Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 18, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

JOHN KERRY AND THE WAR ON TERROR....Dan Drezner, still trying to make up his mind who to vote for, has received lots of pro-Bush comments and says they've had an effect:

So where am I now? I'm unpersuaded by arguments saying that Bush's foreign policy has been a greater success than commonly thought, and I'm not convinced that he would ever be able to recognize the need for policy change.

However, the responses to the previous post have fed my doubts about Kerry's bad foreign policy instincts enough to slightly lower my probability of voting for Kerry to 70%. So it's now up to Kerry's supporters to make their case how can I trust that John Kerry gets the post-9/11 world? How can I be sure that Kerry's policymaking process will be sufficiently good so as to overwhelm Kerry's instinctual miscues?

I'll take a crack at that. I think the answer encompasses three main points:

  • First, obsessing over Kerry's entire 30-year public history is probably unproductive. After all, before 9/11 George Bush and his advisors had little concern for terrorism and expressed frequent contempt for things like nation building and democracy promotion. Does that affect how we feel about Bush today?

    It shouldn't, because we accept that 9/11 fundamentally changed his view of the world. We judge Bush by how he's reacted after 9/11, not by his advisors' long records before taking office and I'd argue that we should do the same with Kerry rather than raking over nuclear freeze minutiae and Gulf War votes from over a decade ago. Obviously Kerry's past illuminates his character to some degree, but a lot changed on 9/11 and I suspect that ancient history is a poor guide to his view of how to react to the post-9/11 world.

  • Second, Kerry has a reputation for taking his cues from his advisors, so it's worth looking at who his top foreign policy advisors are likely to be. The most frequently mentioned are Joe Biden, Richard Holbrooke, Rand Beers, William Perry, and a few others, and this strikes me as a pretty strong, competent, and toughminded team.

  • Finally, and most important: what is Kerry's view of the post-9/11 world and the war on terrorism? Here is Spencer Ackerman in The New Republic, contrasting George Bush's fixation on states as central actors to Kerry's more realistic understanding of what we're up against:

    Far from imposing democracy from the top down, Kerry told a Los Angeles audience in February, "We must support human rights groups, independent media, and labor unions dedicated to building a democratic culture from the grassroots up."

    ....In addition to communicating U.S. policy more persuasively, Kerry is likely to return the United States to a visible and active role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

    ....Kerry is also proposing a frontal assault on what Rand Beers, the former Bush counterterrorism czar now serving as Kerry's national security adviser, terms "a way of indoctrination" for the next generation of potential terrorists. "We need an international effort to compete with radical madrassas," Kerry said in his Los Angeles speech.

    ....Nor does Kerry intend to shy away from a cardinal source of funding for the madrassas Saudi Arabia. Biden in particular is prepared to confront the Saudis over their troublesome ideological adventures. "Our policy should be: Cease and desist, or we've got to figure out new relationships here," he says. "Am I going to invade your country? Hell no. Are we going to depose you? Hell no. But let me tell you: Are we going to supply the physical security for your continued existence? I don't know."

    ....Ever since his September 20, 2001, address to Congress, and especially in his 2002 State of the Union address, Bush has emphasized the need to attack state sponsors of terrorism at least as much as actual terrorists....Kerry, by contrast, understands that the threat from Al Qaeda is not state-centric. Asked where the "center" of the war on terrorism is, Beers immediately replies, "There isn't one." He explains, "What Al Qaeda did during its Afghan period was to create a jihadist movement on a global basis. While Al Qaeda certainly has the financial wherewithal, the organizational skills, the tactical wherewithal to conduct significant operations la the dual embassy bombing in Africa in 1998 or the World Trade Center-Pentagon attack in 2001, the fact that the major events since then have been conducted by organizations which were able to operate at a distance from and, to at least some degree, independent of central direction from Osama bin Laden is an indication. I wouldn't say that it's Al Qaeda 2.0, I'd say it's Global Terrorism 2.0. That means we're going to have to have a much broader and a much more comprehensive campaign that goes beyond the decapitation strategy that seems to excite George Bush."

    Kerry and his advisers intend to refocus the nation's military and intelligence efforts on eliminating Al Qaeda directly. To achieve that, Kerry has endorsed the 9/11 Commission's plans for intelligence reform and has proposed enlarging the regular Army by 40,000 soldiers and doubling the Army's Special Forces capacity. Presently, Army Special Forces units which include agile and innovative forces best trained and equipped to operate deep behind enemy lines and in nontraditional combat situations total about 26,000 active and reserve personnel, or only 2 percent of the entire Army. Expanding Special Forces would expand the range of military options available when confronting jihadists in nations where large or conspicuous U.S. incursions are politically impossible i.e., most of the approximately 60 countries where Al Qaeda operates.

    Unlike Bush, Kerry appears to have a firm understanding of all three components of a successful war on global terror: (1) the military effort to kill the terrorists themselves, (2) the cultural and ideological effort to undermine radical Islam, and (3) the diplomatic effort to address ground-level grievances that weaken our ability to pursue #1 and #2.

So: we should look primarily at John Kerry after 9/11, not before. We should look at the people likely to be the top foreign policy advisors in a Kerry administration. And we should look at his concretely expressed views about how best to fight and win the war on terror. It combines a serious, realistic view of global terror with a willingness to adapt to events that's sadly lacking in George Bush's worldview. It may not be perfect what is, after all? but it's better than what's on offer from the current team.

Kevin Drum 7:02 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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