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Robert Kerrey : Vietnam-Hero-Turned-Senator Speaks Against Iraq Policy

January 06, 1991|Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for The Times. He interviewed the senator before a recent speech at the Century Plaza Hotel

When a group of GOP consultants sat down for dinner recently, they decided the toughest Democratic opponent for George Bush in 1992 was a man many Americans never heard of--Sen. J. Robert Kerrey of Nebraska.

Only two years after he was elected to the Senate, Kerrey, 47, already bears the mantle of great expectations, with Democrats finding the distant reflection of John F. Kennedy's Camelot in his sharp good looks, confident style and record of heroism in combat.

Kerrey was born in Lincoln, Neb., and as a young man his ambition carried him no farther than the University of Nebraska, where he earned a degree in pharmacy. He then enlisted in the Navy and joined the elite SEAL unit as a commando. In a March, 1969, attack on a North Vietnamese unit, a grenade blew off part of his right leg; later, the leg was amputated below the knee. Kerrey returned home shattered in body and spirit; even the Congressional Medal of Honor did little to dispel his bitterness.

Gradually, Kerrey healed, and he returned to Nebraska, where he became a successful businessman. By 1982, he was ready for a new challenge, and he stunned Nebraska political observers by first winning the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and then ousting the Republican incumbent.

In the worst farm crisis since the Depression, Kerrey was an energetic and popular governor. He even gilded the state with an unaccustomed sheen of glamour by dating actress Debra Winger. A second term seemed assured, but he again stunned the state's political community--this time by not seeking reelection. Two years later, though, he easily won a Senate seat.

In Washington, Kerrey--divorced with two children--has emerged as one of the most vocal Democratic critics of last summer's proposed constitutional amendment to ban flag burning and the Administration's Persian Gulf policy. In both debates, Kerrey fashioned eloquent arguments from the mute rage of his personal loss in Vietnam--tantalizing liberals who see him as the Democrat able to withstand the traditional GOP attempt to portray the party as unpatriotic.

In conversation, Kerrey is open, though rarely effusive--the emotions that animate him seem more tangled. All the presidential talk--as intoxicating as champagne--may someday have its effect, but Kerrey does not yet seem persuaded of his own inevitability. Unlike most politicians, his life has not been a progression of expectations exceeded; his words, and often his silences, convey his understanding that the road does not always run straight to the horizon.

Question: Is there any circumstance short of Saddam Hussein invading Saudi Arabia that would put it in our national interest to go to war with Iraq?

Answer: I think it's important to understand that, in many ways, we're already at war--an economic war against Iraq. We've embargoed them, and we've got not only an authorization for use of force but we also are enforcing, with military means, a rather severe naval blockade. Part of the problem we've got as Americans is that we are in a post-containment world and we're struggling to discover what our rationale is for action. . . .

It seems to me that what we have to try to do is not just get a victory here but try to develop some lessons upon which we can build a sound foreign policy. And one of the things in the old world order, of course, was that it's got to be a quick military solution. . . . What I'm suggesting is that the minute you narrow the options between choosing this military option or that military option, you begin to lose the opportunity to build a policy that is less dependent upon military (action).

Q: There has been a chorus from the Administration--the President, secretary of state, secretary of defense--saying it doesn't look as if sanctions will work.

A: It's almost as if they're feeling the embargo is on us. What happened to the Administration is that they improperly thought through this massive deployment of force. And then they made it worse by pumping it up to 400,000 on the mistaken assumption that Saddam Hussein was going to be terrified by the prospect of an invasion. The fact is, that's for him the best thing to happen--that's on his ground.

Q: Why?

A: Because what he does the best is defend against conventional attack. That's his strength. Moreover, now we have to be able to explain why Kuwait is so strategically important that we're going to fight to kill and hold ground--what you'd have to do to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. To restore the emir? I think you're not going to get domestic support for that. Most important, the troops become the policy.

Q: What do you mean?

A: Let me give you an example. The Administration says we've got to act quickly because we'll lose our fighting edge. That isn't saying that the sanctions aren't working; they're concerned the troops are going to lose the fighting edge, and so we've got to (move).

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