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A stark choice: A look at the foreign policy of Sen. John F. Kerry

By Jackson Murphy
web posted February 9, 2004

Ever since Sen. John Kerry re-emerged as the front running Democratic Presidential nominee he has repeated a simple call to action. "If George Bush wants to make national security an issue in this campaign, I have three words for him that I know he'll understand. Bring it on!"

John KerryIn a recent New York Times article, former Senator Warren B. Rudman, Republican of New Hampshire described Kerry as a "moderate Democrat -- very liberal on social policy and reasonably conservative on foreign policy and defense matters." But what would a Kerry foreign policy really be like?

Any discussion of a particular foreign policy begins with a thesis. For Kerry it is that, "The Bush Administration has pursued the most arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in modern history."

In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last December, Kerry laid out his general policy. "In the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, the world rallied to the common cause of fighting terrorism. But President Bush has squandered that historic moment. The coalition is now in tatters and the global war on terrorism has been set back. The President had the opportunity to unite the international community and hold Saddam Hussein accountable, and in doing so perhaps avoid war. But he refused to take the time or make the full diplomatic effort. Instead, he rushed into battle – and he went almost alone. Now the United Nations is divided and we are fighting an increasingly deadly guerrilla war in Iraq almost singlehandedly. We have lost the good will of the world, overextended our troops, and endangered not enhanced our own security."

The good news is that National Security really does seem to be emerging as the definitive issue in the 2004 campaign as weapons of mass destruction remain at large, as President Bush announces a special panel to investigate intelligence failures, and as the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan continue. Sen. Kerry may want President Bush to bring it on, but more often than not, the voters end up agreeing with Republicans on matters of war and peace.

"They can sometimes evade it when foreign issues recede (as in our recent vacation from history), but when dangers recur the old fissures open, just as if Bill Clinton had never existed," wrote Noemie Emery in The Weekly Standard."This is the reason why since 1968 they have elected exactly two presidents: one in response to the Watergate scandal, and one in our recent brief window of post-Cold War domestic ascendancy. Many people will vote for a candidate who does not follow their line on abortion or quotas. They will not do this about war and peace."

It's apparent that all major candidates, including Kerry, have foreign policy brain trusts made up of the leftovers of the Clinton/Gore apparatus. According to Foreign Policy, John Kerry's team consists of: Dan Feldman – member of the National Security Council under Clinton, William Perry – secretary of defense under Clinton, and Joe Wilson – member of the National Security Council under Clinton, among others. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Whichever Democrat wins the nomination come, the Clinton foreign policy team will be coming back one way or the other.

Flipping and Flopping

For Kerry the number one problem has been one of inconsistency. How can any candidate be taken seriously when they sponsor a bill in 2000 to cut $1.5 billion for intelligence gathering then wonder why the intelligence wasn't better before 9/11? As Fred Barnes explains it, "He wanted the CIA to devote more money to human intelligence and less to technical means. He sought, he explained, 'to change the culture of our intelligence gathering.' He didn't explain, however, how slashing the CIA budget would achieve that."

Sen. Kerry has had no trouble exposing other candidates for inconsistency. He said Gov. Howard Dean, "has made a series of comments that betray a shoot-from-the-hip style and a troubling tendency to flip-flop. A candidate who treats America's national security this way won't be elected President of the United States – and frankly doesn't deserve to be elected."
The reality is that it is Kerry who will be open to attack for inconsistency based on his colorful voting record in the Senate. He voted to cut the Defense Department by $3 billion in 1991, to cut an additional $6 billion in 1992, against a military pay raise in 1993, to freeze defense spending for seven years in 1995, and votes against the B-2 bomber, the Apache helicopter, the Patriot missile, and the F-15 fighter.

But it is on the issue of Iraq where his documented record of flip-flopping makes him most vulnerable. In The Weekly Standard Matthew Continetti writes, "Kerry's votes on Iraq over the last ten years have been wildly inconsistent: He voted against war in 1991, for war in 2002, and then against the $87 billion appropriation for reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003."

In March of 2003 writing in Foreign Policy Sen. Kerry said he supports, "the Bush administration's goal of a regime change in Iraq. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a renegade and outlaw who turned his back on the tough conditions of his surrender put in place by the United Nations in 1991." For Kerry supporting regime change often depends on which way the wind is blowing that day of the week.

So the most damning case against Kerry, in a potential Kerry-Bush match up, would be his inconsistency. As Slate.com's Michael Kinsley wrote, "The only presidential candidate with a truly coherent position on President Bush's Iraq policy is President Bush. He supported it before the war started, he supports it now, and he thinks or pretends to think it's working well."

Fighting Terror with diplomacy and law enforcement

The most striking difference between President Bush and any of his Democratic rivals is that while Bush favors a response to terrorism led by active military action, the Democrats see it as a fight best served by diplomatic and legal remedies. While campaigning in South Carolina in January, Kerry said terrorism was, "primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world."

In response The Washington Post's Charles Krauthammer says, "This is a hopelessly retrograde invocation of the anti-terrorism policies that brought us Sept. 11 - finding, arresting and putting on trial individual miscreants, as we did the World Trade Center bombers of 1993 -- but it does not matter. War is more a visceral than an intellectual issue. Kerry holds the trump card. He's fought in battle. And acted heroically."

