Politics & Policy

Intellectual Incoherence

30 years from now, will we all agree that this war is necessary?

In 1993, in an interview with the Washington Post, the newly elected Bill Clinton joked that he missed the Cold War. Clinton explained to the Post, “We had an intellectually coherent thing. The American people knew what the rules were.”

Of course, when the pressures of the Cold War actually pinched Bill Clinton, he took a different tack. As a young man of draft age, Clinton wrote that Vietnam was “a war I opposed and despised with a depth of feeling I have reserved solely for racism in America.”

Meanwhile, a young John Kerry nobly volunteered for military service.

So, going by the actions of the last Democratic president and the man who hopes to be the next one, maybe the Cold War wasn’t really this “intellectually coherent thing” where everyone knew what to do.

Charles Krauthammer, who in a 1993 Time magazine essay decried “The Greatest Cold War Myth of All,” first identified this pernicious tendency toward historical revisionism. Despite its recent denials, during the last 20 years of the Cold War, the Democratic party was on the wrong side of the argument and it was only after the Berlin Wall came down that most Democrats claimed to have been Cold Warriors all along.

Obviously, there were countless honorable exceptions–from the liberal anti-Communist senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, to Georgia’s Sen. Sam Nunn, to the 1980s version of Al Gore. But, in the broad scope of things, the liberals learned all the wrong lessons from Vietnam. John Kerry, who left for war presumably thinking the exact opposite of Bill Clinton, returned even more of a dove than Clinton, believing the U.S. military to be a bunch of war criminals and that American troops should only be dispersed under United Nations supervision.

For the next 30 years, Kerry was a tenacious dove on national security. In 1982, during his Massachusetts lieutenant governor’s race, Kerry came out in favor of the nuclear freeze–not that anyone cared much then. But two years later, when Kerry moved to the United States Senate, he kept to his principles battling Sam Nunn and Ronald Reagan over everything from arms control to “Reagan’s illegal war in Central America” to missile defense. He called the war in Grenada a “bully’s show of force.” And, in 1991, he opposed the use of force in Iraq because it would constitute a violation of “the theory of deterrence”–even Saddam was not theoretically in Kuwait.

The point of this worrisome litany isn’t so much to rehash the extent of Kerry’s post-Vietnam dovishness, though that’s certainly a worthwhile task during a wartime election year. No, what I want to point out is that even the most obvious good-vs.-evil conflicts don’t seem that obvious to lots of people when they’re in the middle of them. I have no doubt that when Americans look back on what we are now calling the “war on teror,” the morality and necessity of it will seem every bit as obvious as the morality and necessity of the Cold War seem to most of us, including Bill Clinton.

But just as millions of Americans were flat-out wrong about the urgency and necessity of fighting the Cold War, today there are millions of good and decent Americans who do not want to look the current enemy in the eye. They cling to polysyllabic professors who find clever ways to say the same dumb things over and over again. They look to America-detesting Europeans, mistaking cynicism for sagacity. And they look to politicians like John Kerry who proudly shift their opinions based upon the most convenient way of avoiding tough decisions, calling their zigs “nuance” and their zags “sophistication,” promising to “stay the course” only if it’s plotted as a U-turn.

It’s far from clear why George W. Bush’s poll numbers have been rising while he’s facing the worst barrage of criticism of his “war presidency,” but I can’t help thinking that it’s partly because he calls himself a war president at a time when Americans realize they need one. John Kerry may be qualified in all sorts of ways, but it’s clear that, since he returned from Vietnam, the one thing he hasn’t prepared for is to be “war president.”

The same went for Bill Clinton, of course. But he was lucky enough to run for president when we lacked an “intellectually coherent thing.”

Copyright (c) 2004 Tribune Media Services

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