John Kerry has done well so far because he's not Howard Dean: He doesn't have steam coming out of his ears every time he opens his mouth, and he does have national security experience. But now that he's the front-runner, he will be subjected to the same kind of withering scrutiny that caused Dr. Dean to turn into Mr. Hyde.
Kerry's military record is one of his strongest selling points for Democrats hungry for a credible candidate. Kerry, as he himself never tires of pointing out, is a decorated veteran. But so were Bob Dole and John McCain. Heroism in wartime doesn't necessarily earn you the Oval Office.
From the standpoint of presidential qualifications, the 18 years that Kerry spent on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is more relevant. He's been a leader in fighting international crime and re-establishing relations with Vietnam. Although he voted against the Persian Gulf War in 1991, he's cultivated a reputation as a moderate on national security _ an image buttressed by his selection of Rand Beers as his campaign coordinator for these issues.
Beers is a career civil servant who worked on counterterrorism for presidents of both parties. He resigned from the National Security Council last year because he thought Iraq would take resources away from other parts of the war on terrorism. I disagree, but it's a reasonable critique, and Beers is known as a solid professional.
So what kind of foreign policy have Kerry and Beers crafted? Kerry gave his biggest foreign policy address to date at the Council on Foreign Relations on Dec. 3. He made some excellent points about the need to improve homeland security, combat money laundering, do more in Afghanistan and hold the Saudis accountable for their support of terrorism. And he was right on the money in criticizing the current administration for not sending its senior officials overseas to sell Washington's case.
But a lot of Kerry's speech was pure partisan windbaggery. "The Bush administration," he claimed, "has pursued the most arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in modern history." Really? More inept than Jimmy Carter's, Lyndon Johnson's or Woodrow Wilson's? Kerry also rapped Bush for failing to achieve peace between Israel and its neighbors. He pledged to appoint as "presidential ambassador to the peace process" someone like Bill Clinton. Why Clinton would have more success brokering a settlement as an ex-president than when he was president remains a mystery.
Those minor problems paled, however, next to Kerry's positions on Iraq. To his credit, he was one of the Democrats who voted Oct. 11, 2002, for the resolution giving President Bush the authority "to use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate" in Iraq. This has caused Kerry a lot of grief among Deaniac Democrats, and he's twisted himself into a pretzel to explain away this vote.
He claims that "I voted for the resolution to get the inspectors in there, period," and that he had no idea that Bush would use the authority granted to him to actually go to war. If you believe this, Kerry is too naive to be president. A likelier explanation is that he's trying to be prowar and antiwar at the same time.
That impression was reinforced in his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. He said that "we had to hold Saddam Hussein accountable," but only if we had united "the international community." He was asked: "Do you think you really could have brought the Germans, the French along in a commitment to use force?" Kerry brazenly answered "yes" but offered no credible explanation of how, beyond saying that he would have shown a lot of "patience and maturity." As if Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair hadn't spent six months dickering at the United Nations. Does Kerry also think that he could have gotten U.N. approval for military action in Kosovo _ something that Clinton failed to achieve in 1999?
Then Kerry had the nerve to criticize the Bush administration for a "cut and run strategy" in Iraq. That's pretty rich coming from someone who voted against the $87-billion aid package that's essential to our nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kerry's inconsistency is stunning: He (like Sen. John Edwards) supported the war _ kind of _ but then refused to give our troops the resources necessary to finish the job.
Kerry's waffling reminds me of someone. Asked about the Gulf War resolution in 1991, this candidate said: "I guess I would have voted with the majority if it was a close vote. But I agree with the arguments the minority made." Taking both sides on Iraq worked for Bill Clinton. Now it seems to be working for Kerry.
+ Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. +
Special to the Los Angeles Times