This article appears in the August 9, 2004, issue of National Review.
We learned more about John Kerry’s kindness to children and small animals than we did about his Iraq policy at the Democratic convention. He did not say that we were wrong to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Neither did he say that we were right. He did not even congratulate our troops for ending his tyranny (and that of the Taliban). He did not say that Bush had made us safer than we were on the morning of September 11, nor that he had exposed us to more danger. But what Kerry did say was nonetheless revealing.
He suggested (as he has stated more forthrightly before) that President Bush had “misled” America into war with Iraq. As Dick Cheney notes, he is accusing the president of reaching the same conclusion, based on the same data, that he did. Kerry said that America’s “time-honored tradition” has been to go to war only because we have to, never because we want to–implying that President Bush had broken this rule in Iraq. He suggested that he would wage war against “real and imminent” threats. But there will always be a dispute about the dimensions of a threat while it is gathering. Whether to take military action now–whether such action is necessary to reduce the risks–will always involve choice. To take Kerry’s distinction seriously is to rule out the possibility of pre-emptive action and to be willing to go to war only in response to attacks that have already taken place (the view of most Democrats in polls). Such rules are very far from the American historical experience, whatever Kerry says.
Kerry said he would get other countries to participate in Iraq, “to get the job done and bring our troops home.” (After the convention, he said that he had a plan to effect this participation but would not disclose its details.) He was far more specific about getting the troops out of Iraq than about any particular goal there, such as ensuring that the country does not again become a center of anti-American activity. Kerry’s remarks on the desirability of allies, meanwhile, simply bogs him down further in the question of “wars of choice.” He says he “will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security.” So if someone attacks us, he will not check with Paris before responding. To what extent will he allow Paris to affect our response to more ambiguous threats? His record gives us no reason to trust his judgment in this matter; nor does his rhetoric about wanting vs. having to make war.
For Kerry, what it was important for us to know is that he is a patriot and that accusations to the contrary–not that anyone has made them–are affronts to democracy. The message of the convention was that nobody can question the patriotism of someone who served honorably and with distinction in Vietnam, and has the support of many other people who did so. But neither his service nor the tributes of veterans can establish that his slander of other Vietnam veterans as war criminals, a slander for which he has never apologized, was less than disgraceful. Nor can it establish that his national-security judgment is wiser than his record in office suggests. If all Kerry learned in Vietnam was that American power can go wrong, then his service, however honorable, subtracted from his qualification for office.
Speaking of honor: After accusing Bush of having misled the country into a war he “wanted” to wage–he declined to provide a theory about Bush’s motive–and after a week in which his fellow Democrats accused Bush of everything from pining for segregation (Al Sharpton) to draft-dodging (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton), Kerry urged Bush to run a positive campaign rather than a divisive one. He immediately added that Bush could start by ending his misuse of the Constitution “for political purposes.” The media, of course, went along with the Democrats’ spin that they had refrained from bashing Bush. They didn’t question Kerry’s shaky statistics about declining wages, or his dubious linkage of asthma rates to Bush’s environmental policies, or his questionable promise to pay for all his new programs. But none of this is especially shocking.
John Kerry has not made a compelling case for a term as president, and has largely failed in his duty to try. It is now up to President Bush to do better.