Austin Bay agrees, suggesting that, "Before Sept. 11, the Clinton administration and, for eight months, the Bush administration treated international terrorism as a sophisticated form of organized crime. That was a mistake, for though 21st century terror is like a criminal operation, it is also much more."

The problem, as Krauthammer notes, is that this might be a tough sell in a down and dirty campaign. Will Bush be able to articulate in a guttural way that the Vietnam veteran is not going to make the American people safe? Or can Kerry articulate that an outdated policy from before 9/11 will keep people safer?

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, suggests that Kerry's solutions for problems around the globe are based solely on diplomacy. "Kerry prescribes talk -- with Iran, the Palestinian Authority and North Korea. But the Clinton administration tried soft-touch diplomacy in all three cases and got respectively: nothing, a terror war against Israel, and a broken nuclear-arms agreement. Kerry displays a liberal's core belief that the world's bad actors will come to see reason so long as we keep up a cheerful patter with them. Yes, diplomacy has its place, but this faith in the power of talk for talk's sake is simply naiveté."

Bush has already started to argue that his foreign policy, and actions, has led to breakthroughs in Libya and created an environment where diplomacy might evenbe more effective in places such as North Korea or Iran.

Playing politics with National Security

Sen. Kerry has suggested that, "George Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and the rest of the Administration weren't passing on sound facts on Iraq to the American people - they were playing politics with our national security."

That's a hefty accusation especially considering Kerry voted, based on the same information, for war. But as Kerry has suggested he wasn't really voting for war and President Bush promised him as much.

Mickey Kaus of Slate.com has noted that Kerry's argument for voting for the war on the basis that the President "promised" to work within the United Nations framework was nothing if not political. "Because the 'promises' theory all along was tactical--the creation of a possible a-- covering excuse for Kerry's pro-war vote should the war go wrong. When Bush was breaking these "promises" popular support for the war was strong, and it looked as if it might cost Kerry votes to speak out. Duh! ... If you stop taking the rationalizations seriously and look at Kerry's behavior as that of a 'pol' trying to play it safe and have it both ways, it all falls into place."

Last week the CIA's Director of Intelligence, George Tenet, highlighted some responses to the charge that the administration had sexed up information about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. According to Tenet the intelligence that reached his desk and presumably passed on to The White House, "solidified and reinforced the judgments we had reached and my own view of the danger posed by Saddam Hussein and I conveyed this view to our nation's leaders. Could I have ignored or dismissed such reports at the time?  Absolutely not." 

The Kerry votes on Iraq are both cynical and political but it underlies a theme that may exist within the foreign policy circles of the Democratic Party. The release of Gen. Wesley Clark's personal papers last week to The Washington Post exposed that the Clinton foreign policy team, "wanted to end the Kosovo war abruptly in the summer of 1999, at almost any cost, because the presidential campaign of then-Vice President Al Gore was about to begin." These are possibly some of the same people that would be potentially working on a Kerry, Clark, or Edwards foreign policy. While it's hard to take Clark that seriously given his record, and his subsequent revisions, it doesn't seem inconceivable that Clinton and his advisors would stoop to playing politics with war.

Kerry has also been adamant that the Bush Administration's foreign policy is recklessly unilateral and he promises to fix that. ''Fraudulent," asks columnist Mark Steyn in the Chicago Sun-Times. "Kerry makes much of his rapport with veterans, but I'd love to see him tell the brave British, Australian and Polish troops who helped liberate the Iraqi people that their participation was 'fraudulent,' just as I'd love to see Maureen Dowd, who dismisses the coalition as 'gaggle of poodles and lackeys,' tell Britain's Desert Rats or the big beefy Fijians escorting Iraqi currency exchange convoys that they're 'poodles.'"

During the State of the Union speech last month, President Bush defended the allied participation in Iraq. "This particular criticism is hard to explain to our partners in Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Italy, Spain, Poland, Denmark, Hungary, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, the Netherlands, Norway, El Salvador, and the 17 other countries that have committed troops to Iraq."

By suggesting that the situation in Iraq is not international is the essence of playing politics with National Security.

A Stark Choice in November 2004

Jon Keller, of The New Republic, suggests that those trying to compare Kerry to John F. Kennedy are not making a very apt analogy. Instead he likes a comparison to, "Wendell Willkie's 1940 run, which began by attacking FDR as soft on defense and ended by painting Roosevelt as a warmonger, seems a better comparison, given Kerry's tortured gymnastics on Iraq. And whatever his flaws, JFK at least offered an expansive, forward-looking agenda. By contrast, Kerry wants to reimpose outdated Vietnam Syndrome on American foreign policy, reestablish an international order that collapsed on 9/11, and return Clinton-era phoniness to the White House without any of Clinton's redeeming brass and Third Way creativity."

Bush's job is simple. To convince voters that he did the right thing. Kerry's is tougher. He has to convince voters that he is capable of doing the right thing for real because the Oval Office is not the Senate. That might be the toughest sell of all considering that he has brought new definition to the idea of creativity when voting on matters of National Security.

The Democrats have one thing right. This is the most important election in a long time. It's important because it is more or less a referendum on Bush and the war. If he loses, and someone like Kerry wins, the War on Terror will be fought in the courts rather than the battlefields. This election is about a return to the world of pre-9/11 or a continuation of the post-9/11 world. It is a stark choice.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He is a senior writer at Enter Stage Right, a columnist for Bureacrash.ca and a regular contributor to American Daily.com, Men's News Daily, and The Reality Check. He is also the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7.

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