Author's Note: I am an undecided centrist swing voter. This article is the first in a two-part series. I intend to write first in favor of John Kerry and second in favor of George W. Bush. The second article, "The Liberal Case for Bush," is forthcoming.
Predicting what a John Kerry foreign policy might look like isn't easy. His ideas are nebulous, vague, and ever-changing, presumably in a Quixotic attempt to appeal to both the hawkish and pacifist wings of the Democratic Party -- no easy feat. The New York Times recently reported that leading Democrats advised him to stop talking about national security altogether. That's no surprise. According to a recent Time Magazine poll he trails George W. Bush by a whopping and insurmountable 23 points on the issue of terrorism.
A hawkish case for Kerry is a tough case to make. He's a weak candidate. There is no getting around it.
To see the benefits of a Kerry Administration you have to look past Kerry himself. If he is elected a critical cultural and political shift will dramatically change the way the Democratic Party behaves no matter what he actually does while in office.
Deflating the Anti-War Movement
First of all, the anti-war movement is more anti-Bush than it is anti-war. Don't believe it? Ask yourself how many protesters would have filled the streets if Hillary Clinton led the charge against Saddam Hussein.
Surely there would be some. When Clinton rolled through my city of Portland, Oregon on her book-signing tour a band of anarchists harangued her outside the store. They called her a war criminal, presumably because she voted to authorize the war in Iraq. But that didn't stop hundreds of liberal fans from standing in line for hours to get their books signed.
During the late 1990s it looked like the Democrats might reclaim their mantle as the War Party. The air war against Slobodan Milosovic in Belgrade produced only a few squeaks of protest on the fringe of the left, mostly from Noam Chomsky at Z Magazine and a handful of other people. Republicans led the anti-war movement, such as it was.
In 1999 William Saletan at Slate wrote an article called Yankee Go Home that ought to be required reading for every student of foreign policy. His piece reminds us how Republican leaders at the time wandered into the same fever swamp of doom-mongering, appeasement, and blaming America first that many of today's Democrats find themselves mired in.
House Majority Whip Tom Delay (R-Texas) insisted the war in Yugoslavia was doomed from the start. He demanded Bill Clinton repeat one of Ronald Reagan's biggest mistakes and run away from a fight. "When Ronald Reagan saw that he had made a mistake putting our soldiers in Lebanon ... he admitted the mistake, and he withdrew from Lebanon."
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) played up the reactionary Berkeley peacenik shtick for all it was worth (and it wasn't worth much.) He called Clinton's intervention "a quagmire [emphasis added]... a long, protracted, bloody war." He actually said "Give peace a chance" right in the middle of Serbia's rampage in Kosovo.
The Vietnam Syndrome appears to be not so much a mental affliction but a place where political parties out of power go to wallow during a crisis.
Matthew Yglesias of The American Prospect uses a hypothetical example to make a similar point in a completely different way on his blog.
"[I]f Bush had decided to invade Somalia instead of Iraq, you wouldn't see 90 percent of registered Republicans complaining that he was ignoring the 'grave and gathering threat' of Saddam Hussein -- they would have worried instead about the growth of terrorist groups in the Horn of Africa. If combat went smoothly, Democrats would support the Somali War as well, but if it went poorly they would accuse the administration of neglecting important issues like Iraq."
It's a mistake to think a large anti-war movement is a permanent feature of American politics. It comes and it goes, riding waves of anti-Republican activism before washing away when the GOP is out of power.
Flipping the Media Message
No equivalent of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 was produced that showed any kind of conspiracy behind Bill Clinton's interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. If Moore cranks out a similar hit piece against John Kerry he won't pack millions of lefties into theaters who thirst to see their man trashed. On the contrary. He will be mercilessly mocked as the back-alley crack-house propagandist he is. We'll see a lot more liberals like Alan Wolfe at The New Republic dismissing Moore's work as "Chomsky for children."
What I expect to see instead are more movies like Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo where Woody Harrelson's character says to a suffering Bosnian friend: "I'd like to apologize on behalf of the American people for our failure to deliver on those airstrikes."
The United States military can't be defeated on any battlefield. The biggest potential threat to our own success is not a ragtag band of jihadists, nor a third-rate power like Iran or Saddam's Iraq, but a buckling of our will to fight in the first place.
