Senator John Kerry was spoiling for a fight with Governor Howard Dean. Both men want to be president of the United States and they have to quarrel about something, since they are contenders for the same Democratic nomination. Howard Dean, who is campaigning every day and has already lost his speaking voice, though he has 15 months to go before the Democratic National Convention, said something rather trivial about how U.S. military preeminence can’t be counted on to solve all problems, which is on the order of saying that man cannot live by bread alone. But it was enough to get Senator Kerry to scream and yell that Governor Dean wants to sell short the military and that such an attitude toward the military is inappropriate in a man who seeks to serve as commander-in-chief, etc., etc.
The edge the United States has achieved in the military has consequences not only in Democratic primary campaigns but in world geopolitics.
The New York Times, on April 27, published an essay by Gregg Easterbrook entitled “American Power Moves Beyond the Mere Super.” The American layman knows that our military performed well in Iraq, but the dimensions of U.S. power, as described in the Times, make the hair on the neck stand up. Listen:
— “No other military is even close to the United States.”
— “For years to come no other nation is likely even to try to rival American might.”
— “The great-powers arms race in progress for centuries has ended with the rest of the world conceding triumph to the United States.”
— “The extent of American military superiority has become almost impossible to overstate.”
— “Any attempt to build a fleet that threatens the Pentagon’s would be pointless . . . If another nation fielded a threatening vessel, American attack submarines would simply sink it in the first five minutes of any conflict.”
— “The naval arms race — a principal aspect of great-power politics for centuries — is over.”
Such analysis brings on the question: How else then, can the polity of the U.S. be threatened, except by nuclear weapons? And of course North Korea is the theater in which that question will be explored soon, the next great diplomatic/military confrontation. How will the opposition party square off on these data?
Howard Dean led off by saying that all the problems of the world couldn’t be solved by the military potency of the United States, which is obvious. But hearing that kind of thing said is somehow gratifying to people out there who don’t really want to talk about world politics. They want to hear about the redwood trees, and about AIDS and SARS and hunger and Wall Street and affirmative action. There is one rhetorical hinge that brings in the military, and on this one Mr. Dean is giving Mr. Kerry a hard time. Because the political handle on the military question speaks not so much about the finite powers of the military as about the authority to use it. So that Howard Dean focuses on the authority voted in Congress in October to the president to use the military more or less as he saw fit in combating the terrorist threat and engaging in preemptive wars. And Dean gets a kick out of being able to say that John Kerry voted to give the president that power, and then, when campaigning in New Hampshire, deplores his having exercised that power.
So there has got to be a political fight in the season ahead on the matter of the exercise of that solemn power we have accumulated. The pas de deux featuring Dean and Kerry is a preview of it. The challenge: how to motivate Democratic voters to reject the leadership of George W. Bush without appearing unappreciative, let alone disdainful of, the final American triumph in the dazzling historical enterprise for military superiority. That has ended. What we are left with is an analogue to what has been dubbed “the skyjacker’s leverage.” You have a modern airliner carrying 400 passengers and serving, at a speed of 500 miles per hour, everything from pâté de foie gras to the latest movie on the screen, and the whole thing is suddenly at the mercy of one passenger who has explosives in the heel of his shoe.
Those voters who feel that Mr. Bush has done pretty well in deploying our military power will be curious to hear just how the Deans and the Kerrys carry out their search for a happy nexus between power and the exercise of it. They know only one thing for absolutely certain, which is that they’d really like to live in the White House.