A Futile Foreign Policy

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Magazine

This essay appeared in the September 7, 2004 National Review Magazine.

John Kerry is worried about his record of support for gay unions, abortion-on-demand, and other hot-button liberal causes that rile moderate swing voters outside of New England. One way to counteract the image of an out-of-touch Boston liberal is to sound hawkish on foreign policy: If Vietnam was once something to be tapped for proof of a young Kerry’s opposition to the corporate military-industrial complex, it is now even more richly re-mined in his gray years for evidence of military valor, toughness, and hyper-patriotism.

The slogans “Just as tough, but smarter,” and “Respected, not just feared” now summarize the Kerry-Edwards party line on foreign policy. With those flippant phrases, a Jamie Rubin, Sandy Berger, Rand Beers, Joe Biden, or Joe Wilson can promise new style, same substance. In light of an amazing military victory in Iraq, followed by a difficult occupation, Kerry’s most recent statements suggest that he would not necessarily have done anything different from what President Bush did in invading Afghanistan and Iraq, but instead would have “reached out to” and “sat down with” allies; such an embrace of multilateralism, we are assured, would have avoided a “unilateral,” “preemptive,” and costly American enterprise. Kerry’s Iraq — it is presupposed that someone else mysteriously would have first removed Saddam — would purportedly now have involved a multinational effort, aimed more cautiously at order and stability rather than at unworkably radical democratic transformation.

To the degree that there is any consistency in Kerry’s evolving positions about the use of force, there seem at least two constants: partisanship and expediency. Thus Republican administrations’ efforts to remove Saddam in 1991, and rebuild Iraq in 2003, prompted Kerry’s initial opposition and subsequent support, depending on the pulse of the battlefield — yes to war, if victory looks assured and cheap; no, if it is in doubt or its consequences turn messy. Thus Bill Clinton’s five air campaigns against Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iraq, Kosovo, and Sudan — often without congressional or United Nations sanction — earned not Kerry’s principled opposition to unilateralism, but his partisan approval, especially since Americans were bombing without being much shot at. That almost a decade later U.S. soldiers still patrol the Balkans or that neither the Taliban nor Saddam was much bothered by cruise missiles is not a problem.

Perhaps a better barometer of Kerry’s views about American power is his past opposition to strategic military expenditures that emphasized deterrence — the B-1 and B-2 bombers, the deployment of Pershing missiles in Europe, and the Strategic Defense Initiative. Not the use of force, but U.N. resolutions, sanctions, and protocols — coupled with multipolar, American-led diplomacy — should solve critical problems. This theme was emphasized by Kerry’s own father in his book, The Star-Spangled Mirror . “Americans,” Richard Kerry warned presciently of George W. Bush, “are inclined to see the world and foreign affairs in black and white.” We are guilty as a people of “ethnocentric accommodation — everyone ought to be like us.” The elder Kerry went on to counsel about the “fatal error” of “propagating democracy” — an idealism that made us stupidly captivated by “the siren’s song of promoting human rights.”

Previews of John Kerry’s proposed foreign policy also seem reactive, if not parasitic upon George Bush’s prior initiatives: His carrot of softer talk seems reasonable now only because someone else wielded the stick first. Kerry talks, for example, of a lack of renewed American engagement in the Middle East, but he cannot specify whether Clinton’s Oslo initiatives were wiser than Bush’s support for Ariel Sharon’s unilateral efforts to leave Gaza, dismantle Hamas, and erect a fence. Was it cowboyish, as the Europeans allege, to isolate Arafat? If so, should we jump-start the peace process by bringing him back on board? Yes, no, maybe?

