At Large

Fortress Kerry

One moment Bush is a raging unilateralist, the next a craven isolationist. Will the Dems ever get their act together?

By 8.20.04

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I was amused to hear of John Kerry citing his shadow running mate John McCain on Wednesday while oh-so-politely discussing President Bush's plan to pull superfluous American troops out of Cold War installations. As the Washington Post's Lois Romano tells it, "Kerry pointed out that in a Senate hearing on Tuesday McCain questioned the troop plan, saying, 'I'm particularly concerned about moving troops out of South Korea when North Korea has probably never been more dangerous than any time since the end of the Korean War. I hope, as some critics allege, this is not a retreat to fortress America.'"

I can't be the only one -- even the only non-American -- who paused at this point and said to himself "Wait a second -- when did you guys decide that this 'Fortress America' thing was such a bad idea?" Being fortified against exterior security threats is a good thing, right? Having studied European history I associate the word "fortress" with functioning cities where people would live, work, and trade, content in the knowledge that the high walls were there to keep out enemies if the necessity arose.

Every European city with "burg" in its name was once a fortress, and bears the stigma, if there is one. Freedom isn't incompatible with fortress life; the latter, indeed, was once a passable practical synonym for the former. The Swiss, who are among the happiest and most prosperous people in Europe, arguably live together in a single resplendent mountain fortress bristling with guns and with tunnels built on interior lines. One might not like to live in a literal walled city, but as a metaphor for security, what's so bad about it?

Trick question. Liberal critics of the Republican administration love throwing around this phrase "Fortress America." No two users of the term mean the same thing by it: They may be criticizing intensified scrutiny of foreign travelers, or half-hearted efforts to shore up the Mexican border, or even crackdowns on anarchist protesters at international summit meetings.

So whence the popularity? As Senator McCain knows perfectly well, being a past master of low-brow rhetorical devices, it's subliminal innuendo. The term "Fortress America" was used by America Firsters in the years preceding Pearl Harbor -- the "isolationists," opposed to enmeshing the Republic in foreign wars, who spoke for an overwhelming majority of the American populace until the moment American territory was attacked, and who were rubbished as cryptofascists afterward. The other desired historical overtone, of course, is Hitler's "Fortress Europe." It's a way of calling George W. Bush a Nazi without calling him a Nazi.

If not for the lamentable associations with which the word "fortress" has become freighted in the American language, "Fortress America" would make a pretty good Republican campaign slogan. As it is, Donald Rumsfeld is forced to go before the press and distance the administration from the whole nasty idea of fortification. Fortunately, it always helps to have the brutally obvious on your side, and perhaps there will be a fair hearing, with absurd linguistic devices set aside, for Rumsfeld's careful explanation that thousands of warm American bodies are no longer strictly needed to stand in the path of Communist tanks in the Fulda Gap.

The occasion of the recall of American troops abroad seems like a funny sort of time to toss out the "Fortress America" grenade. Until yesterday the concern was more with what might be described as a "Battlefield Earth" scenario. What happened to the fears that the "neoconservative cabal" was remaking the world into a formless empire of American capitalism? The troop withdrawal doesn't seem like the sort of plot twist you'd find in a script like that.

For three years and change, the man who pledged a "more humble [American] foreign policy" has been raked over the coals for failing to adhere to that promise, despite the unusually strong reasons (e.g., the large ashen hole in the lower part of Manhattan) for a midterm course change. Now Bush has taken the first steps toward ceasing to guarantee, in toto, the defense of every other industrialized democracy in the known universe. And the man they were calling an imperialist yesterday is now instantly tarred as an isolationist. Do we need a new word here? Isoperialist? Impolationist?

THE TRUTH IS THAT bringing American troops home from places where they're not wanted -- and where they weren't terribly welcome even during the Cold War -- is a move which comes, if anything, too late in President Bush's first term. American forces in Europe proved useless as a bargaining chip with European democracies when support was needed for a questionable American adventure in Iraq; they were merely another source of friction. It would have been a great puzzle indeed to future historians if a president who insists that the U.S. is facing a new cold war against nonstate "terror" had left the Risk pieces in the same places they occupied when the enemy was a geographically demarcated superpower.

As far as South Korea goes, people like Sen. McCain apparently count on the American public not noticing that public opinion in South Korea is foursquare in favor of "unification" -- only the eventual terms are in question -- and that the U.S. presence in the country is almost uniformly despised there. I can't claim to understand South Korea, and least of all why it chooses to tweak the nose of Uncle Sam at every possible turn. But the South Koreans appear convinced that they can find some hypothetical path to unification while allowing Kim Jong-Il to save face at every turn.

The southern government is in the midst of an embarrassing imbroglio with the North over escapees from its Stalinist dictatorship, and may well end up ceasing -- in the name of preserving "dialogue" -- to offer such escapees unlimited sanctuary, at least in South Korean embassies abroad. There is talk of a single Korean team competing at the 2008 Olympics. One wonders why the United States would consider the continued separate existence of South Korea to be a vital strategic interest when the South Koreans themselves appear to be in some doubt about it.

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About the Author

Colby Cosh is a columnist for the National Post of Canada.