Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Analyzing the Kerry Acceptance Speech

Two weeks ago, I posted my initial reactions to John Kerry's July 29 acceptance speech at the Democratic convention. To sum up, I was less than impressed, especially with the sections on foreign policy and the War on Islamist Terror. The speech was laden with Bush-hating code words that made a mockery of Kerry's smarmy, hypocritical plea for a "positive" campaign. The senator tried to sound tough, but his effort at hawkishness rang hollow. Kerry offered no new ideas on how he would wage war on the jihadist terror movement, or how he would secure success in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing beyond the usual platitudes about "working with allies". In fact, Kerry seemed far more interested in talking about how he wouldn't use force, how he would only act on the basis of "hard intelligence" against "real and imminent" threats. In other words, a Kerry Administration would be more than ready to use force, as soon as those well funded first responders finish combing the rubble for survivors.

The Washington Post, in a July 30 editorial, was also less than impressed by the speech:

Mr. Kerry last night elided the charged question of whether, as president, he would have gone to war in Iraq. He offered not a word to celebrate the freeing of Afghans from the Taliban, or Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, and not a word about helping either nation toward democracy.

In Iraq, Mr. Kerry said, "We need a president who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden. . . . That's the right way to get the job done and bring our troops home." Mr. Kerry was right to chide Mr. Bush for alienating allies unnecessarily. But what is "the job" in Iraq? He didn't say. Mr. Kerry could have spoken the difficult truth that U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq for a long time. He could have reaffirmed his commitment to completing the task of helping build democracy. Instead, he chose words that seemed designed to give the impression that he could engineer a quick and painless exit.

Nor did Mr. Kerry's statements about future threats do justice to the complexity of today's challenge. "As president, I will ask hard questions and demand hard evidence," he said, a well-aimed shot at the Bush administration's failures to do the same. For many in the hall last night, the intelligence lapses in Iraq prove the wrongness of Mr. Bush's preemption strategy, and Mr. Kerry seemed to agree, saying that "the only justification for going to war" would be "a threat that was real and imminent." Yet a President Kerry, too, would face momentous decisions based on inevitably imperfect information, whether about Iran or North Korea or dangers yet to emerge. How would he respond? Will it always be safe to wait?

So far, Senator Kerry's primary claim to national security expertise, other than "I'm not Bush", has been "hey, I was in 'Nam". I respect the fact that Kerry served in Vietnam, but the shamelessly self-promoting way he has chosen to flog this for his own benefit has really started to become tiresome. How four months on a swiftboat automatically makes John Kerry qualified to be Commander-in-Chief escapes me, but that seems to be his argument. In a piece for the New Republic Web site, Lawrence Kaplan treats this thesis with the derision it deserves:

Echoing the phalanx of generals who have endorsed him, Kerry says we should trust him to guide the fortunes of an America at war because "I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president." Leaving aside the unseemliness of recently retired general officers endorsing political candidates from a convention podium, the steady diet of patriotic gore that Kerry forced us to imbibe was unsettling enough. After all, whether it describes a Republican or a Democratic candidate, the fact that a politician has "fought under that flag" tells us nothing about his qualifications to be a wartime leader--even less when the would-be leader devotes far more of his convention speech to a long-ago war than he does to the war in which America happens to be presently engaged.

To Kerry supporters who argue otherwise, is it really necessary to point out that Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt never saw combat before going on to become America's greatest wartime strategists? Or that the very men who dispatched Kerry to Vietnam were themselves decorated veterans? To be sure, politicians who have served in war have an essential understanding of the horrors of war. But what does it tell us about their strategic wisdom or their fitness to be commander-in-chief? In truth, very little. None other than George McGovern boasted, accurately, that he was "a decorated combat pilot in World War II," while his opponent "was stationed far from battle." Did this make McGovern "stronger" than Nixon on national security? For their part, Senators Chuck Hagel, John McCain, and John Kerry all served in Vietnam. How did it shape their foreign policy views? In completely different ways: the first ended up a traditional realist, the second a virtual neoconservative, and the third a conventional liberal.