Reporters and op-ed writers can never dictate public opinion, but they do help shape it. Journalists at prestigious and influential left-leaning media outlets like NPR and the New York Times will feel a bit less temptation to put a morale-sapping doom-and-gloom spin on our progress made in the Terror War. "Their guy," after all, will be the one waging it.
Ending Bush Derangement Syndrome
A popular bumper sticker in my neighborhood says "Defend America -- Defeat Bush," as if Republicans, rather than mass-murdering Middle Eastern fanatics, threaten the country. Art Spiegelman, the cartoonist who wrote and drew the brilliant anti-Nazi book MAUS, is a little more blunt about it. He says he feels "equally terrorized by al-Qaeda and by my own government."
What can you say to a guy like Spiegelman? He knows there are no Republican death squads roaming the country and gunning for his kids. He's not insane, he just says insane things. (Insane are people like Naomi Klein at The Nation who says Bring Najaf to New York.)
Spiegelman and the millions of Americans who think this way need to snap out of their funk and they need to snap out of it now. They're a liability and a high-maintenance drag. It's impossible to present a united front against Islamofascism when a large swath of the country jumps at the sight of its own shadow.
George W. Bush unhinges people. He just does. It isn't his fault that he's a lighting rod for the paranoid. But that doesn't change the fact that he is. He acquired political capital after the attacks on September 11, but now it is mostly exhausted. That makes him a liability, too.
I could easily dismiss Art Spiegelman and say we don't need his help in the Terror War. It's true as far as he personally is concerned. But there are millions who think as he does, and we do need them. If America as a whole can't win this war by itself, the Republican Party can't, either.
Some liberals and leftists can't wait to get out of this phase. Here is Marc Cooper, one of the editors at The Nation, who has little nice to say about Kerry but who plans to vote for him anyway:
"[T]he one change I know a Kerry administration would bring, a change that I lust for, will be an end to the incessant whining, doom-saying, fear-mongering and general apocalyptic paranoia that has come to permeate 'progressive' politics. For that reason alone, I will be up at the crack of dawn on election day eagerly voting for Mr. A.B.B."
Making the Hecklers Drive
If the Bush Doctrine of pre-emption and democracy-promotion is reckless as John Kerry claims, fine. Let's hear a counterproposal. "I fought in Vietnam" doesn't cut it. Neither does "I'll be nice to our allies."
I mean, it's great that John Kerry wants to get more allies on board. But a more robust multilateralism by itself isn't a strategy or a goal. He needs to say what he wants to do multilaterally. The Democrats won't have an answer for that until real responsibility forces them to come up with something.
Al Qaeda, Chechen terrorists, Hamas, and Iraqi jihadists will blow up commuter trains, shoot kids in the back, massacre Jews in coffeeshops, and cut off the heads of civilians on camera. Saudi Arabia will export jihad. Iran will sabotage Kerry's plans in Iraq while building nuclear weapons.
If the Democrats take back the White House they will have to confront these problems head-on. They won't be on the sidelines. First they'll be doused with a bucket of ice cold realism. Then they'll be shot at. For the first time since September 11, 2001, they will have to think long and hard about what it actually means to govern when fanatics mass-murder innocents while much of the world shrugs.
If you're a fan of the Bush Doctrine, don't be so sure they'll scrap it. Promoting democracy in the Middle East is the perfect project for liberals, especially if George W. Bush isn't stealing what should be their cause. And pre-empting visible threats is practically mandatory. Americans will demand it. This will sink in. But it won't sink in while they're on the bench.
Reuniting the Country
Anti-Americanism has risen on President Bush's watch. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius notes that in a recent survey by the German Marshall Fund of the United States "Less than half the Europeans surveyed said they wanted to see a strong U.S. presence in the world, down from 64 percent the previous year."
It isn't all Bush's fault. French scholar Jean Francois Revel shows in his indispensable book "Anti-Americanism" just how reactionary, hysterical, and even phantasmagorical this phenomenon is. Blaming President Bush is too easy. It's also too optimistic. If we can fix it with a vote then it was never much of a serious problem to start with.
But it is a serious problem, and it will not go away. The September 11 attacks were planned in the nineties when loved-all-over-the-world Bill Clinton was president. Anti-Americanism ran hot in Europe then, too. Regime-change in Iraq pushed the numbers over the top. But so did regime-change in Afghanistan.
