The Iraq war and the Vietnam War dominated John Kerry’s hourlong appearance on "Meet the Press" Sunday. Host Tim Russert confronted Kerry with his vote for the Iraq war resolution in 2002, a war that Kerry now says has gone badly wrong, and his 1971 statement on the same program that “I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed” in the Vietnam War.
After playing a tape of the April 1971 appearance in which Kerry said, “I took part in search and destroy missions, in the burning of villages — all of this is contrary to laws of warfare, all of this is contrary to the Geneva Conventions,” Russert asked the presumptive Democratic nominee, “You committed atrocities?”
Kerry’s service in Vietnam is one of the major reason he now is a virtual lock for the Democratic nomination.
Kerry has cited his service in nearly every speech since he launched his candidacy. His TV ads and his supporters portray his willingness to serve in harm’s way as heroic. Even as recently as Saturday, Kerry mocked Vice President Dick Cheney and White House political strategist Karl Rove, saying they "went out of their way to avoid" service during the Vietnam War.
But Russert’s replay of Kerry’s statements from April of 1971, when he was a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, cast Kerry’s Vietnam experience in a starkly different light.
Kerry voices regrets
After seeing his youthful image on the screen when Russert played a tape of his 1971 appearance, Kerry joked uneasily “I wonder where all that black hair went.” But he then turned serious and voiced regret to Russert that he’d used the word “atrocities” in describing what American soldiers did in Vietnam.
“I think the word is a bad word, I think it’s an inappropriate word,” he said. “If you want to ask me have you ever made mistakes in your life? Sure. Some of the language I used (in 1971) was a language that reflected an anger. … It was little bit excessive. ... I wish I had found a way to say it in a less abrasive way.”
If the focus of the campaign shifts from the virtues of Kerry’s service in the Navy to his 1971 anti-war rhetoric, it may undercut what has been one of the strengths of his candidacy.
On Vietnam, Kerry has tried to blend two roles, that of a war hero and of an anti-war critic. So too in Iraq, he is trying to combine two roles: that of a senator who voted to give President Bush the authority to go to war and that of a scathing critic of how Bush has conducted the war.
On Sunday, Kerry reiterated a policy shift that he appears to have made last December, from opposition to sending more American troops to Iraq to support of the idea.
More American troops for Iraq
Last Sept. 4, in a debate in Albuquerque, N.M., Kerry said, “We should not send more American troops. That would be the worst thing. We do not want to have more Americanization. We do not want a greater sense of American occupation.”
But three months later, in December, Kerry foreign policy advisor Rand Beers told reporters Kerry “would not rule out the possibility” of sending additional U.S. troops to Iraq. Kerry himself reiterated that point in his interview with Russert.
“We cannot fail,” he said. “I've said that many times. And if it requires more troops in order to create the stability that eliminates the chaos, that can provide the groundwork for other countries, that's what you have to do.”
But Kerry voiced confidence that he will be able to do what Bush has not been able to do: persuade more nations — other than Britain, Poland, Japan, and the others who currently have troops in Iraq — to send soldiers.
“It may well be that we need a new president, a breath of fresh air, to re-establish credibility with the rest of the world so that we can have a believable administration as to how we proceed,” he said.
Foreign leaders confide
And he repeated his statement that some foreign leaders have confided to him that they would prefer to deal with him as president in 2005 than with Bush.
And, significantly, Kerry diverged from Bush administration policy by declaring that stability — not a pure form of democracy — is what the United States should try to build in the short run in Iraq.
For Kerry, the choices today on Iraq are not as clear as they were in 1971 on Vietnam.
Then, he and many other Democrats called for withdrawal of U.S. troops. To them the war appeared to be a quagmire and seemed to be unwinnable. On Sunday, Kerry said “we cannot fail” in Iraq and case himself as the only candidate who can enlist foreign help to make sure the United States does not fail.
But he acknowledged a Vietnam-type scenario too. “If we are stuck for a long period of time in a quagmire where young Americans are dying without a sense of that being able to be achieved, I think most Americans will decide that's failure.”
Kerry did not address the question of what he'd do if he is president next year and if Iraq has become that quagmire.