Kerry: Another Kind of War President?

The Democrats recast themselves as a war party on July 29 when Massachusetts Senator John Kerry accepted his party's nomination for President. Before Kerry took the Fleet Center stage in Boston, a biographical video on the convention big screen showed grainy footage of him at war in Vietnam. With his "band of brothers" lined up on the stage as a backdrop, he was introduced by two Vietnam War veterans—former Sen. Max Cleland and Jim Rassmann, who says Kerry saved his life during combat. Then Kerry ad libbed one of his most powerful lines of the night, saluting as he declared "I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty.”

Most importantly, Kerry gave the nation a clearer sense of how and when he would use military power. He said it was “time to bring back a time-honored tradition. The U.S. never goes to war because we want to, only because we have to.” The Kerry Doctrine, as it will probably come to be called if he is elected to the White House, is a sharp turn away from the Bush Doctrine of military pre-emption. For the last three years, in response to September 11, the U.S. has used its military to root out adversaries before they have a chance to attack. Kerry vowed to protect the country, to fight the war against terror to victory and never to give other countries veto power over the use of military force. But Kerry also is proposing that the country view its military as a tool of last resort, using diplomatic alliances and economic leverage as the tactical starting point.

It’s a humane strategy. It will certainly please voters who believe the U.S. under Bush has trampled norms of international law and behavior with the doctrine of pre-emption, and who believe America, as the world's only remaining superpower, must embrace a policy of deeper consultation and coordination with its allies.

But will the policy actually work? The Bush-Cheney campaign will argue certainly not. Without the benefit of hindsight, it’s very difficult to know when a war must be fought. Did the Civil War have to be fought? The answer seems obvious now, but millions of people resisted the idea, right up to, during and even after the war. There were even people who opposed U.S. entry into World War II, right through the invasion of Normandy.

The most important question is whether the U.S. can afford the luxury of holding its fire anymore, with al Qaeda determined to attack again, next time using biochemical or even nuclear weapons. Nearly all Americans agreed after Pearl Harbor that the country had been attacked and that it needed to respond. But in an age of easily portable weapons of mass destruction, the country might not be certain of its need to use force until after it had suffered the gravest sort of damage. That might not be acceptable to the country as a whole.

There’s no question that Kerry is a smart man who served his country bravely and honorably. But the

lessons he has drawn from his experience were learned more than 30 years ago, when the world was a very different place. Should he become president, he will likely find today’s world calls for a more proactive approach.

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