EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial appears in the October 25, 2004, issue of National Review.
Elections in wartime are necessarily referenda on the incumbent. The president makes the decisions; since some decisions, even of presidents who ultimately win their wars, are bad, he bears the blame. Lincoln was so uncertain about the election of 1864 that he prepared a transition strategy, until General Sherman gave him some timely victories.
The Terror War will not supply such successes before Nov. 2. The United States and Iraq have to slog to make Iraq stable, or at least not disastrous. Other nettles, from Syria to Saudi Arabia to Iran, have yet to be grasped. President Bush, as the first debate proved, is an erratic defender of his actions. Like many a slugger he alternates home runs with ghastly whiffs.
Yet an election is also a choice. George Bush is not running against Winston Churchill, or perfection. He is running against John Kerry. Kerry makes his own whiffs, from a bottled suntan to “I voted for it before I voted against it.” But he also has wartime service, a grave demeanor, and the prospect of a fresh start going for him. What, after the fresh start, would Kerry’s policies be?
In the first debate, Kerry enounced the doctrine of the “global test.” After insisting that he would not forswear America’s right to act, even preemptively, “in any way necessary,” he added that America’s actions had to “pass . . . the global test” of convincing Americans and “the world” that we are acting “for legitimate reasons.” This sounds like Jefferson’s “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” But Kerry’s constant invocation of summits and allies makes plain that his “global test” is more than making the best possible case; it stands or falls on the approval, and the cooperation, of other nations, and possibly of the U.N. as well. Kerry here reflects the senatorial temperament, beholden to consensus and deal-making. But the Terror War is not a transportation bill.
Kerry opposes the Iraq war as a blunder, yet he promises to tell the troops that he will lead them to victory. He expects what he believes is his “truth-telling” to inspire them, and he even had the chutzpah, in the first debate, to compare his honesty now to his honesty during the Vietnam War. But young John Kerry did not tell his uncomfortable truths (most of them lies, actually, but let it pass for the moment) in order to inspire America to victory. Instead he wanted to shame it into retreat, and ultimately he succeeded. Kerry can’t mean both halves of his contradiction. If the Iraq war was a mistake, as he has repeatedly said, then the fallen there have died for a mistake, which he has denied. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Kerry would bring what he believes to be an American blunder to a swift, and more or less inglorious, end. Otherwise he is coldly fooling his anti-war constituency. Even his enemies do not accuse him of this cynicism.
Kerry has recently advanced a new idea, that we should reach out to the Muslim world. The United States has barely begun to make the kind of ideological campaign that it did during the Cold War, with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. If this is what Kerry has in mind, then he is to be encouraged. In normal diplomatic parlance, however, reaching out to the Muslim world means reaching out to its rulers–all of them, with a few exceptions (including Allawi and Karzai) despots, zealots, or mass murderers (sometimes all three). The difference is the difference between hobnobbing with Brezhnev and urging his successors to tear down the Berlin Wall. Senator Kerry did not support President Reagan; why should we expect him to be Reaganesque now?
The most telling point President Bush made when he had Kerry face to face was that “the best way to protect this homeland is to stay on the offense.” If 9/11 was a crime, and if jihad’s patrons and well-wishers are simply neighborhood nuisances, then Bush is wrong. If the Terror War is a war, then he is right. In this context, the most disturbing thing Kerry has said recently was his fantasy of the right way to have handled Iran–offering it nuclear power, then imposing sanctions only if it then started making bombs. Why go to Dr. Khan’s backdoor bomb shop if Uncle Sam is willing to give you the initial leg up? After 9/11, we are not dealing with the abstract menace of proliferation. We are dealing with regimes that hate America, and with freelancers who are willing to strike at our heart. If Kerry feels the appropriate urgency, he has yet to show it.