by Bruce S. Thornton
The Kerry case against the President’s invasion of Iraq is built on four components: the President misled the nation about WMDs and ties to al Qaeda; he failed to plan adequately for the aftermath of combat; he failed to bring our allies on board; and he diverted resources from the war on terror by invading Iraq. Last week we examined the first two charges. In Part Two we will find the same inconsistencies, deluded assumptions, and partisan distortions in the second two charges.
President Bush failed to bring the allies on board in Iraq and indeed has alienated them
The Kerry campaign has made much of the charge that President Bush has needlessly alienated the international community and allies—”left [alliances] in shatters across the globe,” as the Senator put it in the first debate—allies who would have supported with men and materiel the war against Hussein if only they had been courted with the sophisticated, nuanced understanding of international relations that Kerry believes himself to possess. Unlike the swaggering, arrogant, unilateralist “cowboy” Bush, the charge goes, the Francophone Kerry could better communicate with the Europeans and persuade them to help shoulder the burden in the war on terror—”bring them back to the table,” in his words—since he is an internationalist committed to those transnational, multilateral institutions that are better able to keep the peace and achieve our foreign policy aims. Instead, because of Bush’s unilateral arrogance, America’s standing in the world has plummeted and anti-Americanism is on the rise.
Kerry’s criticism is faulty on both the factual and theoretical levels. Contrary to the charge that Bush ignored the Europeans and the U.N., the President in fact spent months before the start of war in March 2003 attempting to get the U.N. to sanction action that would put enforcement teeth into the 16 resolutions regarding Iraq that the U.N. had already passed and that Hussein had subverted or ignored. The greatest irony of the U.N.’s failure to sanction such enforcement is that the biggest beneficiary ultimately would have been the U.N., which would have gained much more credibility for its resolutions, a credibility it now sorely lacks. Indeed, one could argue that wasting those months in soliciting the U.N. gave Hussein the opportunity to destroy or squirrel away whatever WMD’s he had left. In addition, despite the U.N. and Security Council’s failure to confront Hussein and support the U.S., the President continues to work hard at involving NATO and the U.N. in the rebuilding of Iraq, with the result that NATO is now participating in training Iraqi officers and the U.N. is overseeing the January Iraqi elections.
Moreover, the U.S. isn’t going it alone in Iraq, and the President is right to chastise Kerry’s snide phrase about the “coalition of the bribed and coerced,” a gratuitous insult to Britain, Japan, Poland, Australia, and the other nations who have spent blood and treasure in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The President assembled a coalition that some nations refused to join for reasons of national self-interest, and despite Kerry’s frequent claims that he could do a better job of convincing them of their stakes in Iraq, those national self-interests aren’t going to change just because Kerry is the President.
On this point Kerry is either duplicitous or remarkably naïve. France, for example, did not pursue the course it pursued before the invasion of Iraq because of principle or because of the President’s lack of diplomatic panache. France aggressively pursued its national and economic self-interests, both of which would not have been served by removing Hussein from power, as Kenneth Timmerman has documented in The French Betrayal of America. The desire for profits and kickbacks from oil and arms deals, along with resentment of U.S. power, explains why the French were not going to let the U.N. sanction the U.S. overthrow of a dictator with whom the French had done profitable business for 25 years. Voltaire could have been President of the United States and the French would have behaved the same way. To think that nations set aside their own interests and make decisions affecting those interests based on petty concerns of style and tone is absurd.
In fact, this belief that nations only react to what the U.S. does rather than pursuing what they believe to be their own interests is one of Kerry’s most dangerous delusions. For example, his claim in the debate that he could “reach out to the Muslim world,” something he accuses the President of failing to do, ignores the spiritual dynamic driving Islamism, a religious imperative that is not going to be changed by better P.R. Saving Muslim Kuwait and Muslim Bosnia didn’t cut any ice with bin Laden, nor would more protestations of tolerance and sympathy for the so-called “religion of peace.” Quite the opposite: such overtures confirm the Islamist estimation that we are godless materialists with no confidence in our own beliefs.
