Kerry Foreign Policy II

Neo-conservative columnists David Brooks and Bill Kristol today tackle John Kerry’s foreign policy leanings. The common theme is that Kerry is finally losing discipline and saying what he really thinks.

Brooks [RSS] in a piece called “Kerry’s Cruel Realism,” lampoons Kerry for being too focused on pure national interest and not enough on human rights issues.

Sometimes in the unscripted moments of a campaign, when the handlers are away, a candidate shows his true nature. Earlier this month, Andres Oppenheimer of The Miami Herald asked John Kerry what he thought of something called the Varela Project. Kerry said it was “counterproductive.” It’s necessary to try other approaches, he added.


Imagine if you are a Cuban political prisoner rotting in a jail, and you learn that the leader of the oldest democratic party in the world thinks you’re being counterproductive. Kerry’s comment is a harpoon directed at the morale of Cuba’s dissidents.

Imagine sitting in Castro’s secret police headquarters and reading that statement. The lesson you draw is that crackdowns work. Throw some dissidents in jail, and the man who might be president of the United States will blame the democrats for being provocative.

Imagine if in the 1980’s Ronald Reagan had called Andrei Sakharov or Natan Sharansky or Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel “counterproductive” because, after all, what they did spawned crackdowns, too.

If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past 20 years it is the power of moral suasion to buck up dissidents and undermine tyrannical regimes. And yet Kerry seems to have decided that other priorities come first.

Over the past several months, Kerry and his advisers have signaled that they would like to take American foreign policy in a more “realist” direction. That means, as Kerry told the editors of The Washington Post, playing down the idea of promoting democracy and focusing narrowly instead on national security. That means, as Kerry advisers told Joshua Micah Marshall in The Atlantic, pursuing a foreign policy that looks more like the one Brent Scowcroft designed for the first Bush administration.

You can see why Kerry thinks that’s a clever shift, after the arduous efforts to promote democracy in Iraq. With realism, you avoid humanitarian interventions.
But if we are going to turn realist, let’s be clear about what that means in practice. It means worrying less about the nature of regimes and dealing with whoever happens to be in power. It means alienating people who dream of living in freedom while we luxuriate in ours. It means doing little to confront crimes against humanity; realism gives a president a thousand excuses for inaction. It means betraying people like Oswaldo Payá — again and again and again.

This is an ironic charge, since it’s usually leveled by Democrats against Republicans. Indeed, if I had to choose between the two extremes, I would prefer Kerry’s stated harsh realism with Brooks’ apparent unlimited do-gooderism. I’m highly skeptical of our ability to radically improve the lot of the world’s oppressed by bombing them. Nor do I think that goal alone is worth the substantial cost in blood and treasure it requires.

Democratization is in the U.S. national interest, because free societies are almost always more amenable to reasoned interaction. I support our goal of a democratic Iraq. On the other hand, had Saddam not been a constant thorn in our side and a significant regional and direct threat to U.S. interests, the humanitarian rationale alone would have been insufficient–by a long shot–to gain my support for intervention.

Bill Kristol coins a new (to me) phrase, “Anti-anti-Saddamism,” in describing Kerry’s policy. He argues that Kerry unwisely reacted to the early press buzz around the 9/11 Commission report and revealed his true nature.

The Bush administration, he claimed, “misled America.” “The administration took its eye off al Qaeda, took its eye off of the real war on terror in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan and transferred it for reasons of its own to Iraq.” And “the United States of America should never go to war because it wants to; we should only go to war because we have to.”

So we didn’t have to go to war against Saddam, and (presumably) shouldn’t have. After all, “the real war on terror” is in Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan. And since the Bush administration, Kerry implies, knew perfectly well that there was no link between the “real” terrorists and Saddam Hussein, it went to war to remove Saddam only “because it want[ed] to.” The New York Times reports, incidentally, that this last line, about the administration “wanting” to go to war, is “one Mr. Kerry has been using with increasing frequency in campaign appearances,” and is one that receives “loud applause.” Why any administration should “want” to fight an unnecessary war Kerry does not explain. Or does Kerry now agree with his colleague Ted Kennedy that the Bush administration went to war because it knew it “was going to be good politically”?

This is surely a major moment in the presidential race. John Kerry had, until last week, been running a disciplined general election campaign, carefully suppressing his left-leaning foreign policy instincts, soberly emphasizing his commitment to fighting the war on terror and to seeing through the effort in Iraq. Then he couldn’t resist the temptation to jump on the (misleading) press accounts of the (sloppy) 9/11 Commission staff report, in order to assault the Bush administration on the issue of terror links between Saddam and al Qaeda.


If Kerry had known in October 2002 when he voted to authorize that war what he now knows, would he have voted differently? Does he believe we would have been better off confining the “war on terror” to Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan? Does Kerry disagree with the conclusion of his fellow Democrat, Joe Lieberman, who argued last week that “to call the war in Iraq separate and distinct from the larger war on terrorism is inaccurate. Iraq today is a battle–a crucial battle–in the global war on terrorism”?

Given the 9/11 Commission’s account of ties between (Sunni) al Qaeda and (Shia) Hezbollah, and what we now know of A.Q. Khan’s nuclear proliferation network that encompassed Sunni, Shia, secular Islamic, and non-Islamic states, wasn’t Bush more right than wrong to speak of an “axis of evil” and a network of rogue states and terrorist groups? And, finally: What really is Kerry’s view of the war against Saddam? Leave aside all the nonsense about a “rush to war.” Does John Kerry now believe we would have been better off to have left Saddam in power in Iraq?

While I disagree that one can’t simultaneously take the position that removing Saddam would be a good idea but that it wasn’t worth the opportunity costs, I agree that Kerry hasn’t done a good job of articulating his position. While I take as a given that he wants to do what’s right for America’s national security, his constantly changing positions give the appearance that he’s merely doing what seems politically expedient at any given moment. When he supported President Bush by giving him authority to wage war against Saddam, it looked very popular. Then, when it looked as if Howard Dean was going to run away with the Democratic race by being anti-war, Kerry shifted in the other direction, saying Bush’s handling of the war was “f#@%ed up” and then voting against the $87 billion aid package–admittedly, after having first voted for it–even though he’d earlier said that such a position was unthinkable.

As I’ve noted in previous posts, Kerry’s current foreign policy platform is remarkably similar to President Bush’s. The main difference seems to be one of conviction. Bush is sometimes infuriating in his insistence on “staying the course” even when a tactic seems to be failing. Kerry takes the opposite appoach, seemingly willing to change his entire philosophy on the morning’s news. While both approaches havetheir downfalls, I much prefer a resolute visionary to someone with his finger in the wind.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Afghanistan War, Democracy, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Meezer says:

    While I don’t care for the man personally, I don’t think that Kerry can take the country off on some leftist joyride all by himself. What I do fear is a vector diagram type of WoT – arrows going off in all directions, changing as opinion and events change. You don’t need to be evil or weak or foolish for this to happen. All it takes is not knowing exactly where you want to go and how you want to get there.