arely has a race for the American presidency evoked such fervor among U.S. citizens living abroad than the one that now pits incumbent Republican George W. Bush against Democratic Senator John Kerry. The turbulent debate has polarized even those who seek a gentler kind of regime change.
Unvarnished critics of American foreign policy parry a passionate dislike of Mr. Bush, a former Texas governor, into grousing support for Mr. Kerry, a four-term Massachusetts senator. Mr. Bush’s detractors insist his blundering leadership affronts diplomacy and betrays America’s pluralistic heritage. To these critics, Mr. Bush lacks subtlety, speaks in platitudes (the president often mocks his own tautologies), and ignores America’s essential church-state divide. His worldview is simplistic, which makes him abrasive and intolerant. He is an uncritical peddler of values, vulgar because it presumes the pre-eminence of his own. His aggressive marketing of American singularity, pushing imitators to the sidelines, is sentimental and crass. He has used the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001 to pursue a conflict in Iraq that instead of thwarting terrorist enemies has probably ensured the creation of new ones.
Even when bidding to depose Saddam Hussein, critics add, Mr. Bush was intractable and misleading. He inaccurately portrayed a secular dictator as in league with Islamic agents. He was uninterested in common strategies or public alliances, preferring partnerships with sycophants to the task of persuading America’s more vexing but nonetheless important friends. Dissenters were demoted and pointedly humiliated. Since then, the central premises of the Iraq war have collapsed — no demonstrable links to Al Qaeda, no weapons of mass destruction — eroding its already threadbare legitimacy. Notwithstanding, the president has defended his decisions as proper and has insisted the world is safer without Mr. Hussein, a claim as yet unproved.
Mr. Bush’s attitude toward the ugly pornography of terrorism, meanwhile, turns on end Francis Bacon’s phrase “Nothing is to be feared but fear” (appropriated later by Thoreau and Franklin D. Roosevelt) to make it read, more noxiously: “To be something requires fear.” Relief from dread is a poignant need, and Mr. Bush offers that. But he won’t relinquish a morbid emphasis on peril, guarding himself and his party in the event of future cataclysm. It’s an unhealthy condition that leads many Americans at home and abroad to slip into a passivity that blends black humor with anxious melancholy.
There is also the matter of self-policing. The all-encompassing War on Terror promotes zealous “homeland” security to the deepening detriment of civil liberties, with no assurance that the extraordinary investigative and prosecutorial powers distributed among various federal agencies will ever be rescinded. The fanatical security of 2004 is a kin to the Communist witch-hunts of the early 1950s, with good citizens tarred, tainted, even jailed, and few bad ones caught in any numbers.
Mr. Bush’s answer to pointed dissent, these critics assert, is merely to diminish and ridicule it by advertising its promoters as naïve, “liberal,” and wantonly disrespectful of Sept. 11 victims and those in harm’s way, including Allied soldiers in Iraq and citizens in world cities exposed to future terrorist attacks (fear again). Mr. Bush is a fundamentalist in his own right, they conclude, enlightened but lacking the tools of empathy essential to the consolidation of the United States as a tough but equitable player on the global stage. Like the enemies he labels satanic, he is absolutely loyal to an idiosyncratic version of what must be done in the name of God.
We can agree that such oversimplified censure is as shrill and salty as Mr. Bush’s own faith (literal and figurative) that he acts only in the best interests of the United States, defending it against the likes of Osama bin Laden, and against evil itself, while exporting the freedom’s light in the name of a Christian God. Few dispute the president’s charismatic decency or the urgency of his convictions. His backers prize him as the ultimate anti-charlatan, an uncommonly strong chief whose policies are unpopular only among those who reject boldness and the obviousness of America’s 21st century “calling,” alongside other civilized nations, to purge dictators and make available free choice. The use of legitimate force to protect the United States, they continue, is the only way to exterminate terrorism and collapse the tyrannies that are its institutional protectors. Doubters need only look as far as a the latest terrorist beheading or re-examine the unbearable videotapes of Sept. 11. The conflict allows no room for reasonable discourse or tidy liberal compassion; dallying plays into the hands of barbarians who delight in chaos. To reject Mr. Bush, they conclude, is to acquiesce to the European traits of ambiguity, timidity, mediocrity, and self-loathing. This, they conclude, with new videotape of a threatening bin Laden as evidence, is finally and necessarily the time of the United States.
Hardly any middle ground exists between the quarrelling sides, with each convinced that the other misunderstands the role of the American enterprise.
But if the middle ground is gone, what territory still exists? Necessarily, the answer concerns Mr. Kerry and his firm but moderating enterprise. This is the topic that most interests The American.
Since World War II, three incumbent presidents have lost re-election bids. The first, Gerald Ford, was undone in 1976 largely for pardoning his predecessor, Richard Nixon, whose Watergate indiscretions most considered reprehensible. Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter, fell victim to a bad economy and fundamentalist Muslims in Iran, who took American citizens hostages and held them up to disdain and mockery. Carter’s military effort to free these hostages ended in fiasco, and Ronald Reagan took center stage in 1980. Twelve years later Reagan’s former vice president, George H.W. Bush, lost the presidency to an inexperienced governor, Bill Clinton, when unemployment dimmed the afterglow of his Gulf War victory. Ironically, the elder Bush was perceived to lack vision. His son does not.
