Last Thursday’s debate seemed to frustrate conservative pundits. There was little to criticize in Kerry’s answers and less to praise in Bush’s. In his editorial yesterday (Source: NYT 10/04/04), William Safire chose a third alternative, praising Kerry. According to Safire, Kerry’s foreign policy has undergone a “sea change.”
> On both military tactics and grand strategy, the newest neoconservative announced doctrines more hawkish than President Bush. . . Last week in debate, John Kerry – until recently, the antiwar candidate too eager to galvanize dovish Democrats – suddenly reversed field, and came down on the side of the military hard-liners.
So Kerry apparently has joined the ranks of the “neo-conservatives” among whom surely Safire intends the intellectuals and apparatchiks who were the masterminds behind the Iraq war. In order to judge this claim, we would first need a clear idea of what constitutes neo-conservatism. We can’t investigate this thoroughly, but perhaps a few general characteristics will help. In its recent appearance in politics, the neo-conservatives have been identified with the activist and interventionist foreign policy that led to the Iraq war. Neo-conservatives believe that “national interests” are not geographically defined and that fostering them requires the perception of and intervention on the side of our “friends” against our “enemies.” (This latter shibbolethic opposition is derived from Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and ultimately Plato’s Republic) (see Irving “grandfather of neoconservatism” Kristol’s description here.
William Safire knows that “neo-conservativism” cannot be reduced to particular strategic decisions. It is a political ideology defined by a certain understanding of the national interest and the broadest requirements for fostering that interest. But, this doesn’t stop him from caricaturing both Kerry’s position and neo-conservative ideology in order to salvage the debates as a supposed victory for Bush’s policies as voiced by Kerry.
His case rests on four claims:
> “What I want to do is change the dynamics on the ground,” Kerry volunteered. “And you have to do that by beginning to not back off of Falluja and other places and send the wrong message to terrorists. … You’ve got to show you’re serious.” Right on, John!
This, of course, confuses strategy and motivation. With 135,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground and the insurgency flowering, we might conclude that an offense is the best defense for our troops. This, of course, has little to do with ideology and much to do with strategy.
> Next, to grand strategy: Kerry was asked by Jim Lehrer, “What is your position on the whole concept of pre-emptive war?” In the past, Kerry has given a safe never-say-never response, but last week he gave a Strangelovian answer: “The president always has the right and always has had the right for pre-emptive strike.” He pledged never to cede “the right to pre-empt in any way necessary” to protect the U.S.
“Just war” theory has always allowed pre-emptive attacks based on “imminent threats.” The difference bettween Kerry and the neo-conservatives is over the question of whether a “gathering” threat or some other vaguely defined description of a supposed threat is grounds for preemption (such as “weapons program related activities”).
> On stopping North Korea’s nuclear buildup, Kerry abandoned his global-testing multilateralism; our newest neocon derided Bush’s six-nation talks and demands America go it gloriously alone.
This claim is a sort of false dichotomy: It is not the case that in order for Kerry to believe that multilateralism is generally preferable that he must eschew either bilateralism or even perhaps unilateralism. Safire assumes that if you reject unilateralism in the case of Iraq you must reject it always. This is an unreasonable assumption.
> And in embracing Wilsonian idealism to intervene in Darfur’s potential genocide, Kerry’s promise of troops outdid Pentagon liberators: “If it took American forces to some degree to coalesce the African Union, I’d be prepared to do it. …”
Once again, nothing strange in this. Being willing to assist in a multi-lateral humanitarian intervention does not make one a “neo-conservative” unless Safire is expanding the definition to include virtually every leader and politician in the world except Pat Buchanan.
Certainly there are analogies between the neo-conservative foreign policy seemingly ascendant in the Bush administration and some of Kerry’s positions. But that no more makes Kerry a “neo-conservative” than Bush’s reluctance to attack Iran would make him a convert to Gandhi’s pacifism. As Safire formulates the argument, it is laughably fallacious.
At best–and this is an act of interpretive charity that goes beyond his own expressed intentions–he might be understood to argue that Kerry has approached some neo-conservative positions. But, since Kerry was seemingly never opposed to those positions in themselves (only their inappropriateness under specific circumstances or the inept bungling of their implementation), there is nothing really interesting about these similarities.
Finally, we can note that a complete reading of the debate transcript shows that Kerry also accepts several strategic goals that are at direct odds to the policy formulated by the neo-conservatives and the Bush administration. Most importantly, he calls for the U.S. to commit itself to no long term presence in Iraq. Since part of the neo-conservative strategy has been to occupy Iraq at least in the 14 bases currently under construction, it is easy to see that for all of the similarity in Iraq policy, there is also significant dissimiliarity that Safire has conveniently ignored in order to make his case, a fallacy of “suppressed evidence.”