Politics & Policy

Kerry’s 9/10 Acceptance Speech

Two Democratic messages.

All week long we heard that the Democrats were having a hawkish convention. And they were, through Wednesday night, when John Edwards joined the Joe Lieberman wing of the Democratic party–saying to the terrorists, “we will destroy you,” and emphasizing the importance of finishing the job of building a secure and democratic Iraq. Then John Kerry, the proposed commander-in-chief, spoke. And everything changed.

John Kerry spoke a lot about terrorism and about war. But what he had to say was remarkable for how familiar it sounded. And it didn’t sound like a familiar hawk. It sounded like standard Democratic-party views from the 1990s. It was more a list of hopes than policies. And worse, John Kerry appears to be placing his hopes in the same policies that failed us before.

To be sure, Kerry acknowledged that “we are a nation at war,” and that he would not “hesitate to use force when it is required,” but who wouldn’t? You shouldn’t even be eligible to be commander-in-chief if you’re not willing to use force when you think it required. The critical question–the questions the Democrats as a party have long had a problem with, and especially since 9/11–is when is force required. On that score, John Kerry’s speech made clear that this Democrat is still a 9/10 Democrat.

Kerry made plain that he is willing to send troops to fight, but he also made clear when he would do so: Only if he could look a soldier’s mother in the eye and explain that our nation faced an “imminent” threat, or if the nation had itself been attacked. That’s the doctrine for the 9/10 world: Unless we know you’re coming, we leave you alone. Given that the terrorists tend not to announce that they are coming, and that we now know the magnitude of damage they seek to and can inflict, some of us, the current president included, think it’s a bad idea to wait that long. The doctrine of preemption is all about the president saying he has the right to get terrorists before they get us.

Of course, Kerry said that he wants to “get the terrorists before they get us.” And I believe he really wants to. But how does he plan to do it? By “rebuild[ing] our alliances.” We know what this means. We know it’s not about convincing our allies to undertake military action against terror-sponsoring regimes so that terrorists are denied their safe harbor because Kerry already said that he won’t attack until we are attacked or face an imminent threat. This is about working with other nations in some kind of international law-enforcement operation to capture terrorists before they strike. More 9/10 thinking. Some of us, the current president included, think that the problem of international terror does not call for indictments and extradition for trial.

Finally, Kerry said he would “bring back” the principle that America “never goes to war because we want to, we only go to war because we have to.” “Bring back?” This was no shot at the president’s doctrine of preemption. Whatever one thinks of that doctrine, it has nothing to do with going to war because we want to. This was a broadside on the war in Iraq. Kerry is saying that the war in Iraq was undertaken because George W. Bush wanted to, not because he had to. Kerry, it follows, would not have undertaken that war had he been president. Further, Kerry, in the biggest speech of the campaign so far, said not a single word–not one–about his commitment to seeing democracy established in Iraq. Some of us, the current president included, believe that the only meaningful long-term antiterror strategy–the only strategy with the prospect of ridding the world of the scourge of large-scale, international terrorism–is to bring to terrorism’s most fertile region principles of democracy and freedom and opportunity.

Whether the president wins or loses in November, his administration will be notable for its one historic undertaking. Planting the seeds of democracy in the world’s most volatile and dangerous region can, if successful, really and truly change the world for the better. John Kerry gave no indication he is aware of this, much less willing to commit our nation’s resources and his political life to that task. Truly, and disappointingly, 9/10 thinking.

Robert N. Hochman is an attorney in Chicago.

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