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Opinion: One of Ted Kennedy's greatest stands was to say "no" on the war in Iraq
WASHINGTON — The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy will cost the United States not just a passionate voice for economic and racial justice, but also its irreplaceable champion of a liberal, less belligerent, humanistic foreign policy.
Step back to Friday, October 11, 2002, when only 23 U.S. senators voted against the resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq.
The anger and fear spurred by the 9/11 attacks was too raw, and Democrats named Clinton, Kerry, Biden and Edwards, nursing ambition, dared not look “soft” on terrorism. Election Day was just weeks away. The two Democratic leaders — Sen. Tom Daschle and Rep. Dick Gephardt — gave Bush the green light for war. Kennedy’s pal, Sen. Chris Dodd, voted “yes.” Even Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the Democrat from Rhode Island, voted for war.
But not Patrick’s dad. Not Ted.
In what seemed, at the time, a quixotic performance, Ted Kennedy returned to the Senate floor time and again, warning Americans and his fellow senators of the catastrophe ahead. His prestige gave cover to other Democrats, and the number of “no” votes doubled, then tripled.
“Just one year into the campaign against Al Qaeda, the administration is shifting focus, resources and energy to Iraq,” Kennedy warned. “The change in priority is coming before we have fully eliminated the threat from Al Qaeda ... Even with the Taliban out of power, Afghanistan remains fragile.”
In the end, Kennedy still got creamed that day — 77 to 23. But a few years later, when asked what vote made him the proudest, in all those thousands of roll calls in almost five decades of service in the Senate, he pointed to his vote against the Iraq war.
And that is what I, you, we, the world will miss: the big guy with mighty shoulders and international stature, willing to shout “No!” when the drums of war are being pounded by the cons and neo-cons, the neo-libs and triangulators, the chicken hawks and profiteers.
“It is possible to love America while concluding that it is not now wise to go to war,” Kennedy said in 2002. What American politician will have the guts to say something like that, at a pivotal moment in US history, after Ted joins Jack and Bob beneath the grassy slope at Arlington?
Sure, the guy was no saint. Great politicians, in my experience, rarely are. Kennedy’s personal failures have been amply catalogued. And the same senator who could rail against the military arms industry did pretty well over the years, using his roster of behind-the-scenes tricks to add fighter planes and advanced research funds to the Pentagon budget in order to protect jobs and promote industry in Massachusetts.
Nor can we forget how the Kennedy family legacy mixed such gems as the “missile gap” and the Bay of Pigs debacle with genuine accomplishments like the nuclear test ban treaty, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Alliance for Progress. Or how Jack Kennedy’s inaugural vow to “pay any price, bear any burden” led us into the bloody swamps of Vietnam.
It was the Vietnam War, and Lyndon Johnson’s relentlessly ineffective prosecution of that war, that split the Democratic Party, shattered the liberal consensus, and gave Ted Kennedy his voice.