CHICAGO -- When you ask President Bush if the war in Iraq was a good idea, in light of our failure to find weapons of mass destruction, you get an inarticulate, self-justifying answer such as this: "There was a long and very powerful body of evidence that this was a brutal, sadistic dictator who had been doing everything in his power to acquire weapons of mass destruction and, ultimately, his goal was to have nuclear capability. ... Those of us who have responsibility for making these enormously important decisions, we don't have the benefit of hindsight. I mean, that's a great luxury, looking back now."
It's the sort of thing Mr. Bush might say, but it wasn't Mr. Bush who said it. It was John Edwards. That statement, made in November on NBC's Meet the Press, is just one of the reasons to wonder if Democrats inclined to vote for him really know what they're getting.
Getting a fix on the North Carolina senator is like trying to sculpt in applesauce: No pose holds its shape for very long.
He says the administration's policy in Iraq "has failed," but he voted for the resolution authorizing the president to invade Iraq.
Before the war, he sounded a lot like Mr. Bush: "We must disarm Iraq, peacefully if possible, but by force if necessary. At the same time, we must remember why disarming Saddam [Hussein] is critical to American security -- because halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and ensuring they don't fall into the wrong hands, including terrorist hands, is crucial to American security."
Asked on Meet the Press if the president was justified in going to war when he did, Mr. Edwards replied, "You know, whether, if I had been president of the United States, I would have done this exactly like him, probably not, you know?"
He voted against the administration's $87 billion request to pay for postwar costs in Iraq, most of which was for U.S. military operations and equipment. This was not easy to square with his earlier comment: "We have young men and women in a shooting gallery over there right now. It would be enormously irresponsible for any of us not to do what's necessary to support them."
Mr. Edwards says he would have voted against the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, which the Democratic front-runner, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, supported, but admits there is little documentation that he opposed it then, when he was still a lawyer in private practice. His discovery that America needed his insights on public policy didn't come until pretty late in life. When he ran for the Senate in 1998, notes The Almanac of American Politics, "he had not run for office before, had not even voted in every election, and said he could not remember whether he had first registered as a Democrat or Republican."
The senator encourages comparisons to Bill Clinton, a fellow Southerner with a silver tongue and an empathetic manner.
"I think in terms of what we believe needs to be done for the country, we have a lot of similar views," he has said. "I think that President Clinton did very good things for this country, in terms of economic growth and giving opportunity to people who otherwise had never had a shot, never had real opportunity."
He doesn't mention that the evil NAFTA passed only because it had the strong support of President Clinton.
But Mr. Edwards has some important things in common with another president -- George W. Bush.
Like Mr. Bush, he saw no need to acquire much experience in government before seeking the most powerful office on Earth.
Like candidate Bush, he shows a largely perfunctory interest in foreign policy, and his positions tend to be vague expressions of wholesome intentions rather than applications of a coherent worldview.
Asked what he would do to improve security in Afghanistan, he says, "What I would do is show leadership." In Iraq, he says, we should turn over authority to the United Nations and "make this a NATO security force instead of an American security force" -- as if the United Nations and NATO were just dying for the chance to take over the mess the United States has made of postwar Iraq. When he says things like that, you wonder if Mr. Edwards is naive and uninformed, or if he thinks his audience is.
When Americans elected Mr. Bush, they really didn't know what his foreign policy would be, and neither did he. Mr. Edwards is another mostly blank slate. The difference is that in 2000, it was possible to think that international affairs weren't so important as to require a president who really understood them. Today, we know better.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.