John Kerry is trying to inoculate John Edwards against the charge that he's a greenhorn when it comes to foreign affairs. Edwards, he said on CBS' "60 Minutes," "is eight years older than Jack Kennedy was when he became president." Edwards, he added, is "more qualified" to become president than George W. Bush was four years ago.
He's right. Edwards, 51, is getting a bum rap. His involvement in foreign policy vastly outstrips candidate Bush's in 2000.
The real problem is not lack of experience; it's that the experience he does have is marked by intellectual slovenliness and opportunism.
Edwards, elected to the Senate five years ago, has been on the Senate Intelligence Committee since 2001. But what has he made of it? When PBS' Margaret Warner asked Edwards on May 16, 2002, whether the committee had been briefed before Sept. 11 on possible hijackings and on Osama bin Laden's role, Edwards responded: "We're just responsible for sort of broad oversight." Warner pressed harder: "So you don't really remember?" Kerry replied: "I don't remember the specifics of what we were told about this."
That may sound banal but, in fact, it's astonishing. Not only was Edwards unaware, half a year after the worst terrorist attack in our nation's history, what he'd been told on the subject, but he apparently didn't even believe it was his job to look into it.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 15, 2004 Home Edition California Part B Page 13 Editorial Pages Desk 2 inches; 76 words Type of Material: Correction
Article on Edwards -- In an Op-Ed article Wednesday on John Edwards, it was Edwards, not John Kerry, who in responding to a journalist's question on Osama bin Laden's possible role in the 9/11 attacks said: "I don't remember the specifics of what we were told about this." Also, the date of a different Edwards quote, about Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction, was incorrect. The date was Sept. 12, 2002, not Sept. 12, 2003.
Like most of his colleagues on the committee, Edwards acquiesced easily to the administration's bogus claims about Iraqi weapons. Indeed, as the preparation for war was underway, Edwards almost outdid the administration in his fervor for toppling Saddam Hussein.
On Sept. 12, 2003, for instance, he described Iraq as an issue of "national security." "We know that for at least 20 years Saddam Hussein has obsessively sought weapons of mass destruction through every means available.... Each day he inches closer to his longtime goal of nuclear capability -- a capability that could be less than a year away." The next month, Edwards added that "Saddam Hussein's regime represents a grave threat to America and our allies, including our vital ally, Israel."
Firm in these beliefs, Edwards agreed to cosponsor the resolution giving Bush a blank check for war. (Which, incidentally, Kerry also backed.)
Should Edwards have known better? Of course he should have. Even as Edwards was signing on to Bush's plan to declare preemptive war in Iraq, there was one member of the Intelligence Committee -- Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), then the chairman -- who declared the CIA estimates unreliable.
It didn't take a rocket scientist to know that something was wrong with the intelligence being spoon-fed to the committee. In the fall of 2002, Graham, who ended up voting against the war, decried the administration for failing to declassify reports that reached more equivocal judgments about Iraq's efforts to create weapons of mass destruction. In June 2003, while Kerry and Edwards treated Bush with kid gloves, Graham bluntly stated that the administration was manipulating intelligence: "Those parts that the president liked became placed in the president's speeches," he said, "and those that they didn't like got put in the trash can."
Edwards is now trying to make up for lost time. He quibbles about the way the administration conducted the war and how it failed to prepare for the aftermath. Last year, Edwards even voted against the $87-billion supplemental aid bill for rebuilding Iraq. But where was he before it became politically opportune to oppose the war?
If Edwards' past positions offer scant room for confidence, his current proposal for reforming the intelligence community is also meretricious. Like some of his Democratic colleagues, Edwards has been touting a sweeping overhaul of the intelligence apparatus. In particular, Edwards has been championing the creation of an MI5-type domestic spying organization. But Bush, who has seen what happened with the ineffective Homeland Security Department, is rightly resisting creating yet another layer of intelligence bureaucracy that would do nothing to remedy the ills afflicting the CIA and FBI.
Whether by joining the Democratic stampede to vote for the Iraq war (after embracing half-truths and bogus arguments) or by championing dubious proposals to reform intelligence, Edwards has shown little evidence that he can rise above the herd mentality of most of his colleagues. The trouble isn't that he's worse or more inexperienced than the rest of them. It's that he isn't any better.