Much has been made of John Kerry’s statement, offered during his first debate with President Bush, that he would apply a “global” test when determining the legitimacy of U.S. military action. The test’s meaning is not entirely clear, but voters may justly ask when, if ever, would Mr. Kerry be prepared to use military force to vindicate American national interests. Indeed, over the past 30 years, it is difficult to find a single use of the U.S. military, humanitarian missions aside, that Mr. Kerry genuinely supported.
This is especially true of the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War. Mr. Kerry, who at the time was not running for higher office and essentially came as close to voting his conscience as any politician can, opposed authorizing the use of American forces to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. If ever there was a case that met a “global” test, here it was. Without provocation, Saddam invaded and annexed a neighboring country. It was, perhaps, the most naked act of aggression since Hitler and Stalin invaded Poland in 1939. Far from rushing to war, President George H.W. Bush assembled a broad international coalition, including Mr. Kerry’s current loadstar of legitimacy, France, and obtained one of the strongest resolutions ever adopted by the United Nations Security Council.
At the time, Mr. Kerry claimed that diplomacy should be given a chance. Seeking a diplomatic solution does not, of course, suggest weakness, but it does presuppose something to negotiate. Unfortunately, from 1990 to 1991, there was nothing to discuss. Saddam had no just claim to Kuwait. In the months before Desert Storm began, demands for his withdrawal had been made, and “sanctions” had been imposed. He didn’t budge — even as the allied armies assembled against him. Waiting would only have made Saddam stronger and his occupation of Kuwait seem more permanent. Moreover, key U.S. allies in the area, especially Saudi Arabia, would have likely viewed further procrastination as a U.S. failure of nerve — perhaps prompting them to seek some accommodation with Saddam.
If, in these circumstances, Mr. Kerry could not bring himself to support the use of force, it is difficult to conceive of any situation where, freed from political pressures, he would. It is true, of course, that he supported the congressional authorization for the use of force against those responsible for September 11, and against Saddam before the most recent Iraq war. In each case, however, the senator’s position coincided with then-existing political imperatives, and his resolve evaporated in short order.
Mr. Kerry has stated plainly that, in his view, the “war on terror” should be treated as a law-enforcement matter, rather than an armed conflict. This, of course, was America’s approach to al Qaeda before the September 11 attacks, and it did not work. With respect to the Iraq war, Mr. Kerry’s position has been nothing short of schizophrenic. He agreed that Saddam presented a deadly threat to the United States and voted to authorize the war, but then voted against the funding necessary for its successful completion. He now believes that this was the “wrong war, in the wrong place at the wrong time,” and has pointedly refused to disavow Kofi Annan’s recent statement that the war was illegal. Nevertheless, he claims that he will stay the course if elected president.
Given the senator’s record, it could well be argued that he is simply a pacifist — perhaps as a result of his Vietnam experience. More likely, however, the problem is ideological. Mr. Kerry entered politics as part of Democrat Party’s anti-war wing, which has consistently viewed the United States as the “problem” in international affairs, rather than the solution. Significantly, this opinion is widely shared among the very elite intellectual circles — on both sides of the Atlantic— in which Mr. Kerry has circulated throughout most of his adult life.
This group includes writers and artists, business tycoons, policy wonks and more than a few public officials, especially in Europe. As has been aptly stated with respect to the “mainstream” media, it represents not so much a conspiracy as a consensus. The goal, both during the Cold War and after, has been to constrain American power — whether through the nuclearfreeze movement during the 1980s, the creation of a permanent international criminal court in the 1990s or the current insistence that only the United Nations can authorize a lawful use of force. This is because, they believe, the independent nation-state, and the sovereign form of popular self-government it represents, is outmoded — and even dangerous.
In truth, this is what Mr. Kerry meant when he suggested a “global” test for the use of American military power, and he should be applauded for his candor. On Election Day, however, the American people will have to decide whether, after 200 years of asserting their right to govern themselves, they agree that the cause of popular sovereignty is lost.
Messrs. Casey & Rivkin are Washington attorneys. They served in the Justice Department during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.