Suddenly the second-term fortunes of President George Bush are being cast in doubt, and frankly I’m not disappointed. There are lots of issues sitting on the table that the public really hasn’t had the chance to resolve.
What this country needs right now is a good, well-contested Presidential election. It will be a shame if we’re still talking about John Kerry’s Vietnam service and President Bush’s National Guard stint by November, but in a way that’s what the election is going to be all about.
No one can fault Bush for his response to September 11 and the way he has rallied the nation. On his role as commander-in-chief, it’s thumbs-up all the way. But there are other questions looming just over the horizon. Just how far is the nation willing to commit to building democracy the Middle East? Is this a single tour of duty or an open-ended enlistment? The brouhaha over CIA intelligence is only symptomatic. There is serious talk in Washington about expanding the military. Condoleezza Rice is projecting a 15-year tour through the wallows of Middle Eastern nation building.
The real question is, what’s our mission over there? Are we really ready to embark on this kind of effort? Let’s ask the question now, rather than argue about how we were “deceived” into it later.
IN THIS LIGHT, John Kerry’s Vietnam service is extremely relevant. Granted he turned against the war, but at least he enlisted in the first place. Anyone who lived through that era knows how surpassingly easy it was for people with a college education to avoid military service. For me, it was a college doctor who hated his army experience and made a practice out of writing letters to people’s draft boards asking that they be excused. Even for those who volunteered, the road away from combat was easy to take. The quarterback of my college football team was enthusiastically training as a platoon sergeant in 1965 when he got a glimpse at the mortality rates for platoon leaders already serving in Vietnam. Within a few months he had quietly steered himself into a training assignment and spent the rest of his enlistment stateside.
In its early stages, the Vietnam War was fought by hotshots, adventurers, and army veterans bored after more than a decade of peace. A sign hanging around army bases in 1963 said, “Vietnam — it’s not much but it’s the only war we’ve got.” By 1970 the war was being fought by 18-and-19-year-olds drafted directly out of high school. That’s what went wrong — we were sending draftees with six months’ training up against the most seasoned army in the world. But draft boards were tired of dealing with protesters and went for the path of least resistance. With student deferments, a college education practically exempted you from military service. As a result, the burden of fighting split along class lines.
That’s why John Kerry’s Vietnam service is such a throwback to a different era — namely World War II. Granted he is a Massachusetts Brahmin who attended Swiss boarding schools. Granted he has a taste for Italian motorcycles and his favorite form of address to common people (according to one Massachusetts radio host who has followed him closely) is: “Do you know who I am?” Still, Kerry is following in the footsteps of another Massachusetts liberal with a stellar war record — John F. Kennedy — and that’s not a bad place to be.
KERRY’S EXPERIENCE THROWS the Bush administration into sharp contrast. Whether Bush has done the right thing or not in invading Iraq — and I think he has — there is about him a certain air of the armchair soldier. Even worse is Dick Cheney, whose “other priorities” argument may yet blow up in everyone’s face. There is a lot of responsibility in sending American soldiers into combat right now.
Yet read David Frum and Richard Perle’s An End to Evil and you’ll find a pair of former Bush and Reagan administration officials talking about moving the American armed forces around the globe like a box of toy soldiers. We should invade Syria just to make sure Saddam didn’t store any weapons there. Then we should overthrow the mullahs in Iran. Next let’s blockade North Korea. Granted Frum and Perle are no longer in government service, but there’s a hint of the kind of ideas that may be circulating through the Administration. With these kinds of ambitions, it’s nice to have someone with Kerry’s combat experience in on the discussion.
Of course Kerry is kidding himself — and voters will be fooled as well — if he thinks he’s going to change course in Iraq any time soon. The dividends have already been too great — getting rid of Saddam, Libya’s capitulation, the revelation of the Pakistani-North Korean alliance (a real “Axis of Evil”), plus who-knows-what to come. Kerry may try to hang his hat on the UN, but anyone who ties his electoral fortunes to the whims of France and Germany will be entering his own quagmire.
WHAT I’D LIKE TO SEE SOMEONE do is put our entire world position in perspective. Although radical Islam is on our front burner, an equally challenging shift is the rise of China and India as mature economic competitors. Democracy and free markets are finally taking root in these Far East goliaths — which is exactly what we wanted when we fought the Vietnam War. Yet now that the Chinese are manufacturing things instead of shoveling manure on agricultural communes while preparing for land war with America, we suddenly find ourselves worrying about them as an “unfair trading partner.”
The most recent world economic statistics show that, for the first time in history, the gap between rich and poor around the globe has actually started narrowing rather than widening. This is a direct result of China and India’s adoption of capitalism.
So what do we want? Do we immediately close our doors and start putting up trade barriers, trying to restore the miserable conditions that gave rise to Chinese Communism in the first place? Or do we try to retool America as a flexible, high-tech society that can remain inventive and keep its place at the head of the world economy?
That’s an issue on which George Bush and the Republicans have it all over the Democrats. If he wants to shed his image as a weekend warrior and emerge as a true world leader, the President should start laying out some of these hard truths to the country right now.
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