Anti-Americanism has been on an upward tick since the Soviet Union imploded. We aren't the boss of the world, but we are the most powerful. And power breeds its own resentment, especially among people who oversaw globe-spanning empires within living memory.
Anti-Americanism will be a feature of the world's political landscape until our military power is matched. John Kerry might be able to finesse this problem a bit, but there is no way he can fix it. And when it's shown he can't fix it, liberals will take the upsurge in anti-Americanism personally. George W. Bush will no longer be there to act as a blame-magnet.
The brief period of national unity after the attack on September 11 came from the understanding that we're hated, we're under attack, and we're in this together. President Bush will never bring us back to that place unless Al Qaeda hits us again. John Kerry might be able to do so if and when his trans-Atlantic unity project fails.
Ending the UN Fetish
Contrary to overwrought concerns about the goals of a small number of "transnational progressivists," most Democrats are not interested in using the United Nations to tie down their own country. They were only interested -- once -- in using the UN to tie down George W. Bush.
When Bill Clinton declared war against Yugoslavia, he didn't even try to get a UN resolution. His party didn't mind. The UN had failed both Bosnia and Rwanda, and clearly could never be trusted to do right by Kosovo. More important, the Democrats wanted that war.
Most Democrats are well-aware that the UN is broken. No bleeding heart liberal can seriously say an institution that places a genocidal regime like the one in Sudan on its Human Rights Commission has more moral authority than their own government -- at least not when one of their own sleeps in the White House.
The urgent need to shunt the UN aside was obvious when Bill Clinton was president. It will be obvious once again when the UN tries to hamstring John Kerry.
Checkmating the Radicals
Electing John Kerry won't put radical left activists into power. It will put them in a box. Their knee-jerk anti-American jackassery won't get a hearing if mainstream liberals are the "establishment." Soccer moms who voted for John Kerry are not going to put up with punks who say he is the "real" terrorist. Mainstream liberals won't want to march in the streets against the president they elected alongside ranting neo-Stalinist goons from International ANSWER. Radical leftists will be first isolated then ridiculed by the overwhelming majority when they and the Democratic Party have no common "enemy" to unite them.
Some conservatives will say I'm urging appeasement by rewarding obnoxious behavior on the activist left with votes. I'm not. For one thing, John Kerry is not a radical leftist. He is in the Democratic mainstream. Besides, appeasement is giving in to an enemy's demands. John Kerry is not the enemy of any American. He is a political opponent of Republicans.
Compromise is fatal in war, but it's required in politics.
(Possibly) Breaking the Strategic Impasse
The hawkish case against John Kerry is that his strategy -- such as it is -- is reactive. He promises to respond to any attack. I have no doubt he will. He isn't a pacifist.
The trouble is that, unlike President Bush, he doesn't have a pro-active strategy. Bush's push for democracy in the Middle East may or may not address the problem of terrorism constructively, but at least he's going after root causes and is willing to pre-empt a threat.
This is Bush's advantage. But Bush is not a dictator (thank heaven). He can't just do what he wants. He needs allies, not only in the Middle East and Europe, but also in Congress.
Whether Bush lied about Saddam's weapons or not (and I don't think he did) he does not have the political capital to make a similar case against another regime in the future. If US intelligence shows the mullahs in Iran are nearly finished with nuclear weapons, you can bet your bottom dollar the Bush Administration will lay groundwork for pre-emption. And if Bush goes to Congress to ask for permission, or to the UN and NATO to ask for help, people will laugh. And it will be devastating.
John Kerry is not interested in pre-emption now. But he is not in office. He is not responsible for the defense of the country today. He does not receive the same intelligence briefings as Bush, nor does he have advisors who suggest actual courses of action. He has campaign advisors, and they are completely different animals.
Democrats will justifiably scoff if Bush wants to wage another pre-emptive war. But they won't scoff if John Kerry does. They will sit up and take notice, and so will some people in Europe. Kerry can change the minds of skeptics. Bush can't.
Kerry would have to change his mind, to be sure. That will be the challenge for any foreign policy hawk who helps put him in office. But which will be harder? Changing the mind of one? Or changing the minds of millions?
Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at http://michaeltotten.com.