War Presidents: Bush and Kerry Redux

Mark Steyn uses an amusing glitch as a jumping off point for a comparision of the likely presidential nominees:

Among my Christmas presents was a copy of Survive, a recent collection by Sports Afield magazine of helpful tips for the great outdoors. Most of the stuff was familiar – rub a raw potato on poison ivy, roast a wood bug before you eat it – but on page 70 I was surprised by this novel approach to mountain lions: “Do not approach one, especially if it is feeding or with its young. Most will avoid confrontation, so provide an escape. Do all you can to appear larger. Raise your anus, and open your jacket if you have one on.” I can’t say I did that the last time I saw a mountain lion, but maybe I had a lucky escape. And then I realised it’s meant to be “raise your arms” and that the item is a cautionary tale in the pitfalls of computer “scanning”.


I thought of the advice when I caught Presidential candidate John Kerry, the Default Democrat, at one of his final campaign stops in New Hampshire. Unlike the noisily anti-war Howard Dean, Kerry has taken a different tack. The thinking seems to be that, on the war, George W Bush is the mountain lion and the Dems need to “do all you can to appear larger”.


The Dems reckon that Bush is a single-issue candidate – he’s the war guy – and that, if Kerry can make himself appear larger on the national-security front, Bush’s single issue will cease to be an issue and the election will be fought on Democratic turf – healthcare, education, and so forth.

So far the strategy’s working. Kerry won three purple hearts in Vietnam, while Bush was either in the National Guard or, according to Michael Moore, a “deserter”. This charge is easily rebutted, but once you start having to explain things the other guy’s won. What counts is not the fine print but the meta-narrative: Kerry was in South-East Asia, Bush was in the South-West United States. That makes Kerry seem “larger”, which may be why the Bushies are waddling away from a fight on the issue.

But the idea that this puffs up Kerry to be the President’s equal on the new war is a more tortuous stretch. The only relevant lesson from Vietnam is this: then, as now, it was not possible for the enemy to achieve military victory over the US; their only hope was that America would, in effect, defeat itself. And few men can claim as large a role in the loss of national will that led to that defeat as John Kerry. A brave man in Vietnam, he returned home to appear before Congress and not merely denounce the war but damn his “band of brothers” as a gang of rapists, torturers and murderers led by officers happy to license them to commit war crimes with impunity. He spent the Seventies playing Jane Fonda and he now wants to run as John Wayne.


Senator Kerry has done a good job of enlarging himself but the reality is simple: George W Bush’s America has won two swift wars and overthrown two enemy regimes; John Kerry was heroic in a war that America lost and whose loss he celebrated. Since then he’s been a model lack-of-conviction politician. The question for anyone who thinks Kerry has “credibility” on national security is a simple one: who do you think Iran, North Korea, Syria, al-Qa’eda’s Saudi paymasters and the rogue elements in Pakistan’s ISI would prefer to see elected this November?

I suspect that will essentially be how this contest is framed.

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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. Gautam Vallabha says:

    “who do you think Iran, North Korea, Syria, al Qa’eda’s Saudi paymasters and the rogue elements in Pakistan’s ISI would prefer to see elected this November?”

    The answer to this is by no means evident.
    Who do you think Hezbollah and Hamas would
    prefer to see elected in an Israeli General
    Election — Sharon or someone more left-wing?
    I suspect the answer is Sharon, because his
    policies help their cause (their “cause” here
    is not helping the Palestinian people, but
    to continue their apocalyptic all-or-nothing

    Let me put this another way. Let us say the
    choice in November is between Bush and an
    extremist who proposes to invade Saudi
    Arabia and destroy Mecca. Which of these
    two would Iran, Syria, Al-Quaeda et al.

  2. Jane says:

    If Kerry voted against Gulf 1, with a coalition of the willing, an actual invasion, and UN blessing, what would it take for this guy to mobalize the military as commander in chief?

  3. McGehee says:

    I’m pretty sure at this point al-Qaeda would prefer a little breathing space. Dubya ain’t gonna give it to ’em, but it sure sounds like Kerry would.

  4. Kate says:

    The effect of having combat experience may be the exact opposite of what Sen. Kerry implies: in his case, it seems to have made him afraid to pull the trigger. As Jane correctly points out, he didn’t support Gulf I – about as clear a case as could be made for intervention.

    He voted to authorize the use of force this time around only because it was politically expedient after 9/11. He then voted against the reconstruction package after accusing the adminstration of a “cut-and-run” strategy (what, exactly, Mr. Kerry’s strategy was in the absence of funds for reconstruction of Iraq remains a mystery).

    At best, combat experience may suggest a leader has the mettle to lead in time of war. Dubya has already shown that. He doesn’t need to have combat experience – no President does.