Kerry’s Other War Record

How Bush distorts his opponent’s views on terrorism.


Some are skeptical that the war on terror is really a war at all. My opponent said, and I quote, “The war on terror is less of a military operation, and far more of an intelligence-gathering law enforcement operation.” I disagree—strongly disagree. … After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers. With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States of America, and war is what they got.
—President Bush, March 25, 2004

The Bush campaign has apparently decided that the strongest piece of evidence it has that John Kerry is soft on defense is that he views the war on terror as a mere matter of law enforcement and intelligence-gathering. Bush’s hagiographers have seized upon this distinction to emphasize their candidate’s Churchillian qualities as well as their opponent’s Chamberlainian ones. “It was George W. Bush, first, who recognized that this war was indeed a war,” writes former Bush speechwriter David Frum in the National Review. “Many American political leaders are still unsure of this fact—including such leaders of the Democratic Party as John F. Kerry.” Certainly Kerry’s record—his obsession with pleasing allies, his suspicion toward American power—offers plenty of reasons to question his toughness on foreign policy. But the idea that he sees terrorism as a problem of law enforcement rather than a war is not one of them.

The most obviously dishonest thing about this line of attack is that it begins with Kerry’s actual view (the war on terror is mostly law enforcement and intelligence-gathering) and proceeds to imply something else: that he thinks the war on terror is entirely a matter of law enforcement and intelligence-gathering.

It’s revealing that, before applying it to Kerry, Bush originally ascribed the “law enforcement” approach to the Clinton administration. It’s true that, in the early 1990s, the Clinton administration and the intelligence community did not yet understand that terrorist acts by al-Qaida amounted to coordinated assaults, rather than the random acts of a few fanatics, à la the Oklahoma City bombing. But once they started to grasp the problem, it’s simply not true that the Clintonites viewed al-Qaida as nothing more than an international criminal gang. “We were operating under the law of armed conflict,” Clinton National Security Adviser Sandy Berger told the Sept. 11 commission, “… not under law enforcement principles.” Republicans mock Clinton for firing missiles at what turned out to be a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. But they were missiles, not subpoenas. (In retrospect, should Clinton have done more militarily? Of course. But it’s not like Bush or his allies advocated sending ground troops to Afghanistan before September 2001.)

It’s even more obviously false that Kerry would merely “serve our enemies with legal papers.” Kerry not only favored military intervention against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, he favored it more aggressively than Bush. When Osama Bin Laden and his coterie were trapped in Tora Bora in December 2001, Bush inexplicably relied on poorly trained Afghan mercenaries to surround the hideout. Predictably, and maddeningly, this allowed them to escape. At the time Kerry called for American ground troops to do the job instead.

Putting aside Bush’s exaggerations, though, it’s true that Kerry does see the war on terror as mostly a matter of law enforcement and intelligence-gathering. But guess what? So does Bush. He just doesn’t realize it.

Conservatives see the war on terror as a traditional war primarily involving the military because they see the main enemies as states. If you want to defeat a state, you need more than law enforcement and intelligence-gathering; you need armies. The conservative predisposition was summed up shortly after Sept. 11 by Charles Krauthammer. “Terrorists cannot operate without the succor and protection of governments,” he wrote, “The planet is divided into countries. Unless terrorists want to camp in Antarctica, they must live in sovereign states.”

This formulation, while appealingly simple, is obviously false. The Sep. 11 hijackers all resided either in the United States or in Western Europe, under governments that gave them no support whatsoever. We can’t root them out by sending the 3rd Infantry Division into Germany or Dearborn, Mich. Even in Afghanistan and western Pakistan, we’re relying not on massed ground forces but on intelligence-gathering and law enforcement. Indeed this is exactly what Bush points to when he cites his successes against al-Qaida. Here is how the president put it in a speech last month:

We’re using every tool of finance, intelligence, law enforcement, and military power to break terror networks, to deny them refuge, and to find their leaders. Over the past 30 months, we have frozen or seized nearly $200 million in assets of terror networks. We’ve captured or killed some two-thirds of al-Qaida’s known leaders as well as many of al-Qaida’s associates in countries like the United States or Germany or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Thailand.

Of course there is one area where Bush really has favored a more military approach than Kerry: Iraq. But even if you accept the highly debatable premise that Iraq was central to the war on terror, it’s hard to see how it can be the archetype for Bush’s approach to fighting terrorism. Not even the hardest of the hard-liners today proposes additional land invasions as part of the war on terror. With Saddam Hussein now safely in American custody, Bush and Kerry both propose to fight terror primarily with law enforcement and intelligence-gathering. If you’re looking for a president who will take on terrorism by launching more Iraq-style invasions, you don’t have a candidate in this race.

To say that the war against Islamic fundamentalism is not a war in the traditional sense of being a series of battles between armed forces is not to deny that it’s a war in the metaphorical sense. It is a war in that it’s a challenge to our way of life and quite possibly the survival of millions of Americans, which mandates, in response, an enormous marshaling of national resources. When Bush declares, “Some are skeptical that the war on terror is really a war at all,” he is exploiting the confusion between the literal and the metaphorical. In acknowledging the distinction, and opening himself up to Bush’s demagoguery, Kerry demonstrates his political tin ear. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.