New School’s Kerrey sticks to his guns on Iraq


By Lincoln Anderson

Last winter, former Senator Bob Kerrey, New School University’s president, came under fire from some students and faculty after it became known he belonged to the Committee to Liberate Iraq, a loose-knit group of politicians that advocated toppling Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

At that time, a number of New School graduate students called for Kerrey’s resignation, charging it was inappropriate for him as a university president — especially as president of the traditionally liberal New School — to support the war.

But Kerrey vowed he wouldn’t be forced out. Claiming support of the school’s trustees, he said he wouldn’t stop speaking out on issues as he saw fit. And if the trustees ever told him to rein in his opinions, he’d leave.

Now, half a year after the start of the conflict, despite President Bush’s declaring the end of major combat operations on May 1, nine of 10 Americans feel the war is still going on, according to last week’s New York Times/CBS News Poll.

The number of American soldiers killed since May 1 recently surpassed the number killed during the war. The term “quagmire” is increasingly uttered. But Kerrey still feels regime change was the right thing to do.

“What, do you want to hear me say now, how stupid I was to support the war?” he quipped last Thursday at the start of a phone interview with The Villager.

“It’s more difficult than we anticipated,” Kerrey said. “But in the end, I think it’s going to have a good ending…. I think the war to liberate Iraq will be judged by history to be a good thing.”

Kerrey said the invasion was ultimately justified because of the United Nations Security Council’s unique resolution against Iraq, which stated that Iraq had to turn over its weapons of mass destruction or prove it destroyed them.

“That’s unlike any other we had in place,” he said. “There are other countries where we had terrible dictators, but no resolution to contain. We had a completely different situation than any other place on Earth…. The credibility of the Security Council was at stake.”

Also, Kerrey called the embargo of Iraq “morally questionable,” noting there were troubling stories about children dying as a result of the hardships; plus, American soldiers were already in position in the Middle East, risking their lives in the containment operation, he added. The strategy had to change from containment to replacement, in his opinion.

Then again, the former Nebraska senator said, in his eight years as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he never personally had evidence of W.M.D. in Iraq, which is not to say committee members didn’t think Saddam had them.

“We believed they had weapons of mass destruction,” he said. “But I never believed Iraq was an imminent threat.”

And he never saw any link between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

Kerrey has no delusions about when the situation may finally be resolved, however.

“I think it may take 20 years before Americans say we’re glad we did it,” he said. “It breaks my heart every time I hear about Americans who are dying in Iraq or in Afghanistan. It’s a terrible thing.”

But taking out Saddam and trying to install a democracy in Iraq should be a goal most Americans can support, in his opinion.

“I can’t understand why liberals are against Iraq’s liberation,” he said, “other than: ‘I’m against war’ or ‘I’m against the Bush administration.’ ”

As for Bush, Kerrey said he’s definitely “stretched the truth about weapons of mass destruction” and created a new national security doctrine that says “you can go it alone.”

Nevertheless, Kerrey seemed to suggest the end can justify the means.

“Even if you can prove to me the president lied, you’ll see; in 20 or 17 years, it’ll be good,” he said. “The bottom line is, I still support what the president did, which is authorize the United States to go in and remove Saddam Hussein from power.”

At the same time, Kerrey thinks the U.S. could’ve gotten a “simple modification” to the Security Council’s resolution to gain more support for the war.

While others are questioning Bush’s call for $87 million for Iraq, Kerrey is not among them.

The staggering allocation, Kerrey said, means, “Bush is saying, ‘We’ve got to make this reconstruction work.’ ”

Asked his thoughts on the Democratic presidential candidates — who have made Bush’s handling of the war and Iraq key issues — Kerrey, who earned a reputation as a “maverick Democrat” and who once ran for president, isn’t ready to endorse anyone. He spoke last Thursday, four days before Bob Graham dropped out of the race.

“I like a lot of ’em,” he said, noting he’s got “five very good friends” running: John Kerry, Richard Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, Graham and John Edwards.

“I’m not sure I’ll take a public position,” he said. “In my mind, I haven’t made a strong case for one or the other. Half a dozen could be great candidates. Gephardt and Kerry appear to be energized by Howard [Dean]. Lieberman’s not out of it. Neither is Graham. Neither is Edwards. There’s no clear frontrunner.”

As for the rumors Senator Hillary Clinton may enter the race, Kerrey said, “I think she’s a genuine leader in the party, but she’s not going to run.”

More to the point, Bush can be beaten, Kerrey said.

“Oh, definitely,” he said. “One of the things that anybody who watched the last election saw is that this country is deeply divided.”

However, with the Republicans holding their national convention here, Kerrey feels the Democrats “made a mistake” by deciding to hold the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

“It should’ve been in New York City — to give our version of what patriotism is about,” said Kerrey. “It’s true, a couple of [the 9/11 terrorists’] planes took off from Boston. But this is ground zero as far as the rest of America.”

He said calls for his ouster as New School president have quieted. Though, he said, his wife, writer Sarah Paley, misses no opportunity to remind him how wrong he was on Iraq.

Kerrey had to cut the interview short, because a car was waiting to take him to look at some real estate for new classroom space for New School.

“I think in the future, we’ll be glad and proud we liberated the Iraqi people,” he said in parting. “Yes, it will help the region. But first and foremost, it’s going to be great for the Iraqi people.”