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Both Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and President Bush have had a searing life experience. For Kerry, it was the disaster of Vietnam. For Bush, Sept. 11, 2001. It makes all the difference in their foreign policy views. [IMGCAP(1)]

While a valiant, decorated combatant, Kerry entered public life condemning the Vietnam War, and his career-long record is one of opposition to uses of American force and the weapons systems needed to carry them out.

Bush, as he explained once again on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, has been “a war president” ever since terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on his watch.

“Every threat had to be reanalyzed,” he said, referring to Iraq and Saddam Hussein. “Every potential had to be judged in the context of this war on terrorism. … We looked at the intelligence and we remembered that he had used weapons, which meant he had weapons. He was a dangerous man in a dangerous part of the world.”

The evidence suggests that Bush may feel some responsibility, even guilt, for not doing enough to counter al Qaeda before 9/11. Certainly, terrorism had no great priority. There was no “war” against it.

Despite Bush’s claim to Tim Russert that he is fully cooperating with the commission investigating 9/11, the panel’s members are so frustrated with White House roadblocks that they have considered issuing subpoenas. This suggests that Bush is deeply embarrassed at what they might find.

But once 9/11 happened, Bush’s whole presidency was transformed. He began to “worst case” world threats. Every intelligence service in the world believed that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Former President Bill Clinton believed it. Even Kerry believed it.

And, Bush assumed it was only a matter of time before Hussein would use his WMD again, possibly by handing weapons off to terrorists. So, the president decided that Hussein had to be toppled.

To sell the country on that course, it now appears, he and his aides “cherry-picked” and exaggerated the intelligence, playing up the Iraqi threat and ignoring contrary claims.

Democrats and the anti-war media now are making much of a Defense Intelligence Agency warning that there was “no reliable information whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons.” But they are cherry-picking, too. The abundance of the evidence was that a WMD arsenal existed.

And so, Bush took the country to war, believing it was “a war of necessity.” Was it the right course? Ultimately, the answer depends upon whether the United States can turn Iraq into a stable, semi-democratic country, or whether it cascades into civil war and chaos.

The chances are, Americans will not know for sure before the election whether Bush’s risky adventure will end well or badly. They’ll have to choose between a “war president” and an “anti-war” challenger.

There seems little question that, had Kerry’s policy views prevailed, Hussein would still be in power — in fact, he would have scored a strategic defeat over the United States and might have resumed producing WMD.

While Kerry voted to authorize Bush to go to war after Kerry delivered a speech brimming with assertions that Iraq had WMD and represented “a grave threat,” the Senator also said, “I will not support a unilateral U.S. war … unless the threat is imminent and the multilateral effort [to disarm Iraq] has not proven possible under any circumstances.”

Referring to his Vietnam experience, Kerry told the Senate on Oct. 9, 2002, that “I know what it means to fight in a war where [public] consent is lost, where allies are in short supply, where conditions are hostile and the mission is ill-defined.”

Under the scenario likely to have unfolded under Kerry policy, United Nations inspectors, of course, would never have found WMD in Iraq. France, Germany and other countries would never have agreed to the use of force. Bush would have had to pull back 100,000 troops massed on Iraq’s border.

Thereafter, France and Russia would have resumed efforts to lift sanctions on Iraq. Bush would have lost the confrontation. And Hussein would have won. Is this the right course in the age of terrorism?

It may be difficult for voters to know for sure right now, but there seems little question that Kerry’s Vietnam-based experience has led him to wrong choices in the past.

He voted against the the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 even though Iraq had invaded a neighbor, the U.N. Security Council had voted to force a withdrawal and Bush’s father had formed a multinational alliance to carry it out.

In the 1980s, Kerry backed the nuclear freeze movement, which would have permitted the Soviet Union to retain missile dominance in Europe.

In 1984, Kerry declared in a re-election campaign statement that “Americans feel more threatened by the prospect of war, not less so” after the Reagan administration’s defense buildup.

He recommended cutting $45 billion to $53 billion from the defense budget and vowed to “cancel” the MX missile, the B-1 bomber, the Tomahawk cruise missile, the Apache helicopter, the Patriot missile and four fighter aircraft programs.

So, does America choose a president this year who can’t get over Vietnam? Or one who can’t get over 9/11? Domestic choices and character choices have to be made, too, but surely more voters now share Bush’s trauma than Kerry’s.

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