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In the fall of 2002, John Kerry faced a critical Senate vote on whether to grant the president the authority to use force in Iraq. Kerry was skeptical of the Bush administration's push to war and his speeches were full of caution and warnings about the risks of going it alone in Iraq and the risks of inflaming the entire region. But, in the end, John Kerry voted for the war resolution. In excerpts from their FRONTLINE interviews, former aide Jonathan Winer, New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch, author and historian Douglas Brinkley, and Senator Joseph Biden comment on Kerry's Iraq vote.

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Jonathan winer
Former counsel to Senator Kerry.

…The vote for the resolution to go to war in Iraq -- did you ever discuss this with him?

A few times. … It was a very hard vote, because he could see the arguments, both directions, as to whether you vote yes or no on the resolution.

He would have preferred, like a lot of other people, the resolution that Joe Biden and Richard Lugar had come up with, which would have slowed the rush to war while putting the authority behind the president to get U.N. inspectors back in, to make sure Saddam Hussein couldn't use WMD. That was the point of the resolution.

The Bush administration wanted something more than that. They wanted something without any strings attached, so they could just go to war. John was [not] comfortable with it. Democrats were not comfortable with that, because they didn't want Bush just going to war unilaterally. They felt that was risky. John definitely was unhappy with that, and expressed it.

He'd been boxed. The Bush administration had chosen to box him and all the other Senate Democrats. "You either vote with us, in which case, you're responsible for it, too -- and we're going to do whatever the heck we please -- or you vote against us, and allow Saddam Hussein to be not held accountable. The president's position will be weakened, the United States' authority will be weaker in dealing with the rest of the world, and you not having stood up for American strength." …

The vote was designed to be an impossible vote for someone like John Kerry. That's why the Bush administration insisted on making the vote that way. It's a vote either to support the president, or undermine the president as the president's trying to deal with weapons of mass destruction that may be in the hands of an evil dictator.

John Kerry was not going to vote to undermine the president when the president was being directed to go the U.N. Remember, President Bush didn't even want to go to the U.N. There was a question of even going back to the U.N. to get inspectors back in. So it was a way of pushing it in the right direction, and hoping that the Bush administration would then do the right thing.

You're not given the choice of being 100 percent on these issues. You're not given the choice of doing exactly the way you would want to do it, when you're a senator. … As a senator, you're often forced to vote between two very difficult propositions, neither of which may be attractive. This vote was designed to be as unattractive, ugly, unpleasant, difficult, horrible, and damaging as possible by the Bush administration for Democrats, and in particular, any Democrat running for president. That was the point. That was the intention. It was designed to be a wedge vote, separating a John Kerry, for instance, from his natural constituents. …

related links
see a chronology of kerry's life

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philip gourevitch
New Yorker staff writer who has covered John Kerry in the 2004 campaign.

Get us inside his head, if you can at all, as to how he approaches that 2002 vote.

I think John Kerry approaching the 2002 vote, the inner workings of his mind must have been a very complicated spectacle. This is a man who was clearly intending to run for president. He knew that this vote would be a decisive factor in that. Does that mean that all he made were political calculations? No.

He had to figure out a position that he believed in enough, and could live with enough, that was the right thing. But of course it figures--both men we are choosing between this year are professional politicians whose every move is politically calculated as well as adjusted to their belief system. They become indistinguishable.

Kerry goes into that vote in 2002 looking at a really technical point. He ultimately boils it down to a technical point, which is correct, but nevertheless one that he's had a hard time explaining ever since, which is "I am not being asked to vote for war. This is not a declaration of war. I am being asked to give the President of the United States the authority to go to war if he sees fit, down the road, after a set of assurances that he's made to us and the Congress, to the American people, to the world community, that he will only use force as a last resort. I'm authorizing him to use force and the threat of force to backup very, very intense diplomacy. And I believe" --this is the Kerry argument, and it has been from the beginning, very consistent--"I believe that the President of the United States needs that force."

Now think about it. It's a very defensible argument. The president comes to you and he says, "These are extraordinary times. We have somebody here who's clearly in violation of the world's will as expressed through all these U.S. resolutions. He's an extremely slippery fellow, and he's a brilliant brinksman, this Saddam Hussein. I need to be able to put a serious gun to his temple and hold it there while I press, otherwise it's pointless even to try anything but war. So short of war, I have to look so on the brink of war that there's a chance that we could have some leverage." Kerry says the president should be able to do that. He's also of course thinking, "I want to be president. I want, when my turn comes, to have these powers."

There's a whole argument, and an important argument, that Congress made a big, big mistake, that Congress should never have just handed over, under the pressure of September 11th or anything else, its power to declare war. That's what the president essentially won at that moment. He got Congress to advance him the power to declare war . They gave him a blank check.

