Political Hay

They Can’t Be Serious

Inheriting a war isn’t the same thing as having the will to fight it -- so let’s hold off with those predictions that a President Kerry would pick up where his predecessor left off.

By 10.29.04

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WASHINGTON -- Among the more dangerous ideas floating around this election is that sending John Kerry to the White House will force Kerry and the Democratic Party to take seriously the war in Iraq and, by extension, the broader War on Terror.

Here is Andrew Sullivan, in his endorsement of Kerry: "…the Democratic Party needs to be forced to take responsibility for the security of the country that is as much theirs as anyone's." And here is Christopher Hitchens in his non-endorsement endorsement of President Bush:

I can't wait to see President Kerry discover which corporation, aside from Halliburton, should after all have got the contract to reconstruct Iraq's oil industry. I look forward to seeing him eat his Jesse Helms-like words, about the false antithesis between spending money abroad and "at home" (as if this war, sponsored from abroad, hadn't broken out "at home"). I take pleasure in advance in the discovery that he will have to make, that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is a more dangerous and better-organized foe than Osama bin Laden, and that Zarqawi's existence is a product of jihadism plus Saddamism, and not of any error of tact on America's part… I look forward, in other words, to the assumption of his responsibility.

The philosophy behind such sentiment is determinism -- the idea that men don't so much control events as they are controlled by them. The circumstances at a given point in history force a president to take certain actions. This theory tells us that since the war in Iraq and the War on Terror will still be going on when Kerry would take office, he would have little choice but to make a strenuous effort to ensure our national security. It makes me want to throw up my hands and say: "Have we learned nothing from history?"

Let's look at some examples, starting with the president who had one of the worst foreign policies in our nation's history, Jimmy Carter. Carter faced some crucial events that should have forced him to take serious foreign policy measures. Yet his response to the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were anything but serious. With the exception of one failed rescue attempt, Carter publicly disavowed the use of force against Iran, and even went as far down the road of silliness as trying to get Libyan leader Mohamarr Qaddafi and then former Attorney General Ramsey Clark to intervene.

On Afghanistan, many conservative Democrats predicted that the invasion would change Carter's outlook on the Soviet Union. "Carter's more vigorous response to the invasion of Afghanistan had raised hopes that he had a new realism in his assessment of the Soviet Union," recalled Jeane Kirkpatrick. But in a subsequent meeting with Kirkpatrick and other conservative Democrats, Carter scolded, "Your analysis is not true. There has been no change in my policy. I have always held a consistent view of the Soviet Union. For the record, I did not say that I have learned more about the Soviet Union since the invasion of Afghanistan." When Congress later decided, in response to the invasion, to add more to the defense budget, Carter complained that the increase "is more than we actually needed." Carter was an unserious man facing serious threats.

Next, let's move to terrorism. Did the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon force President Reagan to see the growing threat of terrorism as urgent? Not as much as he should have. Although he later bombed Libya in response to some hostage incidents, he never gave terrorism as much attention as communism. As for Clinton, few dispute that he didn't take it seriously even in the wake of the first attack on the World Trade Center, the bombing of the Khobar Towers, or the bombing of the American embassies in Africa. For that matter, how many times after 9/11 have you heard people say they are relieved that Bush was president and not Al Gore?

Clearly, different men react differently to events; how they react is what matters.

Thus, it is absurd to the point of lunacy to assume that electing Kerry will force him to take terrorism seriously. If we were to assume that, what is the point of voting for a president? For that matter, what is the point of having an election at all? We can just put 50 people in a circle, spin a bottle, and put in charge whomever the bottle points to. After all, current events would compel him or her to approach the War on Terror with grave concern.

THE QUESTION THAT MUST be addressed is, will Kerry and the Democrats take it seriously? Kerry has shown a completely unserious attitude, voting for the Iraq war when it was convenient, and then voting against the $87 billion for our troops when he faced the upstart Howard Dean. He tells us in August that he still would have voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, and then in September tells us that it is "the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time." He is a man who tells the New York Times that 9/11 didn't change him at all. He is so lacking in seriousness, that his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention did not even use the word "terrorism"

Then there is the Democratic base, much of which is anti-war, some of it ferociously so. What if stabilizing Iraq means American troops will have to be there beyond 2008? What if negotiations with the Iranians over their nuclear facilities prove futile, and Kerry is faced with the choice of using missile attacks and bombing raids? In those instances, he will risk alienating part of his base if he makes decisions they do not like. Do we really want to trust him with such decisions when he can't stand up to his base on a much easier decision like funding the troops?

On the other hand there is President Bush, who has shown that he is very serious about fighting the War on Terror and the Iraq War. Yes, he has made mistakes, such as not being more aggressive in Fallujah. But I see much of the criticism as Monday-morning quarterbacking. War is the most hazardous of all human activities, one in which leaders are going to make numerous errors. The standards much of the media and the political left now apply to the war are empty of any sense of perspective. Had such standards represented the zeitgeist of the 1940s, D-Day would have been dismissed as a fiasco, and the Pacific theater dubbed a quagmire.

Indeed, it amazes me that people aren't taking the arguments of Sullivan and Hitchens with a big grain of salt. One is clearly alienated by Bush on the issue of gay marriage, and the other has long been a man of the left. Ultimately, it comes down to this: Does it make any sense to choose a candidate who you hope will be forced by events to take the War on Terror seriously over a president who has already shown that he does? Hope is not a strategy.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.