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Kerry's model of leadership

IN A PERIOD punctuated by gut-wrenching acts of terrorism, which national candidate acted the way a real leader should in troubled times?

 

John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, took the long view this week in confronting the foreign policy repercussions from the terrorist atrocities in Spain.

After the Madrid bombings helped tip the Spanish elections for the Socialists, Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero declared that he would withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq absent the UN taking control of the occupation there.

Confronted with that blow to US efforts in Iraq, Kerry said that Zapatero was sending the wrong message and urged him to rethink his course.

"In my judgment, the new prime minister should not have decided that he was going to pull out of Iraq," Kerry said on Tuesday. "He should have said this increases our determination to get the job done."

A day later, Kerry was even more direct. "I call on Prime Minister Zapatero to reconsider his decision and to send a message that terrorists cannot win by their acts of terror," Kerry said during a speech at George Washington University.

The senator's urging notwithstanding, it seems unlikely that Zapatero will reverse himself given that he ran on a platform that called for curtailing Spain's involvement in Iraq.

Still, Kerry struck the right note in asking the prime minister-elect to reconsider -- and in making it clear he thinks Spain will send a troubling message if it pulls its troops home. Although it's not accurate to portray Zapatero's intent as appeasement, it's nevertheless true that, taken in total, the planned shift in Spanish foreign policy is all too likely to be interpreted as signaling that terrorism can work. And that it might therefore encourage more such terrorism.

Kerry also acted responsibly after former Democratic rival Howard Dean, in a Tuesday conference call on his behalf, made a comment that essentially blamed President Bush for having set in motion the events that led to the Madrid terrorism. Kerry later told reporters that he did not embrace that view. (Dean himself also backed off that comment.)

Compared with Kerry's comments on Tuesday and Wednesday, Vice President Dick Cheney's Wednesday broadside against the Democratic nominee-to-be had about it a tone of unrestrained, unadulterated partisanship. Take just one example of Cheney's rhetoric: Noting that Kerry had called some of the coalition countries "window dressing," the vice president continued: "Italy -- which recently lost 19 citizens, killed by terrorists in Najaf -- was Italy's contribution just window dressing?"

Kerry's comment had not, of course, been intended to make light of foreign deaths.

There's no doubt that this election will be a hard-fought, few-holds-barred affair. But with the world still reeling from the Madrid tragedy, Cheney's attack on Kerry seemed particularly problematic. Republican partisans will protest that Kerry himself spent the same day criticizing the administration for its approach to Iraq, and there's some truth to that. Still, though Kerry's George Washington speech was tough in its critique of administration policy, the senator's principal intent was to lay out his so-called bill of rights for military families.

The obvious purpose of Cheney's scathing speech, on the other hand, was to discredit Kerry as weak on national security and unfit as a possible commander in chief.

Against that bitter backdrop, Kerry's careful effort to urge Spain to stay in Iraq bespoke a sense of responsibility Cheney did not display. Despite the vice president's characterization, the senator understands the point that foreign policy experts from former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger have made: If the US efforts in Iraq don't succeed, the world will be left with a failed and dangerous state.

That's all the more reason why Kerry, under almost daily attack from an administration determined to undermine his credibility, deserves credit for making some effort to speak in a measured and serious way on matters of international interest.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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