On Monday John Kerry came to New York University and did something amazing. He uttered a series of clear, declarative sentences on the subject of Iraq. Many of these sentences directly contradict his past statements on Iraq, but at least you could figure out what he was trying to say.
First, Kerry argued that Iraq was never a serious threat to the United States, that the war was never justified and that Bush's focus on Iraq was a "profound diversion" from the real enemy, Osama bin Laden.
Second, Kerry argued that we are losing the war in Iraq. Casualties are mounting, the insurgency is spreading, and daily life is more miserable.
Third, Kerry argued that in times like this, brave leaders should tell the truth to the American people. Kerry reminded his audience that during Vietnam, he returned home "to offer my own personal voice of dissent," and he's decided to do the same thing now. The parallel is clear: Iraq is the new Vietnam.
Finally, Kerry declared that it is time to get out, beginning next summer. But the message is that if Kerry is elected, the entire momentum of U.S. policy will be toward getting U.S. troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible and shifting responsibility for Iraq onto other countries.
The crucial passage in the speech was this one: "The principles that should guide American policy in Iraq now and in the future are clear: We must make Iraq the world's responsibility, because the world has a stake in the outcome and others should share the burden." From a U.S. responsibility, Iraq will become the world's responsibility.
Kerry said the United Nations must play a central role in supervising elections. He said other nations should come in to protect U.N. officials. He called for an international summit meeting this week in New York, where other nations could commit troops and money to Iraq. He said NATO should open training centers for new Iraqi soldiers.
He talked about what other nations could do to help address the situation in Iraq. He did not say what the United States should do to defeat the insurgents and stabilize and rebuild Iraq, beyond what Bush is already doing. He did not say the United States could fight the insurgents more effectively. He did not have any ideas on how to tame Fallujah or handle Muqtada al-Sadr. He did not offer any strategy for victory.
But he did, more than at any time in the past year, stake out a clear contrast with Bush.
The president's case is that the world is safer with Saddam out of power, and that we should stay as long as it takes to help Iraqis move to democracy. Kerry's case is that the world would be safer if we'd left Saddam; his emphasis is on untangling the United States from Iraq and shifting attention to more serious threats.
Rhetorically, this was his best foreign policy speech by far (it helps to pick a side). Politically, it was risky. Kerry's new liberal tilt makes him more forceful on the stump, but opens huge vulnerabilities. Does he really want to imply that 1,000 troops died for nothing?
By picking the withdrawal camp, he has assigned himself a clear task. Right now 54 percent of likely voters believe the United States should stay as long as it takes to rebuild Iraq, while 39 percent believe that we should leave as soon as possible. Between now and Nov. 2, Kerry must flip those numbers.
Substantively, of course, Kerry's speech is completely irresponsible. In the first place, there is a 99 percent chance that other nations will not contribute enough troops to decrease the U.S. burden in Iraq substantially. In that case, John Kerry has no Iraq policy. The promise to bring some troops home by summer will be exposed as a Disneyesque fantasy.
More to the point, Kerry is trying to use multilateralism as a gloss for retreat. If "the world" is going to be responsible for defeating al-Sadr and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then no one will be responsible for defeating them. The consequences for the people of Iraq and the region will be horrific.
Finally, if the whole war is a mistake, shouldn't we stop fighting tomorrow? What do you say to the last man to die for a "profound diversion"?
But that is what the next few weeks are going to be about. This country has long needed to have a straight up or down debate on the war. Now that Kerry has positioned himself as the antiwar candidate, it can.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist. His e-mail address is dabrooksnytimes.com.
New York Times News Service