Kerry’s overall approach to contemporary Iraq, Israel, our other allies, and the world at large is best summarized as something like, “I would not have done it; but since Bush did it, I wouldn’t overturn it now.” Thus Kerry welcomes Libya’s bid to rejoin civilization. He acknowledges that Pakistan is now more friendly than hostile, with its nuclear dispensary shut down. It is salutary that Saudi Arabia at last is confronting its homegrown terrorists. Yet would Kerry have initiated any of the much-slurred efforts that helped to effect these changes — the removal of the Taliban and Saddam, tough talk with Pakistan’s Musharraf, renewed vigilance over Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear arsenals, and withdrawal of troops from Saudi Arabia? Would reliance, instead, on U.N. resolutions have made an impression on Mullah Omar, the Hussein dynasty, Muammar Qaddafi, or the Saudi royal family? Kerry seems to think so: During his senatorial career, he was always a strong advocate for dialoguing with the Vietnamese, North Koreans, Cubans, and Iranian mullahs.

Kerry flinches at the post-Cold War dichotomy of Old Europe vs. New Europe; so will he restore all those troops now being unilaterally withdrawn from Germany? France, we are told, has been unnecessarily alienated by President Bush; so will Kerry apologize — or will he learn that for the first time in decades the French are truly worried about American fury, giving the next president more, not less, leverage with French leaders?

Kerry’s positions on North Korea and Iran also depend on antecedent Bush strengths. Kerry dispenses a lot of Richard Holbrooke-Sandy Berger tough talk, but offers nothing concrete about what he would do differently — or any appreciation that both messes inherited from the Clinton administration are being addressed by a tougher Bush determination to end appeasement. By the same token, Kerry talks about modernizing and reorganizing the U.S. military — even as he is relentless in his castigation of Donald Rumsfeld as a failed secretary of defense. Does he have any appreciation that Rumsfeld earned criticism precisely because three years ago he began implementing the very reforms that Kerry is now pirating and adopting as his own?

There is a déjà vu about the entire Kerry talk of ushering in supposed calm after the raging storm. Jimmy Carter, in reaction to the Nixon-Ford Vietnam era, assured the world of a new multilateralism without an inordinate fear of Communism — and thus helped to prompt Communist aggression in Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, and Central America, as well as the Iranian embassy takeover. We talk of the Kerry half-measure and flip-flop, but such hesitation is simply updated Carterism — redolent of the occasions on which Carter sold F-15s to Saudi Arabia but ensured that they were not capable of bearing arms; wrecked the Olympics in lieu of confronting the Soviets in Afghanistan; and shuttled a dying Shah of Iran from one embarrassed foreign host to another.

Many who now praise Ronald Reagan forget that 1980s Hollywood was convinced he would deliver us a nuclear winter; he was a proto-George W. Bush who was willing to go it alone, if need be, to stop Soviet aggrandizement. Thanks to Reagan and the senior Bush, however, Bill Clinton was freed from having to deal with things like an aggressive Soviet empire, tactical nuclear missiles threatening Europe, Grenada, Panama, and Gulf War I. In contrast, Clinton’s commitment to “engagement,” coupled with launches of cruise missiles, did not deter terrorists from bombing the World Trade Center or attacking Americans in Saudi Arabia, Africa, and Yemen. The thugs in Somalia were not appeased by Clinton’s decision to withhold tanks from our troops, lest such armor “escalate” the situation. Haitians were singularly unimpressed when our troops seemed, and then sort of seemed not, to land on their shores. Bill Clinton’s only foreign-policy success was a repudiation of U.N. and EU nonchalance about genocide in the Balkans, when at last he unleashed the U.S. Air Force to put an end to the killing.

So what would John Kerry’s foreign policy look like? In the first few months, things would be little different from what we see now, as the Democrats could triangulate on prior Bush resoluteness in the same way Clinton profited from Reagan-Bush strength on the Cold War, Kuwait, and Panama. During this honeymoon, Kerry would reassure the Europeans with comfortable platitudes, and Kofi Annan might bask in overt American praise for the U.N. The War on Terror would be recast as not really a war at all: The proper tactic would be better police work to indict and jail miscreants, while providing more material aid to deal with the “root causes” of despair in the Arab world — pathologies that are best addressed not by radical and painful efforts to embrace democracy, but by sending money and diplomats abroad to appease status-quo autocracies.

