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On Iraq, Kerry Appears Either Torn or Shrewd

January 31, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

In a New York Times commentary in September and a speech at an Iowa Democratic Party fund-raising dinner in October, Kerry said that although the United States could not allow Iraq to maintain weapons of mass destruction, Bush should work through the U.N. to restart the inspection process before considering invasion.

"You don't go to war as a matter of first resort; you go to war as a matter of last resort," he said to loud applause. Six days later, Kerry voted for the Senate resolution authorizing use of force. In his floor statement, Kerry again qualified his view; he said that while the United States should not give the U.N. "veto power" over American actions, neither was he committing himself to support any unilateral move against Iraq that Bush might propose.

Kerry next made a splash with a Jan. 23 speech in which he urged Bush to delay any possible attack against Iraq, both to give inspections more time and to "show the world some appropriate patience in building a genuine [international] coalition."

Then, just before Bush's State of the Union address Tuesday, Kerry told a small group of reporters he believed the report from chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix the day before had shown Iraq to be in "material breach" of the U.N. resolution demanding disarmament -- thus triggering the legal threshold for war. And while Kerry again called on Bush to intensify his efforts to attract more international support, he said he could support a U.N. resolution authorizing an invasion if Iraq does not disarm within 30 days.

"That would sound pretty reasonable," Kerry said.

One last twist came this month. As first reported in the Baltimore Sun, Kerry complained to a group of activists in Iowa City that Gephardt and Lieberman, by endorsing the version of the use-of-force resolution sought by Bush, had "completely pulled the rug out" from senators trying to craft a less-expansive measure. Kerry's staff confirms the account.

Yet, on the other side of the ledger, Kerry refused to endorse Kennedy's call this week for a second congressional vote. And, in his speech last week, he told a questioner who suggested that force would never be justified against Iraq: "If you don't believe in the U.N.

Even his advisors acknowledge Kerry is walking a fine line, both politically and in terms of sorting through his own convictions. Kerry's supporters believe the complexity of his views is justified by the complexity of the challenge posed by Iraq and the danger that a U.S. invasion without broad support might undermine the war against terrorism.

But his critics argue that Kerry has produced a view so nuanced that it fails the preeminent test of presidential leadership: providing clear direction for the country.

"Because he's a decorated veteran, people give him a little more running room," said an aide to another contender. "But there are few other people who could equivocate and shift around this way without getting called on it."

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