Mr. Kerry’s challenge is discernibly different from that of his predecessors because he is running in wartime and is handicapped by durable political prejudices associated with his party and his state. Democrats are traditionally maligned as overly clever, with Massachusetts Democrats (including John, Robert, Edward Kennedy, and, disastrously, Michael Dukakis) traditionally attacked as liberal — and the United States, despite remarkable social experimentation, remains a deeply conservative nation that exalts morality but excuses hypocrisy. That an elegant Massachusetts Democrat would be knocking at the White House door so late in a campaign run by a powerful Republican incumbent comes as a something of a surprise and reflects the depth of the gangrenous divide between conservatives and progressives. The divergence was evident during the marred election of 2000, whose foul flavor hasn’t faded among voters despite efforts to make Sept. 11 the only piece of collective memory legitimately available to Americans (one of our writers points out rightly that citizens of the two cities involved the 2001 attacks, New York City and Washington, D.C., are squarely in the Kerry fold.)
During the campaign, Mr. Bush has played almost exclusively to his rightist base, extolling the “back yard” virtues of family while hectoring enemies real and imagined. He has never admitted doubt, never conceded error, and unwisely taken a cue from his truculent vice president, Dick Chaney, in remarking that global terrorists would welcome a Kerry election (the comments followed earlier third-party attacks on Mr. Kerry’s Vietnam War record, heinous in intent and execution). Despite this withering criticism Mr. Kerry has refused to go away. On the contrary, his stature has grown — impressive in a climate of hyperbolic tastelessness. In the first of three television debates, his bolt-upright style unnerved the president, who was obviously not at ease with criticism after four years shielded among bureaucrats and yes-men. Rarely, though, did the president’s anger, later muffled, find a dimension separate from promoting himself as an able war-wager and fighter of terrorists. He demeaned his opponent for failing to grasp the extent of the terror threat (the theme grows tiring), but did nothing to tranquilize those who thought the Iraq War was disingenuously sold and is now irresponsibly managed, with soldiers and civilians now paying the bloody price. He has snubbed those who say an “us vs. them” foreign policy based on exporting democracy is destined to fail in a multiethnic and multiracial world prone to suspect a bellicose superpower bearing gifts, thinking them poisoned.
Mr. Kerry bangs his own strident drum, often vowing to kill more terrorists than Mr. Bush might believe exist. But this is campaign bluster, at least in part. Beneath it is the capacity for political holism and consensus, which the tireless sharks on the Bush side (Mr. Kerry has his own dart-throwers) prey upon as weakness. The truth is that Mr. Kerry has faced the daunting test of negotiating a path through the political extremism that has animated American government since Sept. 11. Though sometimes tedious, he has done remarkably well, since June, to position himself as a presidential figure. He has adroitly called for an international conference of allies on the future of Iraq. Such a conference, if convened, is unlikely to yield a major breakthrough. But imagining a United States government that seeks the views of others in policy choices is affecting, a testimonial to the morale-busting effect of the Bush method (for his troubles Mr. Kerry was labeled a U.N. and EU apologist.)
Mr. Kerry’s mental process, to us, is stylish and not dogmatic. It can be elliptical, yes, but stays stalwart. It is thankfully removed from references to the divine. It is less willing to confer on terrorism the kind of obsessive focus that has led Mr. Bush to make some of the most calamitous choices of his tenure and given guerilla conspirators the satisfaction of managing the psychological chessboard. What has been painted as an inadequacy, that Mr. Kerry doesn’t always have direct answers, that he can misinterpret circumstances (voting for the Iraq War to later criticize it, for example), to us represents a strength in disguise, because admitting lapses is a human value this administration unwisely trivializes. Respectful of troops in the field, Mr. Kerry did not incessantly remind the president that his pro-war vote of 2003, like those of other congressmen, hinged on White House exaggeration of the threat Saddam posed.
Some of our appreciation for Mr. Kerry, and we admit it, is wholly subjective, based on his attitude, character, and tone, arguments that make the tone-deaf Bush camp recoil. They are unable to imagine a world not defined by incessant action, in which America and its privileged are not the centers of attention, feared and envied, with “freedom on the march.” One guesses that Mr. Kerry might relieve Washington from the unremitting and under-informed pugnacity to which it has been subject for 40 months. The bringing of such relief does not reflect passivity, however. Mr. Kerry will not withdraw from Iraq. We will be there for years. He will not travel to Paris a month into his term. He is unlikely to abandon using the alarming and alarmist slogans developed to address terrorism. Too much has been bred into American life in three years to remove it in a month. Anyone who believes otherwise has not followed the campaign.