But within a year or two, the terrorists, the vacillating Europeans, the Iranians, the North Koreans, and the Chinese would all take their measure of John Kerry. When Clinton, in his second inaugural address, characterized America as “the world’s indispensable nation,” Kerry asked: “Why are we adopting such an arrogant, obnoxious tone?” And he once remarked that his father had taught him “the benefit of learning how to look at other countries and their problems and their hopes and challenges through their eyes, to a certain degree, at least in trying to understand them.” China, Iran, Cuba, Syria, and North Korea would all agree.

Kerry is thus both a European realist, who believes force has little utility in a complex postmodern world, and a multicultural diplomat who would not prejudge other nations as “bad” when they are merely “different”; or, as Jamie Rubin put it recently, a Kerry foreign policy would mean “an appreciation for other cultures and values. The bullying of the Bush administration will come to an end.” No more tough “Axis of Evil” talk to Kim Jong Il or Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, but rather greater understanding of the problématique of totalitarian culture or the paradoxical role of theocracy in the modern world.

Once friends and enemies alike understood this return of Carter-Clintonism to American foreign policy, they would learn to ignore the do-gooder nagging and whining and do pretty much what they wished. They could rightly expect another Warren Christopher cooling his heels for hours on the Syrian tarmac, promises of resumption of food and oil for Korean Stalinists, or more cash and weapons sent to a rehabilitated Arafat’s Palestinian Authority — all dressed up as “collective solutions,” “U.N.-sponsored initiatives” within a “multilateral framework.” Once more, Jamie Rubin assures us that we can provide Iran with properly sanitized nuclear fuel, which might just do the trick of shutting down their plutonium factories in the fashion that once worked in North Korea. After all, we all know that one of the world’s greatest oil exporters that burns off its natural gas at the wellhead is spending billions of dollars for reactors simply to ensure sufficient supplies of domestic electricity.

If Kerry’s foreign policy could well be disastrous for the United States in the long run, it still might well get him elected. George W. Bush was the Great Corrector: When he arrived in office, it was unquestioned that Europe would forever be allowed to harp and ankle-bite under the aegis of an assured American-led NATO. Support for old anti-Communist thugs and oil-pumpers was standard American policy in the Middle East. Afghanistan was a sewer best avoided. Three hundred and fifty thousand sorties over two-thirds of Saddam’s air space; an unenforceable, corrupt, and counterproductive U.N. embargo of Iraq; and occasional indiscriminate bombing of the Iraqi homeland corralled Saddam while thousands of Iraqis perished each year.

Perhaps, without the impetus of 9/11, Bush would have let things be. But he did not — and embarked on radical and much-needed changes in U.S. foreign policy, which are already starting to bear fruit. Yet the hysteria that these corrections have prompted in Europe, the Arab world, and the U.N. wears at the American people. Many are tired of the pandemonium stirred up by the shrill Michael Moore, Howard Dean, and MoveOn.org — and, in some vague way, accept that the departure of George Bush might make things less stressful and hurtful. Like patients who finally rebel at the side-effects of their life-saving medicines, too many Americans know in their heads that what we are doing will save us — even as our hearts moan that in the here and now it is all so unpleasant and depressing to read the things they say abroad about George Bush’s America.

Kerry, then, is the mellifluous Siren that appeals to beleaguered sailors. In lieu of the “neoconservatives” provoking rogue nations and terrorist sponsors, Kerry’s subtlety, erudition, and nuance would charm others to address the “more important” (but less confrontational) problems of the environment, globalization, and drug smuggling. To win these “wars” we need not isolate an Arafat, ram democracies down the throats of Afghans and Iraqis, embarrass the Europeans, or talk of embedded pathologies within the Arab world. In short, Kerry has no foreign policy other than the Siren song that if George W. Bush would just go away, things would be so much quieter, people would be so much nicer, and we would be so much better liked. And all this might just work, until we hit the shoals.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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