Indeed, he spent far more time discussing domestic policy than he spent discussing foreign and defense policy. And when he did get around to discussing the matter of our national survival, he basically took a page from the post-Vietnam playbook favored by an earlier generation of Democrats. "We shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad," the candidate declared to rousing applause, "and shutting them down in the United States of America." Suggesting that Europeans won't send troops to Iraq simply because they can't stand his opponent, Kerry promised to be nicer to our allies so we could "bring our troops home." Unlike, say, in Bosnia, he pledged to go to war "only because we have to." Leaving unsaid exactly by whom and at what cost, he dedicated himself to making America "respected in the world." Finally, and without saying precisely what it is, Kerry said he knows "what we have to do in Iraq." He has a plan, you see. Just like a candidate from long ago claimed to have a plan to end a war--the war that put Kerry on the stage last night and which, for him at least, wasn't so long ago at all.

Writing for Slate, Christopher Hitchens justifiably ripped into Senator Kerry over the shamelessly demagogic line that "we shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them down in the United States of America":

The worst thing about John Kerry's parochial line on the firehouses was the applause it got, with cameras even focusing on firefighter union jackets adorned with Kerry-Edwards buttons. The great thing about firefighters is usually their solidarity: They will send impressive delegations to the funerals of their fellows not just in other cities but in other countries, too. Solidarity and internationalism, indeed, used to be the cement of the democratic Left. So, do we understand the nominee correctly? Is he telling us that Iraqi firefighters are parasites sucking on the American tit, and that they don't deserve the supportive brotherhood that used to be the proudest signature of the labor movement? And why is Kerry so keen on attracting our "allies" to share the burden in Iraq—or to "reduce the cost to American taxpayers," as he inelegantly put it—if not to help put out the fire that might otherwise consume more than a point in the budget?

One of my main concerns about John Kerry is his feckless desire to have it both ways on so many issues, especially those involving national security. To me this bespeaks a cynical desire to blow with the political winds, and an abject unwillingness to take the risks required of a wartime president. The Senator's record on Iraq is a particularly illuminating example of this. In fact, it is hard to figure out exactly what John Kerry's core beliefs are, if any. However, in an essay originally published in the August 1 Washington Post, historian Robert Kagan has indeed discerned the outlines of a "Kerry Doctrine", one whose implications for an America at war are disastrous:

Someday, when the passions of this election have subsided, historians and analysts of American foreign policy may fasten on a remarkable passage in John Kerry's nomination speech. "As president," Kerry declared, "I will bring back this nation's time-honored tradition: The United States of America never goes to war because we want to; we only go to war because we have to. That is the standard of our nation." The statement received thunderous applause at the convention and, no doubt, the nodding approval of many Americans of all political leanings who watched on television.

Only American diplomatic historians may have contemplated suicide as they reflected on their failure to have the smallest influence on Americans' understanding of their own nation's history. And perhaps foreign audiences tuning in may have paused in their exultation over a possible Kerry victory in November to reflect with wonder on the incurable self-righteousness and nationalist innocence the Democratic candidate displayed. Who but an American politician, they might ask, could look back across the past 200 years and insist that the United States had never gone to war except when it "had to"?


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

Perhaps he's distorting American history simply to cast the Bush administration and the war in Iraq in the harshest possible light. But maybe Kerry is not being cynical. Perhaps, finally, he is saying what he really believes and not what American policy has been, but what it should be.


Would it really be surprising if John Kerry, whose life and thought were so powerfully shaped by his Vietnam experience, now returned to the view of American foreign policy which that experience led him to three decades ago? There seems to be a conspiracy on both sides in this campaign not to take Kerry seriously as a man of ideas and conviction. But the fact that he has waffled so visibly on Iraq may be the best proof of his commitment to the beliefs about American foreign policy he came to hold in the 1970s.

Maybe Kerry's real act of cynicism was his vote for the Iraq war in the fall of 2002. With that vote, he ignored everything he believed he had learned from his Vietnam experience. In retrospect, he may feel that he sold his soul to make himself electable. In the months since the war, Kerry has had to pretend he did the right thing, not only because a politician dare not admit error but because his political advisers believe that in a post-Sept. 11 world most of the electorate does not want an "antiwar" president. Throughout the long months of the campaign, Kerry disciplined himself to sound like a hawk. But in his heart, based on all he learned during the formative years of his life, Kerry is not a hawk. At the Democratic National Convention, John Edwards followed the script. Kerry followed his heart.

As disturbing as the image of John Kerry as unprincipled waffler is, the idea that he would govern as an aging baby-boomer "anti-war" president, during a time of war, is even more terrifying. If Kagan is right, and Kerry is elected, his vow that "(a)ny attack will be met with a swift and certain response" would almost certainly be put to the test. In an era of WMD, this is not a risk that America can afford to take.


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