If you haven't read Matt Bai's excellent piece
on John Kerry's proposed anti-terror strategy then you're really missing something. This is the first time I've heard anything substantial on how Kerry would fight terrorism. Rather than just reading blurbs on blogs, you should really read the whole thing for yourself but below I will discuss some important points about the strategy.
With the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the geopolitical currents that Washington had spent half a century mastering shifted all at once. It isn't clear how long it took Kerry -- a senator for nearly 20 years and, in September 2001, an undeclared candidate for the presidency -- to understand the political magnitude of that change. George W. Bush and his advisers got it almost instantly.
Bai starts off differently than I had expected. It's clear from the start that he'll be tough on Kerry. This is a good thing, not for partisan reasons but because we really need answers to how Kerry would fight terrorism. So far, he hasn't said anything more than "I have a plan." Bai takes note of this:
What Kerry still has not done is to articulate clearly a larger foreign-policy vision, his own overarching alternative to Bush's global war on terror. The difference between the two men was clear during the foreign-policy debate...Kerry bore in on ground-level details, Bush, in defending his policies, seemed, characteristically, to be looking at the world from a much higher altitude, repeating in his brief and sometimes agitated statements a single unifying worldview: America is the world's great force for freedom, unsparing in its use of pre-emptive might and unstinting in its determination to stamp out tyranny and terrorism. Kerry seemed to offer no grand thematic equivalent.
While Kerry is widely believed to have won the debate (I thought so too) he did not lay out any type of vision or strategy. He won mainly because of President Bush's gaffes, not because of his own ideas.
In the liberal view, the enemy this time -- an entirely new kind of ''non-state actor'' known as Al Qaida -- more closely resembles an especially murderous drug cartel than it does the vaunted Red Army. Instead of military might, liberal thinkers believe, the moment calls for a combination of expansive diplomacy abroad and interdiction at home, an effort more akin to the war on drugs than to any conventional war of the last century.
Now we start getting to some details of the proposed democratic strategy and, already, they are off on the wrong foot. I thought the "war on drugs" was supposed to be a total failure? Hmmm...
Even Democrats who stress that combating terrorism should include a strong military option argue that the ''war on terror'' is a flawed construct. ''We're not in a war on terror, in the literal sense,'' says Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton-era diplomat who could well become Kerry's secretary of state. ''The war on terror is like saying 'the war on poverty.' It's just a metaphor. What we're really talking about is winning the ideological struggle so that people stop turning themselves into suicide bombers.''
Two points here: First, comparing the effort to defeat those who perpetrated 9/11 with fighting the "war on poverty" is a striking sign of naivete. Second, the Clinton-era strategy, which Holbrooke knows all too well, didn't exactly stop suicide bombers did it? Welcome to Clinton redux.
When I asked Kerry's campaign advisers about these poll numbers, what I heard from some of them in response was that Kerry's theories on global affairs were just too complex for the electorate and would have been ignored -- or, worse yet, mangled -- by the press. ''Yes, he should have laid out this issue and many others in greater detail and with more intellectual creativity, there's no question,'' one adviser told me. ''But it would have had no effect.''... This is, of course, a common Democratic refrain: Republicans sound more coherent because they see the world in such a rudimentary way, while Democrats, 10 steps ahead of the rest of the country, wrestle with profound policy issues that don't lend themselves to slogans.
So not only is President Bush an idiot, but all Americans are too. The vanity and arrogance of this man knows no bounds. This intellectual snobbery is uncalled for and shows a petty, childish but revealing side of Kerry.
Kerry told me he would stop terrorists by going after them ruthlessly with the military, and he faulted Bush, as he often does, for choosing to use Afghan militias, instead of American troops, to pursue Osama bin Laden into the mountains of Tora Bora, where he disappeared. ''I'm certainly, you know, not going to take second seat to anybody, to nobody, in my willingness to seek justice and set America on a course -- to make America safe,'' Kerry told me. ''And that requires destroying terrorists. And I'm committed to doing that. But I think I have a better way of doing it. I can do it more effectively.''
So far we have identified terrorists as nonstate actors and a reframing of the GWOT as not a war. Now Kerry acknowledges the role of the military: he'll go after them ruthlessly. How he plans to do that remains to be seen.
''I think we can do a better job,'' Kerry said, ''of cutting off financing, of exposing groups, of working cooperatively across the globe, of improving our intelligence capabilities nationally and internationally, of training our military and deploying them differently, of specializing in special forces and special ops, of working with allies, and most importantly -- and I mean most importantly -- of restoring America's reputation as a country that listens, is sensitive, brings people to our side, is the seeker of peace, not war, and that uses our high moral ground and high-level values to augment us in the war on terror, not to diminish us.''
