Jeff Greenfield interviewing Senior Kerry Advisor Tad Devine on CNN
GREENFIELD: Tad, let's broaden this out a bit. John Kerry came to public life like many Democrats as an opponent of the Vietnam War. Through the '80s and '90s, there was a substantial, if not majority, wing of the Democratic Party that was extremely skeptical about the use of force in American power, opposing things like Ronald Reagan's deployment of missiles in Western Europe and defense budgets in general.
Now as candidly as a Democratic operative can say, in the post- 9/11 conflicts, doesn't that record, whatever the details, pose a problem for John Kerry in attempting to say I would be the leader of a strong quasi-wartime America?
DEVINE: Jeff, I don't think it does because I think all Americans realized in the wake of 9/11 that we had to change our posture. John Kerry has said repeatedly -- and the vice president chose to ignore this tonight -- that he is prepared to use force to defend America, that he would use force without anyone else's approval, that he understands that his first priority and commitment as president of the United States is to defend the nation.
I regret that the Democrats have taken this position. Strategically, it's a missed opportunity at best, something of a loss at worst, in that it basically says the Republican militarism was right all along and now, having watched a few thousand of our compatriots die, we're militarists too. More importantly, the Republicans (and now the Democrats) are just wrong.
There is a far better response to that question, a far better position to take. It involves distinguishing Iraq from Afghanistan/Al-Qaeda, recognizing the real nature of Al-Qaeda and its allies and imitators, and seeing that lessons can be learned from Vietnam.
Specifically, one must say that Vietnam showed the US that even nuclear-armed superpowers should never assume that a war of occupation/liberation will be easy. Therefore someone like John Kerry, who fought in Vietnam and thought seriously about what happened there, would have been very cautious about invading Iraq. Would have had a better sense of American military strength: it's possibilities, as well as its limitations. (Contrarily, Bush didn't, didn't, and wasn't.) When the usefulness of brute force is seen for what it is, other political tools (virtually unknown to the Bush administration) start to look much more useful. Trying to repress the memories of Vietnam is a very good way to ensure history's repetition.
The real threat was Al-Qaeda, not Iraq (which was barely a threat at all). Because Al-Qaeda is a terrorist network rather than a country, its eradication does not necessarily require a massive army or many of the big military toys Bush is so fond of. It requires quick and precise actions based on exceptional intelligence and combined with a major diplomatic effort to (a) change the minds of the millions of Muslims who think that the US hates them; and (b) secure the cooperation (better: assistance) of countries all over the world to track down and capture or kill Al-Qaeda operatives, as well as to eliminate the sources of their funding and/or the means by which they move their funds around.
Going into Afghanistan was obviously a good thing. There, Al-Qaeda had many of the characteristics of a country, and an approach similar to an interstate war was appropriate. But once Al-Qaeda had dispersed, the US needed to adopt the approach described above, which would have meant that a top priority (second only to the hunting down of Al-Qaeda's members) would have been the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
September 11th didn't change anything except to focus the American agenda. Missiles in Western Europe don't make sense as a result of it. Neither do expensive and ineffectual anti-missile systems. A war on terrorism, properly conducted, would look very different from the wars of GW Bush. Democrats' record of anti-militancy shouldn't be a problem for them, because in large measure, current events have proven them right. The goals of multilateralism and nation-building, of support for the third world and an environmental agenda that focusses on freeing the country of its oil dependence, are the essential features of a real fight against Al-Qaeda and other groups like it, while Bush's approach will only lead to a clash of civilizations.
Regrettably, the Democrats conceded this argument a long time ago when they decided to back Bush's Iraq invasion. By and large, it looks like they've now found their spines, and of course a Kerry administration would be much more likely to head back in the right direction than another Bush one would. But I'm sure the Democrats would be in a much better position now if they'd been a bit more honest back then: able to say they opposed a bad war and supported a good one.