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SCOTT RITTER

Challenging Kerry on his Iraq vote

WITH THE release last month of the report by the Senate Select Committee on intelligence and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, John Kerry was handed a gift that rarely occurs in a major political race: the chance to underscore a major failing on the part of an opponent. The committee found that there was no intelligence data to sustain President Bush's oft-cited reason for last year's invasion of Iraq -- the presence of WMDs and ongoing projects dedicated to their manufacture. Kerry said that the Bush administration had been "wrong, and soldiers lost their lives because they were wrong."

But Kerry failed to address that he was also wrong and that it was his leadership in the Senate that enabled President Bush to oversee the most flagrant abrogation of congressional constitutional responsibilities in modern time, the October 2002 vote to give Bush power to wage war against Iraq without assuring that there was a clear and present threat to the United States. It is Kerry's yes vote that calls into question the character of the man who wants to replace Bush in the White House.

When asked if he would agree with other Democratic senators who said they would not have voted to give Bush war powers authority if they had known about the lack of intelligence on WMD, Kerry let his vice presidential nominee, Senator John Edwards, speak for him: "I'm not going to go back and answer hypothetical questions about what I would have done had I known this." Kerry concurred with Edwards, adding, "The vote is not today, and that's it."

More than 900 American troops in Iraq are dead and more than 5,000 wounded as a result of that vote, numbers that are sure to go higher. Kerry cannot honestly say he was not aware of the paucity of verifiable intelligence concerning the existence of WMD in Iraq on the eve of war. I personally discussed this matter with Kerry in April 2000 and again with his senior staff in June 2002. I asked Kerry to allow me to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during its hearing on Iraq in July-August 2002 but was denied. Kerry knew that there was a viable case to be made to debunk the president's statements regarding the threat posed by Iraq's WMD, but he chose not to act on it.

As a lifelong Republican who voted for Bush, I have made it my personal goal to make sure that he does not survive his first term because of his decision to go to war with Iraq without any legitimate justification. However, I believe there are many people, especially disenchanted Republicans like myself, who even though we reject Bush are looking for a good reason to vote for Kerry. Bush's elective war with Iraq provides that reason, if only Kerry could find a way to separate himself from the Bush record that does not insult the intellect and integrity of the electorate.

Kerry claims he voted for the war resolution to give Bush the support needed to win over much-needed international support to confront Saddam. According to Kerry, Bush failed to do this. "With a new president," Kerry pronounced during his acceptance speech last week at the Democratic National Convention, "who strengthens and leads our alliances, we can get NATO to help secure Iraq. We can ensure that Iraq's neighbors like Syria and Iran, don't stand in the way of a democratic Iraq. We can help Iraq's economy by getting other countries to forgive their enormous debt and participate in the reconstruction."

However, a prerequisite for getting such support rests on the legitimacy of the conflict with Iraq. This legitimacy hinged on Saddam's possession of WMDs in violation of Security Council resolutions, a notion that has been totally discredited. Kerry can quibble about the hypothetical nature of looking back on his decision to vote for war, but one must question how Kerry plans to enlist support for a war that not only has been proven to be without justification but violates the very principles of international law one presumes would serve as the rallying cry for garnering international support to begin with.

Kerry needs to publicly reexamine the reasoning for his vote for war and articulate a clear strategy for Iraq that includes not only a plan for reengagement with the international community but also disengagement of American soldiers.

These are real issues that must be addressed directly if Kerry plans on winning the votes of the many Republicans who have been put off by the disingenuous nature of Bush's war in Iraq. To brush them off as hypothetical puts Kerry on the same hypocritical plane as President Bush when it comes to Iraq, something that will not endear him to the legions of crossover voters he needs to win the presidency.

Scott Ritter, former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, is author of "Frontier Justice: Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Bushwhacking of America." 

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