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Asked to justify the use of such footage, Kerry gave this answer to Fox News: "I was there and it was mine." Bush can say pretty much the same thing about 9/11.

Part of candidate Kerry's difficulty is that he is not ready to ask that same question about Iraq. While he criticizes how Bush brought the country to war, he is not saying to the country: "How do you ask a man -- or a woman -- to be the last to die in Iraq? How do you ask a man -- or woman -- to be the last to die for a mistake?" In other words, Kerry is not telling the country the Iraq war is a mistake, at least not yet. Because of that, his message on Iraq remains muddled.

In the final two debates before the Super Tuesday primaries which clinched his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kerry reiterated his support for keeping troops in Iraq. During the Feb. 29 CBS/New York Times debate in New York, he said, "You just can't cut and run." During the Feb. 26 CNN debate in California he said he did not regret his vote for the resolution authorizing war with Iraq. Asked directly if he would pull troops from Iraq, he said: "No, I would not leave now. I think that you can't leave now. The impact of leaving now on the war on terror on the Middle East would be disastrous."

Kerry's specific criticism of the Iraq war remains difficult to follow. It is about "the rush to war," not the fact that the country remains at war. During the Feb. 26 debate, Kerry seemed to be saying what Bush is saying -- that the Iraq war is key to the "war on terror." That likely explains why the Kerry campaign is anxious to keep Bush on the defensive, with silly criticisms about political advertisements and arrogant plans to send a delegation to Iraq to assess the situation there. Until Kerry actually wins election, he should play the role of presidential candidate, not shadow president.

The presidential candidate is correct to press Bush on why he is resisting federal investigations into the attacks of Sept. 11 and the intelligence leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

The presidential candidate would also be correct to say: Mr. President, you looked like a leader when you stood in the ruins of the World Trade Center. What did you know before that you did not tell me or this country? Why did you lead me and this country from those ruins into war with Iraq? Bring it on, because I am ready to bring it back to you.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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