Kerry the Conservative?

'[He] is confident that the war on terrorism can be won, in the same way the war on organized crime can be won. 'There will not be a treaty signed aboard the battleship Missouri , but we can break its back so that it is only a horrible nuisance and not a paralyzing influence on our societies.''

What well-known public figure said this? John Kerry? John Edwards? Bill or Hillary Clinton? Ted Kennedy?

Clearly this person must be a liberal Democrat because conservatives know that the war can be won as long as George W. Bush is reelected and more countries are invaded. In fact, conservatives have been known to deride anyone who suggests that terrorism should be reduced to a mere nuisance as 'amazingly irresponsible and stunningly stupid' (Laura Ingraham) or 'absolutely idiotic' with not even 'the intelligence of a mynah bird' (Rush Limbaugh).

As it happens, the noted liberal Democrat who spoke those words was none other than Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Adviser under Republican President George H.W. Bush. Scowcroft presented his assessment of the war on terror at a conference of the Forum for International Security just a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

None of the usual suspects on the right accused Scowcroft of being a defeatist liberal at the time he made those remarks. However, all manner of names (some of them mentioned above) were hurled at Senator John Kerry when he opined, in the New York Times Magazine of Oct. 10, 2004 :

'We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance . . . . 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.'

Why the difference in response to the two very similar comments? First and foremost, Kerry is a Democrat, and an unabashedly liberal one, which makes him a target at the outset. Second, he is attempting to unseat President George W. Bush, a Republican, and an unabashedly liberal (well, perhaps slightly abashedly liberal since he keeps trying to cover his leftist leanings with the phrase 'compassionate conservatism') one who is nevertheless adored by those who should know better. Put those two facts together, and any time Kerry says anything that indicates a lack of faith in Bush's handling of the fight against terrorism'or, for that matter, any other issue'he is in for a severe drubbing at the hands of the commentators of what passes for conservatism these days.

Nevertheless, Kerry and Scowcroft are both on the mark when they argue that terrorism cannot be entirely eradicated but must not, at the same time, be allowed to rule our lives. Terrorism is a tactic, not a thing that can be wiped out if we simply take over enough countries and kill enough bad guys. For a president to declare war on terrorism is akin to a football coach's declaring war on the Power-I offense; he can set up defenses against it, but there is no way he can force other coaches to stop employing it. Similarly, while the government cannot, as both Kerry and Scowcroft understand, completely eliminate such things as organized crime, gambling, and prostitution, it can, on occasion, break up major rings involved in these illegal activities, thus reducing their incidence.

Presidents have, in fact, declared war on various nonentities before. Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. Both of these so-called wars proved to be utter failures, but that hasn't stopped later presidents from attempting their own wars on nonentities. George W. Bush, for example, declared war on illiteracy. Ironically, his tour to promote this phony war, which included his reading the now-famous My Pet Goat to a group of grade-schoolers in Florida , was interrupted by a real act of war on Sept. 11, 2001 , leading us into yet another phony war, the 'war on terror,' and its sideshow war on phony premises, the U.S. takeover of Iraq .

In past decades, even under Republican administrations, conservatives have been (or at least portrayed themselves as) the clear-eyed realists, members of 'what we call the reality-based community' who 'believe that solutions emerge from [their] judicious study of discernible reality,' as one senior Bush adviser derisively referred to journalist Ron Suskind after Suskind had written an article the administration didn't like.

Meanwhile, liberals were those starry-eyed believers in the transformative power of government action, whether at home or abroad, to remake society into the Left's own image. In other words, when liberals put government into gear, they could 'create their own reality,' as that same Bush adviser told Suskind the Bush administration was going to do with the American 'empire.' Suskind and his ilk, said the aide, would 'be left to just study what we do.'

Now we are presented with the spectacle of an ostensibly conservative, Republican president who believes that he can genuinely reshape the world by military might and, as a consequence, put an end to the threat of terrorism once and for all. Challenging him is a liberal Democrat who takes the more levelheaded approach of recognizing that there are limits to government's ability to reshape the world and to eradicate terrorism.

Andrew Sullivan put it this way:

I expected to read in [the New York Times Magazine piece in which Kerry said he wanted terrorism to be reduced to a nuisance] a parody of 1990s liberalism but that's not what I found. It's clear Kerry believes that countering Jihadist terrorism is primarily a matter of international police work, alliance building, terrorism, monitoring financial transactions, use of special forces and special ops. But Bush believes all this as well. It's just that he also believes in the transformative effect of regime change and democratization in the Arab world, and Kerry appears to be a skeptic in this respect. Count me with Bush on this one (with a few reservations). But notice this irony: Kerry's is clearly the more conservative position here. Conservatives have traditionally been doubters with regard to the transmission of Western values easily onto non-Western societies. They certainly don't believe it can happen overnight. Bush is therefore running as a Gladstonian liberal in foreign affairs, which is why it's strange to hear some conservatives writing as if Kerry's candidacy is the equivalent of Armageddon.

What, then, are we to make of Kerry's seeming conservatism when it comes to national security matters? Since he and Bush agree on practically every other issue, it would seem that a lesser-of-two-evils conservative voter might therefore be able to make a reasonable case for voting for Kerry, as Sullivan does (although he has other reasons as well). Perhaps it a measure of how far left both parties have shifted over the years that a liberal senator from Massachusetts actually sounds more conservative on some issues'Kerry has also voiced more concern over excessive spending and deficits than Bush, the king of entitlements and red ink, has'than a self-proclaimed conservative from the former Republic of Texas.

The problem for our hypothetical conservative voter is that Kerry has adopted so many positions on so many issues, and especially foreign policy issues, that he'd be a shoo-in for a job as a contortionist if he ever leaves politics. Thus our voter is left in a quandary: Vote for one of the two liberals in the race, neither of whom seems to have a firm grip on either reality or consistency, or take a chance on a third-party candidate who stands the proverbial snowball's chance of winning.

Is it any wonder that the ranks of nonvoters grow with every passing election? One person's vote for the next American Idol is far more likely to effect a positive change than his vote for any politician is. Plus, American Idol at least contributes to the economy, which is more than can be said for politicians. Finally, and most importantly, even William Hung is infinitely more entertaining than any presidential debate.

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Michael Tennant's picture
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Michael Tennant is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.