Jewish World Review May 13, 2004 / 22 Iyar, 5764
A flashback for Kerry: Dump-Rumsfeld push brings Vietnam-era tactics to Iraq war
You can learn a lot about a man by the way he deals with temptation. And, right now, John F. Kerry is mightily tempted. You see it on his Web site, where he's running a petition that reads: I support John Kerry's Stand: Donald Rumsfeld Must Resign.
The demand for the defense secretary's head is based on the Abu Ghraib affair. Kerry puts the blame for the prison atrocities squarely on Rumsfeld and his boss, President Bush. All week, Kerry has made a mantra of Harry S Truman's tiresome aphorism about the buck stopping at the President's desk.
This kind of rhetoric is wildly popular with the MoveOn wing of the Democratic Party (Kerry's campaign reports more than 320,000 signatures and growing). It also must be comfortable for the candidate himself, a return to his glory days as a government critic and anti-Vietnam protest leader.
Unfortunately for Kerry, it is no longer 1971. A different America is fighting a different war. Even people with great doubts about Iraq understand that the U.S. is up against real enemies in the Islamic Middle East. This is wartime, and most people don't want to see it turned into a partisan argument.
Which is what the Kerry campaign is flirting with right now. Especially in its use of Abu Ghraib.
Common sense tells most people (at least in America) that neither Rumsfeld nor President Bush can reasonably be blamed for the atrocities at the prison. There are unit-level atrocities carried out in every war (Kerry testified in 1971 to committing some himself, although he now says his confession was "over the top"). Blame for them belongs to the soldiers who perpetrate them and the officers who order them - unless they are part of a larger national policy.
That is essentially what Kerry argued in 1971 - that the real war criminals were President Richard Nixon, his cabinet officers and the nation's military leaders. And that is where his depose-Rumsfeld campaign takes him. After all, to replace a secretary of defense in wartime, something awful must be taking place, with catastrophic results.
But what is the catastrophe in Kerry's view? Fighting Arab terrorism? Certainly not. Invading Iraq? He voted for it. No, he has to make the case that Iraq is a good war gone disastrously bad.
But, once again, what is the disaster? Less than a thousand American troops have been killed - a regrettable number but tiny for a war. Saddam has been captured. Iraq is a mess, but it is on the way to being handed over in some fashion by the end of June.
To make the case, Kerry needs a different catastrophe, and he has seized on Abu Ghraib. The photos from there supposedly will inflame the Arab street and alienate its governments for generations.
I think the Arab world may be a little less shocked than Kerry makes out, and rather more cynical. Arab leaders and the Arab media establishment regard the U.S. as an enemy. Naturally, they are quick to use whatever propaganda tools come to hand - including pictures from Abu Ghraib, which they offer as a portrait of the American war.
MoveOn pretty much agrees with that portrayal. But most Americans don't. They see it as an effort to slander - and disarm - the U.S.
Kerry has no intention of doing that. Still, it is a temptation to channel Vietnam, winning left-wing cheers for what otherwise has been a notably cheerless campaign. But Kerry can't afford to forget the greatest political lesson of Vietnam: In 1972, Richard Nixon won 49 states.
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JWR contributor Zev Chafets is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.
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