It's important that Kerry originally supported a Biden amendment or a Biden alternative bill which would have essentially said, "The president has to go out there, use all this force that he needs to, the threat of force. But if he really wants to use force, he's gotta come back to Congress and get our permission."

The fact was that in that political climate, that wasn't an alternative. So when that was no longer an alternative, he had to choose between "either we say yes to the president's request or we actually stand against him." And that was the decision he made.

He's had a hell of a time explaining that he didn't vote for war, he voted for the authority to use force to back diplomacy, and that was then used wrongly. That he thinks that the president should have that authority, but the president misused that authority. It's not that complicated a point. But he's managed to make it very unclear.


I think because he's uncomfortable with it. I think he's genuinely uncomfortable about whether that was the right vote for any number of reasons. I think that it's a reasonable [dis]comfort. He's torn, most people believe -- remember that the idea that Saddam Hussein didn't have WMD and that the intelligence was as bad or as doubtful as it now becomes clear in retrospect, that the President was warned about many of these things -- they didn't know that. We didn't know that. Most of us don't have any independent way of ascertaining intelligence.

So what it seems to me, is that he's substantive, but he's got a deaf ear when it comes to having to understand what the meaning of that vote is going to be.

Well, this is the problem. To understand Kerry's mind on any of these issues, you have to think about what it means to be a senator and why what it means to be a senator is very, very different from what it means to be a president.

A senator accomplishes things by negotiation, nuance, small steps and compromise. I give you a little bit, you give me a little bit. I don't get exactly what I want, but I move the ball in the direction I want it to go. To say, "I voted for something before I voted against it," one of the lines that he's got hung around his neck in a big way, is actually a totally normal Senate move, right?

Senators, when they wanna go back home and run at home, they say to their constituents, "Actually, I voted for an amendment that would have been much more to your liking. It got killed. I had to move the bill along. I voted for the other thing." Or "I voted against the other thing," however they want to cut it.

They are often casting votes to create a record that works in several different directions. This is not a Republican thing. This it not a Democratic thing. This is not a John Kerry thing. And one of the things about John Kerry that's very striking is if you look at John Kerry as a young man, ... he was a man of action and a man of reflection both. He had done his action, he had won his medals, he did not believe that he was being well-used by his government and that the lives of his colleagues were. He came back. He took a stand. He took some risks.

People say he was opportunistic. I really think that's a hard case to make. Because at that time, even at the absolute apex of the anti-war movement, which was when he was in it, when it was the most popular, when it had the biggest surge to it, it was not a good way to start a career as a Congressman. And he lost his first Congressional race because of his anti-war past.

It wasn't a great career move. It wasn't the establishment thing. It certainly looked like the courage of conviction. so what happens? Most people, as they go through life, get sharper focused. John Kerry, strangely, seems less precise. …

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douglas brinkley
Author of Tour of Duty - John Kerry and the Vietnam War

…Kerry has an objective. It's to win the presidency. He's going to do whatever he can to do it. And it's not going to be in just this straightforward way. He's going to constantly tack with the wind.

Here's a very important point. I think the guy used to be straightforward … But he lost in 1970 for being so straightforward on the anti-war movement. And he lost in '72. And why did he lose? Because everybody replayed his [speech] that he gave in front of the Fulbright Committee where he was so emotional and spoke so clearly about [Vietnam]. …

… And he never wanted to be trapped again on claiming an issue that he couldn't escape out of. ...And that's an aspect of him that some people don't like. But I would argue that it's given him the ability to go as far as he's had in 2004. I don't know what went through his mind when he made his votes on Iraq. But certainly he was positioning himself by that vote, to find ways to have it both ways in a sense.

The heart of John Kerry, I believe, was opposed to it when he voted for it. But I think he didn't want to be set up. He does not want to be set up by these games. ... He's very perceptive on the timing of politics. Nobody knows better the need to pace yourself in 2004 than John Kerry. That was something Howard Dean didn't know. He was new to it. Kerry always knew that it was a long race. And you pace yourself out. You don't burn yourself out with certitude, that you keep some ambiguity out there. Because you're going to need it down the road. …

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Senator Joseph Biden
(D - DEL)

…John and I believed that the best way to avoid war was to show the world that we were united behind the president's resolve of making Saddam Hussein live up to the commitments made in the U.N. Resolutions. And we believed that if in fact you gave the president that power, it would strengthen Colin Powell's hand at the United Nations and increase exponentially the prospects that the rest of the world would join us. And if he still resisted, then we'd have to use force.

…I really thought the president was up for grabs between the Rumsfelds and the Cheneys of the world --who in retrospect looked like they decided to go to war anyway -- and the Powells and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were trying to avoid going to war and accomplish the same end. What I never anticipated was how they'd undercut Powell so much….

John Kerry also underestimated that?

Yeah, I think we all did. Because I thought that they would really, at a minimum, isolate the French, and expose them for their kind of complicity here, and at a minimum get more of the world with us before we went. …

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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