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.