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What the Democrats lack on Iraq

To appreciate the Democrats' evolving case against the war in Iraq, there is no better place to look than Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's impassioned denunciation. The senator's case, laid out in a recent speech and an article in the Washington Post, is comprehensive and angry. It says the war may prove to be "one of the worst blunders in more than two centuries of American foreign policy."

And, in what it does not contain, it points to a gap in the Democratic message that whoever emerges as presidential nominee eventually will have to fill.

Kennedy's most inflammatory accusations have to do with alleged political motivations for the war or its timing. "Soon Karl Rove joined the public debate, and war with Iraq became all but certain," the senator says. And: "There was no imminent threat, no immediate national security imperative and no compelling reason to go to war. . . . But the election timetable was clearly driving the marketing of the product." If Karl Rove _ that is, politics _ drove Iraq policy, then President Bush would merit not only defeat, but impeachment. But much of the rest of Kennedy's indictment undercuts the idea of a politically motivated war. For, in his effort to show that the attacks of Sept. 11 were an excuse for war, the senator argues that much of the Bush administration had believed for years that Saddam Hussein had to go.

In 1998, as Kennedy says, many of the people who were to become the backbone of the Bush administration signed a letter urging action against the regime. And from the moment he took office, Kennedy maintains, Bush was decided on his goal: "The agenda was clear: find a rationale to end Saddam's regime." In fact, the record is not so unambiguous; there was debate within the administration, and at first a policy of "smart sanctions" won out. But if Kennedy was right in his portrayal of the war as ideologically based and going back years, it would be hard to fit that into a portrayal of policy being driven by tactical political needs.

In either case, the policy could be wrong, and Kennedy lays out several reasons why he thinks it has been harmful: It has distracted the United States from the fight against al-Qaida. It has overstretched and stressed the Army. It has cost too many lives and too many billions of dollars. It has frayed alliances. The administration's false prewar claims about Saddam's weapons and ties to al-Qaida have damaged U.S. credibility.

These assessments, most of which are shared to one degree or another by the leading Democratic presidential candidates, will and should be debated during the campaign. But there is one other brief sentence in Kennedy's indictment that deserves attention. "Regime change in Iraq did become the policy of the Clinton administration," he notes, "but not by war." Yes, regime change was the policy of President Bill Clinton, and of most Democrats in Congress at that time; it was not just the obsession of right-wing ideologues. If Saddam Hussein was not constrained, Clinton said in 1998, "he will then conclude that he can go right on and do more to rebuild an arsenal of devastating destruction. And some day, some way, I guarantee you he'll use the arsenal." It's true that Clinton's policy was "not by war," though with its no-fly zones and regular bombardments the United States was in a state of semiwar with Iraq throughout his presidency. It's also true that Clinton didn't know how to implement his stated policy of regime change _ that Bush inherited a failing strategy.

Everything we have learned since Hussein's downfall confirms that sanctions, even more than was known, impoverished most Iraqis and isolated civil society while doing little to inhibit the regime's gangsterism.

Some candidates now suggest they would have removed Hussein, but in a better way: operating through the United Nations or a Mideast coalition. That would be ideal but quite possibly not achievable. As Clinton learned when he decided to rescue Kosovo, U.N. permission cannot always be secured even for the most righteous mission.

The purpose of recalling the earlier bipartisan consensus on the threat posed by Hussein is not to score some debating point. Whoever becomes president in this era may face a similar threat. The arguments against going to war in such a case _ in any case _ are powerful. But to be for regime change and against war can be only the beginning of the conversation. What Kennedy has laid out for the Democrats is a powerful critique; it is not yet a policy.

Fred Hiatt is the Washington Post editorial page editor.

The Washington Post