Kerry’s Foreign Policy Views Still a Puzzle

October 29, 2004 • Commentary

Senator John Kerry has spent a lot of time criticizing President Bush’s foreign policies: his neglect of international institutions, his unilateralism and his conduct of the Iraq war. Kerry’s own foreign policy views remain a puzzle, which leaves open the possibility that his conduct of foreign policy wouldn’t be much different.

Of particular concern is Kerry’s attitude toward the use of the military and his vote in October 2002 granting the president authority to wage war against Iraq. For most of the month of August 2004, Kerry struggled to explain his position. At the time, the editors at the New York Times wondered: “There are undoubtedly circumstances that call for military action, but we would like to know whether, as president, John Kerry would insist on a higher threshold than he settled for as an opportunistic senator in 2002.”

Many assume that the threshold would be higher under President Kerry than it has been under President Bush, but Kerry’s statements as a candidate, and his earlier actions as a senator, do not always support that assumption. With the failure to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and with a similar failure to link Hussein’s regime with Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the Bush administration has fallen back on a humanitarian justification for removing Hussein from power, one that could easily be applied to dozens of countries around the world. That poses a special challenge to many of the current critics of the Bush administration’s policies who were among the most vocal defenders of President Clinton’s use of the military in the late 1990s.

It cannot be explained solely by partisanship, although that is a factor. The so‐​called neo‐​conservatives — the editors of the Weekly Standard, for example — were among the most vocal proponents of military action against both Serbia and Iraq. Meanwhile, many of the so‐​called “hard right” opposed both wars. Liberal Democrats (including, for example, Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke and Gen. Wesley Clark) are left to explain how the Clinton administration’s actions against a sovereign state can be differentiated from the Bush administration’s attack on Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

But what about John Kerry? He should not be judged solely by his comments before Congress in 1971 as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In the course of his political career, Kerry has supported many U.S. military ventures, including those in Bosnia, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, and even Grenada.

The senator supported the Clinton administration’s policies in the 1990s. With respect to Kosovo, he actually went further than the Clinton administration, arguing that ground troops should remain as an option for stopping former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s assault on the province’s ethnic Albanians.

In early September, Kerry criticized the Bush administration for not doing more in the Sudan. According to Kerry, the United States cannot stand by and ignore the developments in the Darfur region, but should instead “ensure the immediate deployment of an effective international force to disarm militia, protect civilians and facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance in Darfur.”

Senator Kerry is a strong supporter of multilateralism in principle, but he has in the past favored the use of force even without the UN’s formal authorization. Consider Kosovo. John Kerry’s foreign policy adviser Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute points to the exemplary nature of the 1999 U.S.-led intervention in that troubled Balkan region. According to Marshall, Clinton’s policy was “based on a mix of moral values and security interests with the parallel goals of halting a humanitarian tragedy and ensuring NATO’s credibility as an effective force for regional stability.” Notwithstanding the vague reference to “security interests” — were those U.S. security interests? — the fact remains that the events in the Balkans never posed a threat to the United States.

In more general terms, Kerry’s foreign policy views flow both from his commitment to the principle of humanitarian intervention, and more broadly from his belief that the government is a force for good.

Take, for example, Kerry’s stance with respect to Bosnia. Speaking out in favor of the Clinton administration plans, and in opposition to congressional Republicans’ attempts to block the deployment of U.S. troops to Bosnia as part of the Dayton peace accord, Kerry maintained that he contemplated “only keeping troops in Bosnia for so long as the parties continue to opt for peace over war.”

In that same speech, Kerry also laid out the distinction between the defense of vital U.S. national interests, and broader humanitarian objectives. “Some Members assert that there is no vital national interest in Bosnia,” but that, he went on, “is the wrong test to apply to Bosnia.”

“Our vital national interests are our territorial integrity, our political system and ideology, our economic security, and our way of life… [L]et us say up front, in this conflict, in this effort, in this mission, they are not at stake. That is not what is at issue here.”

“Whether vital national security interests are at stake is the right question to ask… if you are deciding whether or not to send troops to war, it is not the right question to ask when you are being asked to participate in a multilateral, internationally sanctioned effort to keep the peace…”

In short, Senator Kerry sees the U.S. military both as an effective tool for promoting change abroad and as a stabilizing force in post‐​conflict settings. He has argued that the U.S. military should be deployed in places and in ways that are not directly related to defending America’s vital interests. Relieved of the need to justify military actions according to those constraints, the world could see an even more frequent recourse to the use of force under Kerry than it did under Clinton or Bush, with the notable caveat that he will be constrained (at least temporarily) by the available military resources at hand.

On the other hand, John Kerry voted against the authorization to use force in the first Gulf War. He was harshly critical of the Reagan administration’s interventions in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Concerning the use of force, he seems to have combined the cautious worldview of his diplomat father with an underlying skepticism, and even cynicism, of a chastened ex‐​soldier.

Perhaps the clearest indication of those sentiments came through in a speech at the New York University on September 20, 2004, when Kerry began to distance himself from the humanitarian justification for waging war on Iraq. He said: “Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell. But that was not, in itself, a reason to go to war.”

That seems to suggest that threat‐​as in, was Hussein a threat to the United States? — is still a, if not the, determining factor in whether a President Kerry would choose to send forces into combat. But it is merely a suggestion.

John Kerry must make it clear. He owes it to the voters to explain the criteria that he would use as president in deciding when to unleash America’s military power. Wielding this power, or even threatening to do so, in order to spread democracy, halt humanitarian crises, or punish cruel dictators, represents a dramatic departure from America’s founding principles. At a minimum, you would think that embarking on such a fundamental reorientation of U.S. policy would merit an extended debate, one that could not be confined to three 90‐​minute, stage‐​managed affairs. The reason why this national discussion has yet to take place may be partly explained by the uncertainties surrounding Kerry’s views.

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