Kerry's Move To Bush's Right On Terror War
Several months ago, it appeared that the two main campaign issues that John Kerry could use against George W. Bush would be the economy and Iraq. But the economy seems to be recovering enough through deficit-creating tax cuts to the point that Bush may net out with zero job losses after four years. Kerry will still have many ways to point out domestic differences with Bush even with a rebounding jobs picture, including among other things education, Medicare, Social Security, deficit spending, health care, the environment, a lack of critical investment here at home, and John Edwards’ “Two Americas” theme.
This leaves foreign policy and national security as areas where Kerry has opportunities to differentiate himself from Bush. Conventional wisdom until recently was that Bush would enjoy significant advantages over Kerry because of the phony perception of Bush as a “wartime president,” even with the incumbent’s sorry military service record as compared to Kerry. Yet the downward troubles in Iraq over the last six months coupled with the prison abuse scandal and the lack of an exit strategy have made Iraq specifically and foreign policy and national security generally a ripe target for Kerry to attack. But contrary to the overall sense in the media that Kerry and Bush are alike in their foreign policies, with the only difference being one of execution, Kerry has actually taken positions recently that go beyond differences of execution. Kerry in several interviews and appearances has placed the priorities of a Kerry Administration not on spreading democracy and liberating other countries, but on maintaining stability, security, and pursuing and destroying terrorists and their cells.
Such an approach by Kerry will rankle Democrats who idealistically want to pursue a Wilsonian approach to foreign policy based on liberation and democratic ideals. But Kerry is actually pursuing a foreign policy approach similar to Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s of the late 1970’s, wherein she argued that the fight against communism dictated that we should be maintaining alliances and allies, even those who don’t possess all of our desired qualities, rather than holding these less-than-fully democratic leaders to possibly destabilizing standards on human rights.
The Kirkpatrick approach was endorsed by Ronald Reagan as a counter to Jimmy Carter’s human-rights approach to foreign policy, wherein the Right felt fighting communism was paramount to all other foreign policy priorities. It signified what the Reaganites thought most important: a commitment to anti-communism and stability first, with everything else second. In fact, it was no less than Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz themselves who thought it was foolhardy to push for human rights and regional peace if such short-term unattainable standards undermined regional security and friendly allied governments. And as Bush compares the fight against terror to the fight against communism, he is vulnerable to what Reagan and Kirkpatrick, and a good deal of his current cabinet actually thought back then, positions that in fact mirror what Kerry is saying now.
By pursuing a Truman-esque “wise men” strategy of fighting terror first and taking the world as it really is instead of crusading to make the world how he wants it, Kerry is reversing roles here, putting his priorities on supporting friendly, anti-terror governments first, making the focus a real fight against terrorists. Rather than launch initiatives allegedly aimed at bringing democracy to the Middle East as Bush claims he is trying to do, Kerry is accepting the fact that Bush has squandered the United States’ ability to lecture anyone about democracy and human rights for now. Kerry is being the realist when he moves to the right of Bush in focusing not on bringing democracy to the Middle East, but rather rebuilding alliances to deal with the real, imminent threat of terrorism.
There are operational, policy, and political reasons for such an approach. First, as Kerry has noted several times in the last couple of days, Bush has pursued a flawed and misguided approach at fighting terror based on ideology, by toppling regimes and occupying countries while inadequately supporting true counter-terrorism efforts. To answer this, Kerry would reorient defense and national security spending by dumping Star Wars and adding 40,000 troops to significantly increase the capability of our Special Forces, while also adding 40,000 to the volunteer Army. This has a two-fold purpose. The first is to beef up the Army to handle our current security requirements in Iraq, relieving the pressure on the National Guard, so that they can return stateside and resume their critical emergency duties and work with domestic anti-terror efforts. Second, Kerry is dealing with fighting real threats by giving the military the means to mount a real anti-terror campaign through the Special Forces and getting that money by dumping Star Wars. Kerry realizes that the priority should not be to topple nation states, but to work with host countries to go after terrorist cells quietly, reserving the threat of military force for those countries that fail to join the anti-terror fight, like Afghanistan.
Second, by coming out against idealistic grand schemes to use the US military as an army of world liberation in spreading democracy throughout the world, Kerry is confronting the national security issue and not shying away from it, preemptively attacking Bush, his competence, and his approach in an area of perceived strength for the administration. This is a political calculation for Kerry, who feels it is better to make voters see what another four years of a Bush foreign policy would look like and how right-wing evangelical ideology would damage us and our military. Recent polls also show that voters are against using our military for the pursuit of wars of liberation. Kerry is not necessarily trying to win the national security argument; he only hopes to neutralize it while also courting veterans by demonstrating his abhorrence for using soldiers on such ill-fated liberation schemes.
Politically, say other Democrats, Kerry's objective is to neutralize national security policy, not necessarily to win the argument outright. "We [Kerry] won't win [the election] on national security issues, but we could lose," said Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). "He has to cross the threshold of credibility on security -- and then he can win on the economy and health care."
Implicit in Kerry's speeches is the idea that Bush has been blinded by ideology, and Kerry has shied away from elevating the creation of democracy in the Middle East in his foreign policy. In that sense, Kerry seemingly is trying to turn the tables on Bush and the Republicans, talking about strength and realism and using his service in the Vietnam War to suggest that he represents a break from a Democratic Party often seen in the past as reluctant to use force.
So far the White House’s reaction has been to misread what Kerry is really doing here. The Bush campaign seems to think that Kerry is focusing on the Dukakis “competence, not ideology” mantra, when in fact Kerry is challenging both the competence and ideology of the administration.
One senior GOP strategist familiar with White House planning said that by muting the ideological contrast over foreign policy, Kerry risked repeating the mistakes of 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis, who tried to frame that election as a choice based on "competence, not ideology."
"It is Dukakis with a twist," said the Republican strategist, who asked not to be named. "They are now in essence accepting the central thrust of the Dukakis strategy to say: 'We are like Bush, but we will be able to execute properly.' I'm not certain that sells for the long term."
But this is where the GOP and Bush miss the point. You can be fully supportive of taking direct action against real, imminent terrorist threats, while opposing the toppling of nation states like Iraq, where a terrorist connection was tenuous at best. Only in those cases where the nation state is harboring terrorists and refuses to allow the removal of those threats should full-scale military force be used to topple states. Toppling the Taliban was legitimate, as they harbored Al Qaeda and refused to give them up. But Iraq is a perfect example of how toppling a nation state that was hostile to Al Qaeda created instability, tied our troops down, and instigated the spread of terrorism further.
There is also a political reason for Kerry’s approach, and it has its roots in the 2002 midterm elections.
The Democrats' aggressiveness in this debate is, in large part, a reaction to 2002, strategists close to the campaign say. The Democrats' vulnerability on national security that year, one year after the terrorist attacks, was embodied by the Senate race in Georgia. Max Cleland, a triple amputee who earned a silver star in Vietnam, lost that seat to Saxby Chambliss after a lacerating Republican advertising campaign that used footage of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden to accuse Mr. Cleland of being soft on defense.
"There's a strong feeling among Democrats that in going after Max Cleland, who left three limbs on the ground, Republicans really crossed a line," said a Democratic strategist close to Mr. Kerry. "That upset John Kerry and a lot of other Democrats."
Kerry simply refuses to let Bush set the terms of the national security debate, and has decided to preemptively hit Bush after seeing what happened to Max Cleland. Kerry is going to challenge Bush head on over the issue of whose approach is most effective in fighting terror over the next four years. And such an approach is even more critical after this morning’s warning from Al Qaeda.