Perhaps the most striking thing about the Democratic convention was the effort to convince Americans that the Democrats would be tougher than the Republicans on the issues of war, peace and national security. While surveys show about 90 percent of the delegates to the convention opposed the war in Iraq, from the speakers’ podium — with the notable exception of the Rev. Al Sharpton — the tone was tough and unremitting.
Vice presidential nominee John Edwards, for example, promised that “when we’re in office, it won’t take us three years to get the reforms in our intelligence we need to protect our country. We will do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to make sure that (Sept. 11) never happens again … .” He promised to “strengthen and modernize our military,” to “double our Special Forces, and invest in the new equipment and technologies so that our military remains the best equipped and best trained in the world.”
Whether Osama bin Laden trembled in his cave when Sen. Edwards looked into the camera and promised, “You cannot run. You cannot hide. And we will destroy you,” is open to question.
What is going on here?
With politicians the likelihood of deception can seldom be discounted. Sen. Kerry promised 40,000 new troops and said a key to fighting the war on terror was rebuilding alliances.
But, if Sen. Kerry is elected, he could revert to the peacenik posture he assumed after serving in Vietnam (and the apparent dominant sentiment of his party) and trim the military; set an early date to withdraw from Iraq; focus on reviving the Kyoto treaty and the International Criminal Court; and turn foreign policy over to Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder.
That seems unlikely, however. Although they voted against the $87 billion appropriation to fund operations in Iraq, both Sens. Kerry and Edwards did vote to give the president essentially a blank check in Iraq.
While they might not have attacked Iraq in the way President Bush did, both believe that since we are there we must devote sufficient resources — more than the current administration would — to nation-building. Sen. Kerry has said he would send more troops to Afghanistan. His advisers include few who question the expansive role in the world the United States has taken on after the Cold War.
The name most often mentioned as secretary of state in a potential Kerry administration is Richard Holbrooke, President Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations and before that negotiator of a still-tenuous peace in Bosnia (where U.S. troops are still bogged down).
In a recent briefing for foreign diplomats, Kerry adviser Rand Beers (who was on the Bush anti-terrorism team until quite recently), said, “In many ways, the goals of the two administrations are in fact not all that different.” The differences are likely to be in style rather than substance.
Kerry-Edwards advisers say they would make more use of other countries and international organizations like the United Nations and NATO, in contrast to the “unilateral” Bush approach. But faced with chaos and a timetable, the Bush administration has done pretty much that. And however charming Kerry might be toward European leaders, it is an open question whether he could get significant commitments from them.
The fact that the Republican and Democratic approaches to Iraq and terrorism differ mainly as to emphasis and tone is troubling. Recent polls suggest that not only the vast majority of Democratic delegates but a majority of Americans overall now believe the Iraq war was a mistake. The issue deserves wide-ranging debate and discussion.
If the Democrats continue to try to run as tougher than Republicans, those who question preventive war and over-assertiveness might find that only Ralph Nader is available as a semi-viable protest candidate in a campaign with little real discussion of the most important issue of our times.
That would be a shame.