Equally delusional is the assumption that the Europeans or the U.N. is somehow more sophisticated and principled, and so better able to create and monitor global security and peace. In actual fact, the record of the Europeans and the U.N. in stopping oppression and genocidal slaughter is abysmal. When Serbs were slaughtering Muslims, it wasn’t the U.N. or the Arab League or the Europeans who ultimately stopped them. It was U.S. bombs, unleashed without the permission of the U.N. that many now feel was so indispensable for legitimizing an attack on a homicidal dictator who had for 12 years flouted every U.N. resolution, not to mention murdering and torturing hundreds of thousands of his own citizens and attacking two of his neighbors. The reality of the U.N. is that it serves as a mechanism for weaker states to offset the power and influence of stronger states and pursue their own national agendas. So too with NATO, which would collapse without U.S. participation. NATO allows a military pygmy like France to limit the U.S.’s influence and gratify its pretenses to a global influence unwarranted in terms of its actual military might.
Once again, Kerry’s beliefs before the Democratic primary are somewhat different from those he now articulates. Unlike during the debate—when he let slip the frighteningly vague phrase “the global test” that in his presidency the U.S. would have to pass before acting—earlier Kerry was clear about the right of the U.S. to act in its own interests, particularly when allies were not doing what they should or were otherwise unreliable. Back in 1997, when Hussein was playing his game of WMD three-card-monte with the U.N. inspectors, Kerry asked, “Where’s the backbone of Russia, where’s the backbone of France, where are they in expressing their condemnation of such clearly illegal activity?” At that time seemingly he understood that these allies, given their own national interests, were unlikely to be of any use in resolving the threat posed by Hussein—the same allies that today Kerry claims could’ve been made useful partners, if only they had been approached in the right style.
As for the U.N., in his September 2002 New York Times op-ed, Kerry made it clear that enforcement of existing U.N. resolutions did not depend on the Security Council’s imprimatur: “If Saddam Hussein is unwilling to bend to the international community’s already existing order, then he will have invited enforcement, even if that enforcement is mostly at the hands of the United States, a right we retain even if the Security Council fails to act.” A week later on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Kerry repeated his position: “But the president . . .always reserves the right to act unilaterally [to] protect the interests of our country.” In the lead-up to the Iraqi War the Security Council indeed failed to act, and so the President, granted authority by Congress and Senator Kerry’s vote, exercised the right the Senator acknowledged we possess.
Even today Kerry isn’t consistent in his belief in the superiority of multilateral coalition-building over going it alone. In the case of North Korea’s nuclear adventurism, the President is doing exactly what his critics seemingly desire: engaging in six-party talks involving the major interests in the region like China, Japan, and South Korea. Yet Kerry has criticized the President—who, remember, inherited from Clinton eight years of inaction and phony agreements with Kim Jong Il—and called for “bilateral” talks between the U.S. and North Korea. Apparently, multilateralism is a wonderful way to resolve global crises—unless President Bush uses it.
Senator Kerry, then, once more has either shifted his position in order to appeal to his pacifist, Eurocentric, internationalist liberal base, or returned to an earlier conviction from which he had retreated when he thought that supporting the war in Iraq would pay political dividends. Yet everything in his record in the Senate—where he never met a weapons system he didn’t vote against, and where he also voted against the first Gulf War—suggests that he has returned to a multilateralist, internationalist perspective in which American power should be limited and checked by other nations.
And this brings us to the theoretical level where Kerry’s positions are flawed: the belief that America’s security and interests are best served through such international institutions and alliances. Like many people’s views on both the left and the right, the Senator’s thinking is stuck in the centuries-old rut of “balance of power” international politics, as though we still live in 19th-century Europe, when England, Germany, France, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire all had to be kept in balance, and so conflict was ritualized into the subtle gestures, symbols, and innuendo of diplomatic dickering and horse-trading. The futility of war between roughly equal powers was confirmed by the carnage of World War I, which created an anxiety about using force that obviously paved the way for Hitler. And during the Cold War the ability of nuclear powers to obliterate each other made us wary of employing force without inhibition, no matter how just or necessary for our national interests.
