The Washington Post doesn’t seem too enthralled with John Kerry after a Democratic convention that most observers view as successful for its ability to herd the Democratic cats. In addition to its “Missed Opportunity” editorial the day after the convention, David Broder’s column Sunday was titled “A Speech Without Wings.” And Jim Hoagland called the speech “fair to middling” and that Kerry was oblivious to the fact that Bush has built a coalition to fight the Iraq war.

But it was Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who misrepresented Kerry’s speech. He suggests that Kerry’s exhortation that we return to the policy of fighting wars only when we “had to” was based on a fogged view of history and a dangerous doctrine.

The United States has sent forces into combat dozens of times over the past century and a half, and only twice, in World War II and in Afghanistan, has it arguably done so because it “had to.” It certainly did not “have to” go to war against Spain in 1898 (or Mexico in 1846.) It did not “have to” send the Marines to Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Nicaragua in the first three decades of the 20th century, nor fight a lengthy war against insurgents in the Philippines. The necessity of Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in World War I remains a hot topic for debate among historians.

And what about the war Kerry himself fought in? Kerry cannot believe the Vietnam War was part of his alleged “time-honored tradition,” or he would not have thrown his ribbons away. But America’s other Cold War interventions in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East are also problematic. Most opponents of the Vietnam War, like Kerry, believed it was symptomatic of a larger failure of U.S. foreign policy stemming from what Jimmy Carter memorably called Americans’ “inordinate fear of communism.” The other Cold War interventions were premised on the same “misguided” anti-communism and the concomitant democratic idealism, that pulled Kerry’s hero, John F. Kennedy, into Vietnam. The United States, by this reckoning, did not “have to” go to war in Korea in 1950. Nor could a post-Vietnam Kerry have considered Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 intervention in the Dominican Republic necessary. Or has Kerry now retroactively accepted the Cold War justification for these interventions that he once rejected?

Then there were the wars of the post-Cold War 1990s. The United States did not “have to” go to war to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. No one knows that better than Kerry, who voted against the Persian Gulf War, despite its unanimous approval by the U.N. Security Council. Nor could anyone plausibly deny that the Clinton administration’s interventions in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo were wars of choice. President Bill Clinton made the right choice in all three cases, but it was a choice.

Why is Kerry invoking an American “tradition” that does not exist?

Kagan then goes on to suggest that Kerry is advocating isolationism.

If Kerry has revealed himself in an unusual moment of honesty, it’s time everyone took an equally honest look at where he would lead the country if elected. Kerry’s “doctrine of necessity,” if seriously intended, would entail a pacifism and an isolationism more thorough than any attempted by a U.S. government since the 1930s. It would rule out all wars fought for humanitarian ends, all interventions to prevent genocide, to defend democracy or even, as in the case of the Persian Gulf War, to uphold international law against aggression. For those are all wars of choice.

Kagan’s argument is based on the false premise that “we had to” means choice. There is nothing in Kerry’s record to suggest that he doesn’t understand that threats may provoke the U.S. to attack first, or that we must lose 3,000 lives before we attack. Kagan confuses choice with imperatives that may include moral ones.

Iraq, as I have often said, was the right war at the wrong time. Kerry may feel the same and agree that we should use force to end genocide. Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime in another time might be justification for an attack. But with our poor record in the Middle East and the latent hostilities even among moderate Arabs and Muslims regarding our Israeli-Palestinian policy, March 2003 was not the time to attack. We first must prove to the Muslim world that the U.S. is not on a “crusade.”

“We had to” might well mean that there exists a moral imperative to end suffering. One would hope that a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment would understand that and resist simplistic interpretations.