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Charles Krauthammer: Kerry still haunted and shaped by Vietnam

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WASHINGTON — It was a mistake for John Kerry to spend four days at the Democratic convention establishing his connection to Vietnam. But it was oddly appropriate. More than any other politician of our time — including John McCain, who spent five and a half years in a Vietnam prison camp rather than four and a half months on a Swift boat — Kerry has been haunted and shaped by Vietnam.

Kerry in turn has been one of the most important shapers of the meaning of Vietnam for the rest of the country. Over the course of his three decades in public life, he has presented Vietnam in three very different ways.

First, the one that electrified the nation and made him famous, was Vietnam as moral outrage, a crime, a place where American soldiers "with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command" acted like "the armies of Genghis Khan." That was Kerry in his anti-war phase testifying before Congress in 1971.

Second, Vietnam as a strategic error, a quagmire stumbled into by a well-meaning nation. That was Kerry for the next 30 years. In a now-famous Senate speech denouncing American support for the Nicaraguan Contras, Kerry cited his own searing experiences in Vietnam (and Cambodia, he claimed) as an object lesson in not intervening abroad.

Third, presented to the nation at this year's Democratic convention: Vietnam as field of glory. Hence the flourish and fanfare for the Swift boat vets, the biopic featuring riverboat exploits, culminating in "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty."

Unfortunately for Kerry, field of glory does not work in a place he himself once proclaimed the scene of a crime. There is simply no escaping the dissonance of glorying in a military service of which Kerry said, as he concluded his 1971 statement to Congress, "We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service."

Yet Kerry's convention strategy was perfectly understandable. He would use Vietnam to establish his credentials as a credible commander in chief. Having not distinguished himself in any way on national security in his 20 years in Congress — a deficiency Hillary Clinton shares and which she is astutely addressing by establishing herself as a rather hawkish member of the Armed Services Committee — he fell back on his Vietnam heroism to cross the minimal threshold required in any wartime election. Cross the threshold, then go back to "the economy, stupid."

It did not work. He miscalculated the overriding salience of the ongoing war. It took him two months — and sinking polls — to realize that this election will be won or lost on national security. On Sept. 20, Kerry finally swung his campaign back to Iraq and the war on terror.

But character is destiny. Kerry fell back to talking about the current war in the only way he knows — in terms of Vietnam.

He does not say "Vietnam" explicitly. But this new aggressive Iraq stance has one unmistakable theme: wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Vietnam — not as crime, not as glory, but as terrible strategic mistake.

But where does Kerry go from there? He now gets an exceedingly rare historical second chance: Vietnam II, getting it right this time. What then is he offering as a solution? He will begin withdrawing troops by next summer and get us out by the end of his first term.

But this makes no sense. Why wait four years? If it is a quagmire, then one has to ask the question that John Kerry asked Congress in 1971, the most memorable line he has ever uttered: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

If Kerry had not had such tortured history on Vietnam and on Iraq, he might have run as a straightforward antiwar candidate and simply said: We are getting out.

Instead, Kerry is offering to magically get allies to replace us while accelerating Iraqification. (Does he imagine the administration is operating at anything less than breakneck speed to transfer the burden from American soldiers to Iraqis?) In 1968, Richard Nixon ran and won on a similar platform — Vietnamization — and got us out of Vietnam almost precisely by the end of his first presidential term.

Nixon, remember, was vilified by Kerry and his anti-war colleagues for prolonging the suffering and dying in Vietnam for four unnecessary years. Yet here is Kerry, after 30 years of torturous re-examination of Vietnam, coming full circle and running as Nixon 1968: Mysterious plan, Iraqification, out in four years. A novelist could not have written this tale. It would be too implausible.

Charles Krauthammer's e-mail address is letters@charleskrauthammer.com