How does John Kerry do it? Normally it might not be considered unusual for a sitting member of the U.S. Senate to sail through confirmation hearings, as newly installed Secretary of State John Kerry recently did. But these are highly contentious times in the Senate. Consider the buzz saw that greeted Kerry's former colleague, Chuck Hagel when a mostly Republican, pro-war crowd let him know that they deemed his enthusiasm for the Iraq War and his enmity toward Iran insufficient in one who would be Secretary of Defense. And Hagel is a Republican! In that context, the confirmation of the Democrat Kerry, with only three dissenting votes, does become a bit noteworthy. But more remarkable even than the pass Kerry gets from pro-war Republicans to his right may be the one he's long gotten from antiwar Democrats to his left, particularly when compared with the treatment accorded another past unsuccessful presidential candidate -- Ralph Nader.
As the nation takes rueful note of the Iraq War's tenth anniversary, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the rest of their crew will surely come in for some well deserved revilement. And as we consider the damage done -- Iraqi casualties, mostly civilian, numbering perhaps in the hundreds of thousands; the 4,000+ American dead; the millions of refugees created; the nearly $1 trillion (and counting) wasted -- hopefully some of the Bush Administration's principal enablers will also receive their fair share of abuse. That list would include a number of Democrats: Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, all of whom voted for the war as Senators. But Kerry's culpability for the course of American foreign policy during the Bush years arguably runs even deeper than the others'.
Although Ralph Nader's Green Party presidential run is now more than a dozen years in the rearview mirror, there are plenty of hard core Democratic households out there where the mere mention of his name will still elicit low rumbling growls. Nader, those folks feel, turned the White House over to George W. Bush by diverting votes from the 2000 Democratic candidate and popular vote winner, Al Gore. One friend, not of the forgive-and-forget school on this, asked me if I thought we would have gone to war in Iraq if Gore had been elected. And I guess I don't. And so, without trying to settle an argument that's gone on for over a decade, I can certainly understand how someone might blame Nader for giving Bush the opportunity to start that war. But why, if Nader is blamed for allowing Bush to start that war, isn't Kerry blamed for allowing him to continue it?
At first blush, there may seem no comparison. After all, isn't Kerry at fault for nothing more than trying and losing in his 2004 presidential run? And isn't Nader another thing entirely -- a "spoiler" who knew he couldn't win but prevented Gore from winning, thereby electing the man that Nader himself no doubt considered the "greater of the two evils"? Not so simple, methinks. Remember that when the then still vibrant antiwar movement was looking for an antiwar presidential candidate in 2004, it got Kerry, who not only voted for the war but maintained ever after that it was the right vote. Message to antiwar voters: Stay home!
No matter how you cut it, Kerry deserves no medal for his pro-war vote. But when the propaganda machine gears up, and our "independent press" starts running the stories the government feeds it about the dangers we face if we don't go to war, and the Secretary of State goes before the United Nations with supposed proof of the case for war, well, the pressure can get pretty intense -- even in the U.S. Senate. So John Kerry did have a choice when he ran for president. He could have acknowledged that he, like millions of others, had been drawn into the Bush Administration's war fever based upon claims and arguments that did not prove to be true or just. But perhaps reckoning that admitting error might make him look "unpresidential" -- the Republicans loved to call him a flip-flopper -- he instead carved out a position where he did not oppose the war, but he opposed the conduct of the war: The Administration hadn't sent enough troops to get the job done properly, and so forth. And he was in a position to speak on these matters, his campaign reminded us, because John Kerry was the decorated officer who served in Vietnam while Bush was the one who stayed home.
The problem was that there were millions of Americans already vowing "We won't get fooled again," on top of the millions who weren't fooled in the first place, and John Kerry wasn't singing their tune. The most Kerry offered them was a pledge to bring "American troops home in four years." So voters, take your pick: Four more years of war or four more years of war. He offered us a better-run, Democratic war.
It's not that Kerry would have been out there alone on the world stage had he opposed the war. United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan had called the war "illegal." The frequently conservative U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the invasion of Iraq did not "meet the strict conditions of Catholic teaching for the use of military force." Pope John Paul II opposed it and even the future Pope Benedict thought "reasons sufficient for unleashing a war against Iraq did not exist,"
Instead, Kerry went so far as to advise the new Socialist Prime Minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, to abandon his campaign promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq once he took office, arguing that "the new prime minister should not have decided that he was going to pull out of Iraq. He should have said this increases our determination to get the job done." Message: Flip-flopping is okay once you're already in office.
Would an antiwar stance have guaranteed Kerry victory? Could it have inspired the needed additional 120,000 Ohio voters that would have flipped the election? No guarantee and no way of knowing, really. But the worst that could have happened would have been that, when he lost, he left a legacy of hope rather than cynicism. And there's certainly a serious argument to be made that by being so perversely dreadful on the war Kerry gave us four more years of Bush, with all that meant for economic, women's, environmental, labor and a slew of other issues. It's perhaps a measure of just how badly Kerry flubbed his chance that today few even recall the opportunity he squandered. So argue that Ralph Nader was responsible for electing George W. Bush, if you will. But as you watch the new Secretary of State traveling about the world on the nightly news, please ask yourself if this isn't the man responsible for reelecting George W. Bush.