Kerry starts off strong but notice how this statement ends: America needs to be more "sensitive" to win the war, it needs to "listen." Here we have the crux of the problem: the GWOT requires action, not just words. But the Democrats don't "do" action, they do high-level thinking that is above the rest of us. We could "listen" indefinitely till everyone on earth has their say, but that won't win the war. Winning requires acting and in acting you have to be willing to take a stand, make mistakes, and be willing to accept that some people won't like your actions.
Kerry sounds like he wishes to return to the Clinton days when opinion polls determined foreign policy and multi-lateralism hampered US national security. As anyone who has read the 9/11 Commission Report
knows, Clinton could not think beyond his multi-lateralist worldview and countenance striking Afghanistan, despite the fact that they were harboring al Qaida. Let's hope that Kerry's high moral ground is so high al Qaida won't be able to reach us.
When I asked Kerry what it would take for Americans to feel safe again, he displayed a much less apocalyptic worldview. ''We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance,'' Kerry said. ''As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life.''
Prositution and gambling are not the equivalent of crashing planes into skyscrapers. First, the severity and symbolism of the acts alone make them very different. Second, you can not treat terrorism as a domestic crime because so much of it occurs outside of the US. US laws don't extend to other countries where terrorists live and perpetrate many of their acts.
The fact that Kerry does not see the difference between vice crime and catastrophic terrorism shows that he is not prepared to defend America. He does not realize the extent of the threat, nor that terrorism has changed from the political terrorism of the Palestinians. Despite 9/11, despite Spain, despite Beslan, John Kerry still does not understand the nature of the enemy were are facing.
In 1988, Kerry successfully proposed an amendment that forced the Treasury Department to negotiate so-called Kerry Agreements with foreign countries. Under these agreements, foreign governments had to promise to keep a close watch on their banks for potential money laundering or they risked losing their access to U.S. markets. Other measures Kerry tried to pass throughout the 90's, virtually all of them blocked by Republican senators on the banking committee, would end up, in the wake of 9/11, in the USA Patriot Act; among other things, these measures subject banks to fines or loss of license if they don't take steps to verify the identities of their customers and to avoid being used for money laundering.
Notice where this is going regarding non-state actors like al Qaida. First, the vice crime analogy and now calls to get states "to promise" to stop terrorist money laundering. Tying that promise to warnings about losing the US market is smart, but notice the reliance on other states in this strategy. He expounds on that multi-lateralism here:
If forced democracy is ultimately Bush's panacea for the ills that haunt the world, as Kerry suggests it is, then Kerry's is diplomacy. Kerry mentions the importance of cooperating with the world community so often that some of his strongest supporters wish he would ease up a bit.
Now we've gotten to crux of Kerry's strategy and why it won't work: his chief weapon in this campaign against Islamic terrorism is diplomacy. Bai explains that Kerry does not agree with Bush's "viral democracy" approach to fighting the causes of terrorism nor does he supposedly agree with Bush's wars against states that sponsor terrorism. But Kerry, despite Bai's claims, advocates using another state-to-state mechanism, diplomacy, to fight terrorism.
So Bush is wrong for seeking a state-centered solution but Kerry is right for seeking one, and an ineffective one at that. Diplomacy did not get Yemen to cooperate in the USS Cole bombing, nor did it force Saddam Hussein out of office. But most importantly, diplomacy did not defeat the Taliban and al Qaida forces in Afghanistan
. Launching the war that President Clinton was unwilling to fight defeated them and going back to Clintonian diplomacy and multi-lateralism will not work in the post-9/11 era.
Kerry has learned nothing from the past four years as Bai concludes:
When Kerry first told me that Sept. 11 had not changed him, I was surprised. I assumed everyone in America -- and certainly in Washington -- had been changed by that day. I assumed he was being overly cautious, afraid of providing his opponents with yet another cheap opportunity to call him a flip-flopper. What I came to understand was that, in fact, the attacks really had not changed the way Kerry viewed or talked about terrorism -- which is exactly why he has come across, to some voters, as less of a leader than he could be. He may well have understood the threat from Al Qaeda long before the rest of us. And he may well be right, despite the ridicule from Cheney and others, when he says that a multinational, law-enforcement-like approach can be more effective in fighting terrorists. But his less lofty vision might have seemed more satisfying -- and would have been easier to talk about in a political campaign -- in a world where the twin towers still stood.
In an effort to get back to the "good ole days," Kerry would supposedly pretend that the last four years never happened. He would go back to the policies that so brilliantly failed in confronting al Qaeda because they relied on the good-will of others and police actions that did nothing to deter terrorism.
Kerry's anti-terrorism strategy will ultimately fail because it will not keep us safe and keeping America safe is the president's highest duty.