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Cheney's military hits and misses

In his convnetion speech Wednesday night, Dick Cheney made the case for why John Kerry was a 20-year Senate veteran with a record of voting against vital weapons systems and against military action even when the case for such action seemed strong, if not irrefutable
Vice President Cheney addresses Republican National Convention
Cheney noted that Kerry voted against the 1991 Gulf War.Brian Snyder / REUTERS
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“Are we winning the war against al-Qaida?”

If the Republican National Convention were a coroner’s inquest or a criminal trial, instead of a made-for-television spectacle, then Dick Cheney might well be called as an expert witness to answer that question.

After all, as a former secretary of defense, Cheney knows in intimate detail the nuts and bolts of Hellfire missiles, asymmetric warfare, and the plutonium used in nuclear weapons.

But in his speech Wednesday night at the Republican convention, Cheney did not  — and perhaps could not -- assure the American people that their sons and daughters, husbands and wives on duty in the armed forces and intelligence agencies are winning the war.

Cheney also did not delve into geo-strategic questions such as where the next front in this war might be: Pakistan? Iran?

Cheney indulged in some arguably unnecessary biographical filigree: Does it make the voters more confident in Cheney’s leadership to know that his grandfather “for many years ... worked as a cook on the Union Pacific Railroad”?

Probably not.

What might rally support is proof that war is closer to victory. And Cheney did offer some encouraging evidence:

  • “We have captured or killed hundreds of al-Qaida.”
  • “In Afghanistan, the camps where terrorists trained to kill Americans have been shut down, and the Taliban driven from power.”
  • “The government of Libya agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program and turn the materials over to the United States.”

But the most remarkable aspect of the speech was that Cheney only took three sentences before he mentioned John Kerry, saying, “I will talk about this good man (President Bush) and his fine record leading our country. And I may say a word or two about his opponent.”

Cheney noted that Kerry was a 20-year Senate veteran with a record of voting against  weapons systems and against military action even when the case for such action seemed strong, if not irrefutable.

On Jan. 12, 1991, for instance, Kerry voted against the congressional resolution authorizing the first President Bush to use military force against Saddam Hussein’s armies after the Iraqi dictator ordered an invasion of Kuwait.

The Senate vote was 52-47, with Kerry on the losing side.

There was no question then as to whether Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction; it was brazen aggression.

Will Chirac approve?
With his usual laconic understatement, Cheney also made a telling point about Kerry’s penchant for saying that Bush has alienated America’s erstwhile allies.

“Sen. Kerry denounces American action when other countries don’t approve — as if the whole object of our foreign policy were to please a few persistent critics,” Cheney said.

He raised a legitimate question: Would French President Jacques Chirac, for example, ever approve of an assertive American foreign policy? And is it a fool’s errand to try to please such a finicky ally?

While Chirac might be one of those foreign leaders who’d prefer to see Kerry in the White House, Chirac can’t vote in any battleground state, not even by absentee ballot.

Cheney made a far less conclusive case for Bush as a superior war-time commander. Some critics of Bush, including some impeccably pro-military members of Congress such as Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., and some retired high-ranking military officers, have complained for months that there weren’t enough troops to do the job in Iraq and that, especially in the early stages of the post-war, there wasn’t enough body armor and weren't enough Bradley armored fighting vehicles to protect the soldiers.

If even hawks say that there were missteps, why didn’t the battled-hardened Cheney intervene to prevent some of them? That question went unanswered on Wednesday night.

Southern-fried ridicule
While Cheney’s rhetoric was hard-hitting, his low-voltage manner muted the message. He paled in comparison to the vivid, Southern-fried ridicule of Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., who preceded Cheney on the platform. Miller clearly was the star of the night, with his sardonic attack on Kerry’s votes against weapons such as the B-1 bomber.

“This is the man who wants to be the Commander in Chief of our U.S. Armed Forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spitballs?”

This is a potentially dangerous juncture for Kerry.

Only three months ago  — before Vietnam War service preoccupied Democrats — the Democrats’ message machine was synchronized and in high gear with Kerry’s surrogates attacking what they called Bush’s “incompetence” and “mismanagement” of the effort in Iraq.

That theme has been lost in the Vietnam hero-Swift Boat cacophony of the past month.

And that lost message seems to have cost Kerry: In a new Washington Post poll this week, Bush has gained ground on the terrorism issue. Fifty-six percent of voters said they trust Bush to better handle terrorism; only 38 percent trust Kerry. Back in early August the poll found the two rivals virtually tied on this issue.