In that sort of world, diplomatic symbolism, consensus-building, coalitions, alliances, proxy wars, and covert operations all were necessary to avoid a collision of equally destructive powers. So too were the transnational institutions like the U.N. that sanctioned such coalitions and gave them the stamp of international approval. But we are not in that world anymore. Russia or China could go insane and severely damage the United States in an act of collective suicide, but that is a remote contingency. Such fantasies aside, no conventional military power can seriously challenge America, nor can terrorists fighting an “asymmetrical” war ultimately prevail.
Yet some, like Kerry, uncritically assume that “unilateralism” is a dirty word, and apparently are embarrassed by our power. Thus before we pursue our own interests and security, they want the U.S. to spend time and effort in the U.N. soliciting the good will and cooperation of dysfunctional and even tyrannical states, and begging the permission of so-called allies that refuse to put their military money where their active mouths are, even as they continue aggressively to pursue their national interests, frequently at our expense.
This attitude reflects as well a distrust of American power and the American people, a suspicion validated by the alleged history of American abuse and oppression of the sort Senator Kerry claimed in his 1971 Senate testimony about U.S. atrocities in Vietnam. And this is the true divide between Kerry and President Bush: the Senator distrusts American power and the ability of the American people through their democratic institutions themselves to monitor that power, which is why we need the oversight of international courts, the U.N., and other such transnational mechanisms; in contrast, the President has confidence and faith in the American people and their institutions to safeguard against the unjust use of power.
Of course alliances and coalitions are desirable, if only to spread the burden and costs of action, but ultimately we Americans—not NATO, not the U.N.—are the final arbiters of when to use force, without having to pass some “global test.” If we are sure of the rightness of our motives and goals, if we know the world will be better off in the long run if we act—ask the Kuwaitis and the Bosnians, ask the millions of Afghans and Iraqis eager to vote—then we can use force with confidence and accept the tragic costs and sacrifices that always and everywhere attend even the just use of violence.
The charge that Bush needlessly alienated allies who could have helped with the war in Iraq, then, falters on Kerry’s feigned or real misreading of those allies’ motives, which had to do more with what they perceived to be their national interests than with the President’s diplomatic clumsiness.
The war against Hussein is a distraction from the war against terror and the hunt for Bin Laden
This charge is in fact is the summary of the previous three, the core criticism which all the others support. During the debate Kerry asserted, “I will hunt down and kill the terrorists wherever they are. But we also have to be smart, Jim. And smart means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking it off to Iraq where the 9/11 commission confirms there was no connection to 9/11 itself and Saddam Hussein.” Bush’s attack against Iraq, then—an attack Kerry voted authority for, remember—was “a colossal error of judgment.” And because the President was diverted in Iraq, Kerry continues, he “outsourced” the capture of bin Laden to Afghan warlords, allowing him to escape. This charge is politically useful, for it deflects the traditional perception of the Democrats’ weakness concerning the use of force, with a macho assertion that Kerry really is eager to go and kill terrorists, and thus opposes the war in Iraq only because it keeps us from doing so.
This charge also fails on practical and theoretical grounds. The accusation that Bush bungled the capture of bin Laden, as well as being more partisan hindsight carping, ignores the extremely precarious position that Pakistan’s President Musharraf has put himself in by supporting the U.S. Pakistan is a nuclear power with a sizable Islamist presence among its people and a quasi-autonomous tribal region bordering Afghanistan that the national government is loath to enter. The military pursuit of bin Laden had to take into account the larger, longer-term stability of Pakistan and Musharraf’s government and its continuing cooperation in the war on terror. Is it likely, for example, that the nuclear proliferation ring overseen by Pakistan’s Abdul Qadeer Khan would have been broken up if, say, even a successful U.S. mission to capture bin Laden had stirred up the tribal border region and fatally weakened Musharraf, who already has survived two assassination attempts because of his support of the United States?
