"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
That was the crucial question Vietnam combat veteran John Kerry put to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee 33 years ago, and it is the question that should be at the center of his presidential campaign.
Today, however, Kerry seems unable to admit that the war he voted to authorize in Iraq has been such a disaster, arguing only that we must "stay the course." Why, when that was the tragic advice from the best and brightest in the Lyndon Johnson administration?
In proposing a long-overdue appeal to the United Nations and NATO to make them real partners in the rebirth of Iraq and take -- in his words -- the "Made in America" label off what has become a very unpopular occupation, Kerry gets some things right that the president has gotten so wrong. Unfortunately, however, the Democrats' heir apparent is still taking far too much solace in the conventional wisdom, which brought us the sorrows of the Vietnam War.
"Americans differ about whether and how we should have gone to war," Kerry said in a national radio address April 17. "But it would be unthinkable now for us to retreat in disarray and leave behind a society deep in strife and dominated by radicals. All Americans are united in backing our troops and meeting our commitment to help the people of Iraq build a country that is stable, peaceful, tolerant and free."
Wasn't that our stated goal in Vietnam? The repetition of history here is tragic. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who wrote a searing acknowledgment of the folly of the Vietnam War in his own autobiography, deceived the U.N. last year in support of another ill-fated military adventure in the so-called developing world. We now see a similarly intelligent war veteran, Kerry, seeking to send more troops to a country that he must know, from his own war experience, will not stay pacified.
In the birthplace of civilization, we have again run aground on the rocky shoals of nationalism, this time augmented by a religious fervor that increases the danger. As with Vietnam, escalation is not the answer. But an orderly and timely withdrawal is -- under U.N. supervision and with the firm goal of leaving Iraq to the Iraqis.
Beyond postulating "tactical" solutions in Iraq, like sending our troops more body armor, Kerry needs to take a huge step and acknowledge that his own support of this war was a terrible mistake.
Sure, he was lied to repeatedly by a president who told us a year ago under a "Mission Accomplished" banner that "we have defeated an ally of Al Qaeda," when he knew we had done no such thing. But Kerry had all the resources to know what many inside and outside the United States' own family of intelligence agencies were saying long before last year's invasion: Iraq no longer had a nuclear weapons program, had no ties to 9/11 and would be a nightmare to occupy.
Although Kerry claims "all Americans" would agree it is "unthinkable" to leave Iraq any time soon, he fails to acknowledge that having more than 100,000 of American troops hunkered down in the Middle East is not a force for stability in the region but rather a lightning rod for violence and chaos.
He is even urging the government to send more U.S. troops to Iraq and keep them there until that country, which has little or no history of democracy, is "stable, peaceful, tolerant and free."
Such rhetoric may sound good on the stump, but it utterly fails to acknowledge that we have no clue as to how long that would take or how many Americans and Iraqis would die in the experiment. In the Vietnam War, millions died before our hubris was exhausted.
In the end, if Kerry is not to become the next Al Gore -- triangulating safe positions just this side of a Republican who is probably the most irresponsible American politician in a century -- he must challenge President Bush's entire vision, not just his tactics. What Bush is doing in the name of fighting terrorism has nothing to do with making us safer and everything to do with dressing up the grim goals of empire as a grand (and all-too-familiar) experiment in bringing enlightenment to so-called backward people at gunpoint.
To have a real choice in this election, we need to hear the voice of that young Navy hero who once warned us that murderous meddling in other countries' affairs will never win the hearts and minds of the people.
If Kerry fails to truly confront Bush and is elected, he may find himself answering his own awful question: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Robert Scheer writes a weekly column for The Times and is coauthor of "The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq" (Seven Stories Press/Akashic Books, 2003).