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Explaining away Iraq choices _ or not

President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry have opposite problems when it comes to explaining the crucial decisions they have made about Iraq and national security. The president is reticent to the point of stonewalling, while the senator, who has put a strong claim on the Democratic nomination by winning Iowa and New Hampshire, almost drowns his judgments in a torrent of words.

Neither approach serves the country well _ with the most troubling questions centering on the president.

On Tuesday, in his first meeting with reporters since former weapons inspector David Kay declared that Saddam Hussein almost certainly did not have weapons of mass destruction on the eve of the Iraq war, Bush was asked three times whether he had reservations about the rationale he had offered for war and the intelligence on which he relied.

He never answered directly. Rather than deal with the weapons question, he fell back on the repeated phrase that Iraq was "a grave and gathering danger." Twice he said, "There is no doubt in my mind. . . . I believed it then and I know it is true now."

By shifting the argument, Bush fuzzes the basic issue in assessing his policy. Many shared his fear of the Iraqi dictator, and many others believed Saddam had these weapons. But Bush alone decided the threat was so grave that it justified a preventive war _ one that already has cost more than 500 American lives and billions of dollars, with more to come.

That he now evades the issue and gives scant evidence of a searching reappraisal of his administration's decisionmaking is profoundly disturbing. It is, and ought to be, an issue in this election.

Kerry is prepared to make it an issue. The senator is considered by colleagues of both parties to be a serious student of foreign policy. But challenger Howard Dean has raised a legitimate question, asking why Kerry voted against the 1991 resolution authorizing the use of force to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait but supported the 2002 resolution that provided the authority Bush used to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

In an interview with the Washington Post last Sunday, Kerry argued that his record was "entirely consistent." He said that he had made it clear in 1991 that "I believed we should kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait" and only wanted to signal with his "no" vote that the first President Bush should delay such action until there was greater domestic support for such a move. And he said that when he voted "yes" on the current President Bush's ultimatum to Iraq, he did not expect _ or intend _ that it be used the way it was. "The vote I cast was not a vote to go to war," he said. "It was a vote based on promises to go to the United Nations, resume inspections, build a coalition and go to war as a last resort."

When I suggested to the senator that it might be difficult to explain to voters that "your "No' did not mean no, and your "Yes' did not mean yes," he bristled and said, "I completely disagree with that assessment." He urged the four Post reporters to reread the speeches he gave in the Senate before those two votes _ which I now have done.

Both speeches are long and discursive. But nowhere in the 1991 speech did Kerry talk about kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait or "drawing a line in the sand," another phrase he used in our interview. That speech denounced the "rush to war," chiefly because Kerry recoiled from the prospect that, like Vietnam, war in the desert could mean "another generation of amputees, paraplegics, burn victims" and psychologically wounded. He questioned whether the country had the stomach for that; clearly he did not, nor did he foresee the quick victory with few casualties that ensued.

The 2002 speech is much truer to Kerry's current recollection of it. Like Bush, he supported the "use of force, if necessary, to disarm Saddam Hussein because I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a threat, and a grave threat, to our security." But its key paragraph said that "in giving the president this authority, I expect him to fulfill the commitments he has made to the American people in recent days _ to work with the United Nations Security Council to adopt a new resolution setting out tough and immediate inspection requirements, and to act with allies at our side if we have to disarm Saddam Hussein by force. If he fails to do so, I will be among the first to speak out" _ as he is doing.

Kerry too has explaining to do _ but his grappling with the problem is preferable to Bush's stonewalling.

David Broder is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group