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The only remarkable thing about John F. Kerry's speech...

September 22, 2004

The only remarkable thing about John F. Kerry's speech attacking the Iraq war on Monday is that it took him so long to make it. The "historic" mistakes that Kerry accused President Bush of making in Iraq have been glaringly obvious for months. But even if Kerry's fiery denunciation is tardy, it ensures that Iraq will, as it should, be the battleground on which the campaign is fought.

Kerry's relentless assembling of the administration's failures carried conviction and punch. He eloquently described the misery of daily life in Iraq, which has turned American soldiers into objects of loathing. The message that Kerry is belatedly trying to convey is that the bungling will only be perpetuated and intensified if Bush is reelected.

Whether the solutions that Kerry proposed would really allow U.S. soldiers to depart Iraq within four years is another matter. Kerry was on solid ground in demanding more training of Iraqi security forces, but he dodged the question of rooting out the insurgents whose control over key cities in the Sunni heartland makes the idea of a January election a farce. His call for persuading more world leaders to provide money and troops is a wonderful thought, though it's unlikely that countries like Germany and France would go along with it.

But these are forgivable sins compared with Bush's. It's not the job of a challenger to spell out exactly how he would remedy a foreign policy fiasco. If Kerry can make his indictment stick, he might force Bush to disclose his plan, if any, for creating a modicum of order in Iraq. He might even force Bush to acknowledge reality rather than continuing to paint a Potemkin village-like picture of a flourishing Iraq.

So far, Bush's strategy has been to ignore the message and condemn the messenger. He immediately sought to deflect Kerry's criticism by dubbing him a serial flip-flopper. Kerry has provided plenty of ammunition; just last month he said he still would have voted to give the president the authority to invade Iraq even if he had known that the country had no weapons of mass destruction. His positions on the war have until now been vague, even contradictory; if his current stance is a flip-flop, then it's a welcome one.

After so many months of dithering, Kerry's new stand brings to mind Dr. Samuel Johnson's quip about a dog walking on its hind legs: "It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." Kerry's stand poses enormous risks for his political prospects because it opens him up to the charge of once again preaching defeatism, as in the Vietnam War. But Kerry may simply be discovering that it's better to challenge than coddle your opponent when you're running for the presidency.

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