Yet we’d expect Mr. Kerry the realist to make far better work of inclusion and listening, because his party’s core values, admired or detested, hinge on these qualities. Over time, the listening may require adapting America’s international perspective to reflect global realities that blunt-force patriotism and committed militarism have glossed over. In 2003, former CIA Director George Tenet, the only illustrious victim of the Iraq fiasco, spoke of “the numbers of societies and peoples excluded from the benefits of an expanding global economy, where the daily lot is hunger, disease, and displacement [that] produce large populations of disaffected youth who are prime recruits for our extremist foes.” It seems to us that Mr. Kerry, and certainly not Mr. Bush, could eventually formulate policy mindful of this “have-not” factor. Like it or not, the global economy is expanding, and so are the numbers of poor and disenfranchised men and women whose attraction to terrorist projects is a kind of temporary employment that ends in death. That’s partly because terrorism has been romanticized, but also because the United States refuses not to behave like a caricature of itself, pushy, patronizing, and determined to get its way. As the major power of the modern age, America will forever confront defectors from its worldview, some civil, others ruthless. The debate is over how to deal with them, which Mr. Kerry recognizes. So far, the American therapy of choice has been shock treatment and emergency surgery, with a new heart carved into a patient who may not have asked for one. The consequence of imperial morality is more likely resentment than relief.
Mr. Kerry is not soft, which is why he’s unlikely to reward those who consider him, erroneously, as the anti-Bush. The comment “working with other countries in the War on Terror is something we do for our sake — not theirs” belongs to Mr. Kerry, not to the president. And promises of internationalism are harder to fulfill after three years of intense unilateralism. Yet we get the sense, and it’s a crucial one, that Mr. Kerry is honest, decent, and clear of mind. He is not, like the president, a neo-conservative poster boy with a unique gift for corner-store proselytizing; he also seems to us less likely to be influenced by senior partners, as Mr. Bush has been by ideologues Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defense secretary, and Vice President Cheney. Mr. Bush grasped his “march of freedom” doctrine after Sept. 11 because it was available on short notice, a pre-packaged leitmotif perfectly suited to a motivated president who lacked the preparation and originality to invent another. A kind of patriotic evangelism protective of Wall Street, Walmart, and picket fences has ensued.
Reassuringly, we don’t get the idea Mr. Kerry is a preacher. Or that anyone will tell him what to do. We don’t think he is a susceptible lightweight installed by default in a hopeless election year. He seems determined, not desperate, and we think that he just might be an American original, an adult who has known combat, is free of ideological constraints, does not condescend, and is ultimately his own man. Mr. Bush, by contrast, is his doctrine’s man, and perhaps even God’s, but not ours. Vote Kerry.
This editorial sums up views expressed in conversations and emails among The American’s staff in recent months; it was written by Christopher P. Winner. Individual signed opinions appear below.
Not to be left out
Our absentee ballots have not arrived —15 days after the town clerk said they were mailed. But with ones downloaded from the Internet we’ll still have three votes to give to Kerry … such an important election, we cannot be left out.
Mary Jane Cryan and daughters, Giulia 18 , Laura Jane, 24
It amazes me that Americans don’t appear to hold Bush responsible for damaging his own country’s image around the world. I’m not American, and maybe I’m missing something, but I imagined that virtually anyone who ran against Bush in this election would win hands down, regardless of the major advantage a president running for re-election traditionally has.
Suzanne Bush, writer, The American
Did Kerry forget education?
That Bush’s foreign policy will make for a soft bed for new terrorism seeds is, as I see it, out of question. It is quite interesting, though, to notice that many in the most educated and cultured elite of the Republican party seems to agree on this point as well.
Something that nobody seems to have addressed during this electoral campaign is the fact that increasing numbers of low-income families and a decreasing percentage of the population with college education makes for an equally good bed for the radical and simplistic views of Mr. President. Believing the “we are the good guys, they are the Evil powers” tale, proves pretty easy when you know nothing about the outside world, and have a very acritical perception of yourself and your own history.
A major reform to raise the quality of high-school education and provide an easier access to higher education is badly needed. The Democratic party ought to have put it in its agenda. It hasn’t.
The world matters
A crucial battle in the campaign for peace, security and the eradication of terrorism is the fight for sympathy and respect — from our historic allies and, perhaps more important, from the Muslim world. Terrorists can be captured or killed, but terrorism will continue to flourish as long as it is nourished by grassroots support. George W. Bush has only heaped soil, water and fertilizer on poisonous weeds. John Kerry is our only hope for digging them out. I voted for Kerry, because what the world thinks does matter.
Emily Backus, writer, The American
Believing that both major parties share the same basic place on the political right, I’ve voted for Rainbow Coalitionists, Socialists and, yes, Nader twice. But like everyone I know with that ideological bent, I’ve been led crying to Kerry’s door by Bush’s pathological incompetence and deception. It’s not even that Bush policies are so far to the right, which they are. It’s that he defies both logic and integrity. When John McCain, pretty much of an archconservative himself, questioned lowering taxes in a collapsing wartime economy, fellow Republicans actually accused him of disloyalty to our troops.
But my question is this. When people like me have been scared Democratic in droves, why are so few conservative voters following suit? Are Clark, O’Neil, Scowcroft and the other defectors really all lying? Are good old Republican fiscal conservatism and “government-off-our-backism” really well represented by the Patriot Act and the overwhelming deficit?
David Winner, Fiction Editor, The American