Foreign Policy

Kerry must make the case that multilateralism doesn't rule out a tough antiterrorism policy.

In an election in which voters -- many for the first time –- are giving serious thought to U.S. foreign policy, John Kerry has much to gain. In growing numbers, Americans believe that the war in Iraq was a mistake, which at least partly explains the recent slippage in the polls of George W. Bush, a self-proclaimed "war president." The Democratic Party, always politically vulnerable on national security, in recent polls is running more or less even with the Republicans on the question of who would better handle the war in Iraq. No wonder Bush recently said that what he really wants to be is a "peace president."

Meanwhile, at this week's convention the Democrats sought to assure the voters that Kerry has the "right stuff," if circumstances demand, to be a war president. Speaker after speaker commended Kerry's military service in Vietnam. Former generals criticized the handling of the war in Iraq and former presidents blasted Bush for foolishly burning bridges with U.S. allies, arguing that Kerry's combat experience and foreign policy expertise will ensure he will not shy away from projecting America's strength in the world, but will do so wisely and in consultation with allies. Caught between a Democratic base eager for a speedy pullout from Iraq and Republican accusations of Democratic weakness on national security, Kerry has to make the case that regardless of where one stands on Iraq, Bush's "war on terror" has made America less safe, not more.

What does Kerry have to offer as an alternative to Bush's aggressive unilateralism? In a word, cooperation. As Joshua Micah Marshall argues in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly, for many on Kerry's foreign policy advisory team, the bloodshed in the Balkans marked a revolution in the way that transnational threats to national security were viewed, and it was NATO's intervention in the region that has remained the model of successful coalition and nation-building:

"The Balkans proved that soft-sounding concerns like human-rights abuses, ethnic slaughter, lawlessness, and ideological extremism could quickly mount into first-order geopolitical crises…. By the mid-1990s this had led the Clinton Administration to focus on terrorism, failed states, and weapons proliferation, and as it did, its foreign-policy outlook changed. The key threats to the United States came to be seen less in terms of traditional conflicts between states and more in terms of endemic regional turmoil of the sort found in the Balkans.

In the Balkans, Holbrooke, Clark, and other leading figures found themselves confronting problems that required not only American military force but also a careful synthesis of armed power, peacekeeping capacity, international institutions, and nongovernmental organizations to stabilize the region and maintain some kind of order. Though the former Yugoslavia has continued to experience strife, the settlement in the Balkans remains the most successful one in recent memory, and offers the model on which a Kerry Administration would probably build."

As he supported intervention in the Balkans, so he opposed it in Iraq in the first Gulf War, explaining his position thus:

"Can it really be said that we are building a new world order when it is almost exclusively the United States who will be fighting in the desert, not alone but almost, displaying pride and impatience and implementing what essentially amounts to a pax Americana?…Is that a new world order?"

This of course leaves him needing to explain his more recent vote giving the president the authority to invade Iraq, and his subsequent vote against funding the war and occupation.

As Phillip Gourevitch writes in the New Yorker: "Kerry prefers to describe his opposition as a protest vote, since he cast it knowing that the measure would pass, and he considers it a minor matter compared with the Bush administration's own inconsistencies about Iraq." As Kerry told Gourevitch:

"'They have flip-flopped every step of the way in this thing…They flip-flopped on their rationale, they flip-flopped on what they said they'd do, they flip-flopped on each of the promises the President made about how he'd conduct it. They flip-flopped on when they would transfer authority. They flip-flopped on to whom. They flip-flopped on the U.N. They have flip-flopped on the intel, and they have obviously flip-flopped on the numbers of troops needed and how they would manage those troops, what the deployment times would be. I mean, this is an unbelievable series of flip-flops, with grave consequences.' "

The reality in Iraq certainly seems to bear out his critique. But electoral disillusion with Bush doesn't necessarily translate to trust in Kerry. The New Republic's Peter Beinart, fears Kerry may be getting too complacent about his recent electoral gains on the foreign policy front and that his emphasis on the need to improve U.S. image in the world may leave him looking weak on terrorism.

"At some crucial moment in the campaign, Kerry will face the post-September 11 equivalent of that famous question Michael Dukakis flubbed about opposing the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife. Terrorism is today what crime was then -- the litmus test for Democratic toughness. And there is reason to worry that, given Kerry's deep-seated foreign policy instincts, he won't get the answer right…

Kerry is right that anti-Americanism constitutes a major problem, a problem the Bush administration barely acknowledges. And he's right that rebuilding foreign ties is part of keeping America safe. But voters already know a Democratic president would improve relations with the world. What they don't know is whether he would defy the world, if necessary, to strike a blow against terrorism. On that crucial question, John Kerry still hasn't won the public trust. And neither George W. Bush nor John Edwards will do it for him."

In other words, Kerry needs to convince us that he'd make America respected in the world and safer at home.