Yet quibbling over bin Laden’s capture misses a more serious flaw in Kerry’s thinking about how this nation should understand and respond to Islamist terrorism, a flaw revealed with his comment that terrorism can be reduced to a “nuisance” akin to prostitution or gambling: ”We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance,” Kerry said. ”As a former law-enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling.” Thus the capturing of terrorism’s “capo di tutti capi,” bin Laden, should be the number one priority, an issue of international law-enforcement and intelligence gathering. Of course, Kerry doesn’t specify just how many dead at the hands of terrorists qualifies as a “nuisance.”
This is perhaps Kerry’s most dangerous miscalculation. The Islamist threat is not a question of crime and law enforcement, but of a huge, popular cultural movement rooted in spiritual belief and core values, a movement whose only weapon is the terrorist attacks that expose what the Islamists see as the rotten spiritual core of Western hedonism and its commitment to life and pleasure at the expense of spiritual values. Islamism thus represents a radical challenge to the Western way of political freedom, secularism, and rationalism. It has been nurtured for decades by Western appeasement and the utilitarian calculations of various Middle-Eastern regimes that made a devil’s bargain with Islamists in order to consolidate their own power and deflect internal dissatisfaction onto the “Zionists” and “Crusaders.” This volatile brew exploded on 9/11, and ending this threat means not just hunting down and killing this or that terrorist but ending the collusion between dysfunctional regimes and Islamist radicals.
This in turn means avoiding the errors made before 9/11, which consisted of a failure to see the converging forces early enough to stop them from ripening into an attack. As the Vice-President said during the debate, “The effort that we’ve mounted with respect to Iraq focused specifically on the possibility that this was the most likely nexus between the terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. The biggest threat we faced today is the possibility of terrorists smuggling a nuclear weapon or a biological agent into one of our own cities and threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.” The history of Hussein’s development, pursuit, and use of WMD’s made him even more dangerous than the Taliban. We could not afford to wait or depend on a diplomatic and inspections process that had already failed for twelve years. A dirty bomb exploded in the heart of Manhattan would be something considerably more serious than a numbers racket or a bordello.
Kerry himself seemed to understand the growing “nexus” in Iraq, at least in December 2001 when he said, “I think we clearly have to keep the pressure on terrorism globally. This doesn’t end with Afghanistan by any imagination. And I think the President has made that clear. Terrorism is a global menace. It’s a scourge. And it is absolutely vital that we continue, for instance, Saddam Hussein.” Once again, before the Democratic primaries and the success of Howard Dean Kerry’s thinking was in line with the administration’s. Which position is the true one is most likely known only by the Senator himself.
Finally, and most important, this proper understanding of Islamism and its symbiotic hosts requires a vision that sees beyond the capture of bin Laden, assuming he’s even alive. There will always be more bin Ladens as long as there are dysfunctional regimes willing to host them and as long as the West fails to hold such regimes accountable. A larger vision must see that regimes like Iran and Syria, two long-time facilitators of terror, one of which is trying to acquire nuclear weapons, must be convinced one way or the other that the price of that support is too high. This doesn’t necessarily mean invasion or regime change, but it does mean that there must be a credible threat of force, a threat taken much more seriously since Hussein was rooted out of his hole by U.S. soldiers. Just ask Libya’s Khaddafi. But such a vision certainly will not be held by a president who views terrorism as a mere “nuisance” and who trims his policy sails to every political breeze.
Kerry’s case against President Bush cannot survive the inconsistencies within his own public statements, his distortions of fact, and his seemingly deluded vision of the Islamist threat and its tactic of terrorism. We can quibble over various decisions the President has made, but at this point he has demonstrated that he understands the true nature of the threat we face and knows what must be done to meet it. But he needs four more years to continue the job.
©2004 Bruce Thornton