FOREIGN policy was expected to be at the center of this year's duel between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry. Kerry, in accepting the Democratic nomination on Thursday, raised expectations by admitting that America was "a nation at war."
Nevertheless, Kerry's speech of more that 5,200 words devoted only around 500 words to foreign-policy in general and the war against terrorism in particular. Even then, Kerry used those words for sloganeering.
Kerry's speech revealed a man who, though vaguely conscious that the world has changed, prefers to assume that it has not.
"The world tonight is very different from the world of four years ago," Kerry told the convention. "We are a nation at war — a global war on terror against an enemy unlike any we have known before."
Yet Kerry did not say in what ways the world is different. And when it came to dealing with this different world, he had little to offer but pre-9/11 the solutions.
Nor was the Democratic nominee willing to define the nature of this war and point out why this "enemy" was unlike any that the United States has known.
It is important for the American to understand that they face a war that involves more than a mood. It involves real people, command structures, states that offer safe haven, global networks of finance and propaganda, and fifth columnists of various faiths and ideologies in many countries, including the United States.
How would a President Kerry fight this war?
His answer is simple: "As president, I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in [the Vietnam] war," the senator told the convention.
This is precisely the problem.
The lessons of Vietnam could be misleading in fighting the war against terrorism. In Vietnam, the war was over territory: The Communists who had seized control of North Vietnam wanted to annex the south. The United States had intervened to prevent that and enable the South Vietnamese to choose a different future.
That war was fought in Indochina, thousands of miles away from America. The Vietcong would not send death-squads to kill Americans in New York and Washington. Nor did it dream of conquering the world for its ideology, whatever it might have been, or to force all humanity to adopt its beliefs. And the Vietcong enjoyed significant levels of support and sympathy inside the United States, which is presumably not the case in the current war against terrorism.
One of the things the Americans need to do in the war against terrorism is to unlearn the lessons of Vietnam.
The choice the United States has is not between war and peace. The enemy it faces does not understand peace. As a statement attributed to Osama bin Laden, and addressed to the Europeans, said recently, there can be no peace with the "infidel."
The choice here is between war and endless war. This is not an enemy that could be drawn into Paris "peace talks" to win Nobel Prizes for the participants.
Kerry says "We need to be looked up to, and not just feared." Yet, while it is always pleasant to be looked up to, what is needed now is that the terrorists, and their allies and patrons, should fear the United States. The bin Ladens and Saddam Husseins of this world are unlikely to look up to the United States. But they can be made to fear it, to the point of running to hide in caves and holes.
Kerry says he would wage "a smarter, more effective war on terror."
Ok, but how?
First, he would "ask hard questions and demand hard evidence."
But when it comes to terrorism, hard questions don't necessarily produce hard evidence. Often, such evidence becomes available only after an attack, not before.
Anyway, once a President Kerry has asked his hard questions and obtained his hard evidence, he would only be at the start of a long road to a policy. He would next have to persuade other nations (variously described in his speech as "allies," "erstwhile allies" and simply "others") to accept his "hard evidence" and side with the United States. Then the whole matter would have to be taken to unspecified "international institutions," supposedly for approval.
After that? Here is Kerry's answer: "Only then with confidence and determination we will be able to tell the terrorists: You will lose, we will win!"
Will such a warning make the bin Laden and Saddam Husseins of this world tremble?
Thus what Kerry's offers amounts to nothing but bringing occasional dissidents such as Greece and France on board. Is that so important in the larger scheme of things? Americans might be surprised to learn that "we will win" if, and only if, French President Jacques Chirac agrees to join Kerry in fighting al Qaeda or in deploying NATO forces to Iraq.
Kerry says: "I will never hesitate to use force when it is required; any attack will be met with swift and certain response." This means that Kerry's strategy in the war against terrorism is reactive, not pro-active.
He also says: "The frontlines of this battle are right here on our shores", and then proposes a series of new security measures, especially for container ships and airports.
But while such defensive measures might be necessary, it is vital to take the war to the terrorists.
It is important that fear should change camp: Instead of Americans living in fear, make sure that the terrorists and their sympathizers do. In this war, search-and-destroy tactics must play a central role for victory, the only acceptable outcome, to be achieved.
Kerry says: "The United States of America never goes to war because we want to, we only go to war because we have to."
This is stating the obvious. The problem arises when you have to go to war but you don't want to. There are also times when you do not have to go to war, but want to because you wish to topple mass-murderers like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein.
Kerry's position on Iraq is an exercise in ambiguity. In 1991, he voted against the use of force to drive Saddam out of Kuwait, although that had been unanimously approved in the U.N. Security Council. Later, he said he regretted that vote. In 2002, he voted for toppling Saddam by war, although this did not have specific U.N. support. And now he implies that he regrets that vote, too.
As a multilateralist, Kerry should have voted for intervention in Kuwait in '91 and against intervention in Iraq in '02. But, each time, he did the opposite.
The most disturbing idea that Kerry launched, however, came when he spoke of a message that he would send to American troops on the first day of his presidency: "You will never be asked to fight a war without a plan to win the peace."
Logically, this means: never.
No one enters a war with a precise plan for peace. When President Franklin D Roosevelt declared war against the Axis, he did not have a plan for peace. And what could be the "plan for peace" that any U.S. president could offer before committing American troops to combat in the war against terrorism?
Should America stop the war against terrorism until a "plan for peace" is drawn up? Will a Kerry administration withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan before they are stabilized and democratized?