Politics & Policy

Kerry, Captive

An anatomy of flip-flopping.

There is a logic to Senator Kerry’s flip-flopping that transcends his political opportunism: He is simply a captive of the pulse of the battlefield, without any steady vision or historical sense that might put the carnage of the day into some larger tactical, strategic, or political framework. As was true over a decade ago during Gulf War I, he contradicts himself when good news from the front makes his prior antiwar stance look either timid or foolhardy. But when the casualty rate rises or CNN is particularly vivid in airing the latest beheading or car bomb he returns to his shrill pessimism and denounces the war.

In 1991, when in-the-know pundits warned of horrific losses, Kerry spoke against going into Kuwait. When 100 hours brought unforeseen victory, he retroactively supported Desert Storm. Finally, he returned to his previous opposition when Kurds and Shiites were left hanging in the victory’s aftermath. The larger issue was never whether Saddam should rest atop a stolen, oil-rich country, but rather what exactly 51 percent of the voters seemed to favor on any given day.

Now we see a repeat performance, driven by the same opportunism: Kerry publicized his previous sanctioning of the war as Saddam’s statue fell and Iraqis rejoiced. Then, as the looting spread, he reiterated his longstanding worries. He solved the dilemma of sorting out the chaos by talking about voting for and then against appropriations–after all, it remains unclear whether the evening news will bring forth the last gasp or the new wave of Iraqi terror, and Americans meanwhile seem equally divided on the wisdom of the entire campaign.

In this regard, the senator is one with the majority of citizens–at least if the mercurial polls are any indication. Remember the ups and downs: Public support for taking out Saddam was strong on the eve of the war; after the three-week victory, it rose to overwhelming approval, but news of the lootings and terrorism caused it to plunge. It recovered a little with the capture of Saddam and the hand-over of power to the Iraqi interim government, but now it is eroding as the Sunni Triangle sends forth its daily death counts.

Lost in all this political calculus is a consistent belief that it was and is a very difficult but good thing to rid the world of a mass murderer like Saddam and leave consensual government in his wake, thus turning a volcano of death into an island of sanity in the strategic Middle East.

GOOD AND BAD WAR LEADERS

Almost no one compares the present disturbing costs to previous American sacrifices at the Argonne, Guadalcanal, or the Bulge, much less preventable American miscalculations at Pearl Harbor, the Kasserine Pass, Schwienfurt, and the Yalu River, all of which sent thousands of Americans to their deaths but nevertheless did not lead to strategic defeat. In our present folly, if we are not perfect, then we are failures–war being not the age-old tragic choice between bad and worse alternatives, but a therapeutic alternative of either achieving instant utopia at little cost or calling it quits forever.

The problem with Mr. Kerry’s understandable mutability, however, is that real leaders are supposed to some degree to expect and then endure these bouts of public skepticism as the inevitable wage of seeing their vision through. Thucydides’ famous encomium of Pericles centered on his ability to withstand the fury of the people–and through forbearance, unshakeable will, and patience allow his constituents to return to their senses.

The same steadfastness seems to have been central to Lincoln’s and Churchill’s successes. Neither blinked after disasters such as Antietam, the Wilderness, and Cold Harbor, or descended into panic or depression following news of horrific losses at Singapore and Dunkirk. Pericles was fined; Lincoln faced defeat in 1864; and Churchill, after staving off early censure, was finally removed from office–but only after it was clear that his leadership had assured victory.

By contrast, Nicias, McClellan, and Chamberlain were slaves to public opinion. What vision they had was cobbled together from a sense of what the people wished in any given week–and thus constantly subject to modification and contradiction as the collective mood soared or plummeted, predicated on the people sensing that things were either going well or worsening. Such leaders are flip-floppers not simply because the god of public opinion is volatile, but because in war the battlefield itself is unpredictable and unfathomable–if one examines it in terms of hours, days, or weeks rather than months or years.

To this day, Americans have no idea whether Kerry thinks the entire Iraq operation was a flawed idea from the start or approves of the strategy but faults Bush on matters of tactics–not being tough enough on looters, disbanding the Iraqi army, allowing Fallujah to fester. That these are mutually exclusive positions bothers him little when he collates the daily punditry and creates some slightly nuanced new position for the present hour.

A GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE

If these annoying political campaigns are in fact valuable training grounds for the presidency, then the chaos of the Kerry crusade bodes ill for us all.

Why bring up Vietnam as an exemplar of principled service when tapes exist of past slurs against the troops in the field? Why slander George W. Bush’s record when such attention will only invite commensurate investigation of one’s own controversial wartime service? Why transmogrify past antiwar activism into solid support for American military engagement when such recasting only recalls one’s similar contemporary metamorphosis, replete with the same old calls for withdrawal timetables, multilateral solutions, and the accustomed slanders against a sitting president?

Teresa Heinz Kerry charges “un-Americanism” and alleges plots to produce Osama bin Laden on the eve of the election–all the while producing howlers such as suggesting that hurricane-devastated refugees “go naked” and quipping “Who cares?” about what happens in Arizona. She does so because, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s outburst in the 1980 campaign, she really is “paying for this.”

Populism is the Democratic mantra, but in the postmodern age it requires a disciplined candidate who, for just a few months, can be weaned from appearing in trendy aristocratic garb snowboarding and windsurfing only to do glum penance the next day in the mandatory jeans and hunting vest. One can’t have an assault rifle and not an assault rifle anymore than he can own and not own an SUV. But then, are those in Michigan with whom he’s not comfortable more numerous than the Cambridge crowd with whom he is?

The volatility on the part of Kerry’s handlers descends even to the superficial–we do not know whether the candidate will appear pale, tan, or now orange. His hair may be black, gray, or salt-and-pepper, his lines smoothed or creased–radical changes in appearance that transcend even the wear and tear of the campaign and become a metaphor for his fluctuating message. Windsurfing, orange dye on the epidermis, whitened teeth, hair tint, and teenager runabout clothes–these are not the things that captivate auto workers, farmers, miners, and welders. So everything else Kerry has done in this disastrous campaign has only added to the image that he is an undisciplined and contradictory thinker without either strong beliefs or the moral courage to risk offending critics in pursuing his ideals.

KERRY’S IRAQ?

Kerry must either tell us why this war was a mistake and reconcile his previous conflicting statements or, in the tactical sense, criticize the present administration for allowing a stunning three-week victory to turn into a messy occupation. He must offer the American people clear correctives that suggest his initial support was wise and that the war deserved better execution.

But he has done neither–because he does not know what the American people quite think, and doubts that his own pacifist inclinations will play well with the electorate. Railing about “them” is easy when you’re a young Vietnam-veteran activist, and even perhaps as one of 100 senators; but it’s quite a different thing when you must craft a positive policy to lead the world’s only superpower.

In truth, the only sober course in Iraq is to correct the tactical lapses (lax security during the looting, porous borders, unguarded arms depots, undisturbed terrorist sanctuaries, harassing but not eradicating Islamic fascists) in continual pursuit of larger strategic successes. The sanctuary of al Qaeda is drying up in Pakistan while its money sources from Saudi Arabia are under new audit. Libya has flipped. Iran is now under global examination. Syria is apprehensive. Afghanistan is free of theocracy. All this shrinks the world of the Islamic fascists, which before 9/11 was expanding.

Kerry should remind us that none of these recent positive developments are sustainable unless the actual fighting on the ground in Iraq results in clear-cut victory, which is tragically obtained by the sacrifices of America’s superb military. But this he will not or cannot do, either because he does believe in it or because he long ago bartered his wisdom to obtain support from the Howard Dean Left.

So Kerry flip and flops like a fish out of water, suggesting that his heart is with Howard Dean while his mind concurs with George Bush–and thus his schizophrenia is on the verge of leading his party to a landslide defeat in the electoral college, and the loss of all branches of government with it. Americans simply have never voted for leaders who insult their allies on the battlefield, claim that their soldiers are losing, and shrug that the war is about lost. And they surely won’t this time either.

Victor Davis Hanson is a military historian and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His website is victorhanson.com.

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