Piercing The Fog Of Rhetoric
What Senator Kerry Really Said on the 29th of July.
Jay B. Gaskill
Senator Kerry has spoken. The goal of his acceptance speech was to present himself as a wise centrist in the war against terror, a smarter more prudent Bush, but one the American people can rely on to do the tough thing as the situation requires. His campaign has “leaked” the word that a Kerry administration would not pursue a radical break in foreign policy.
Kerry is simultaneously running on and from his voting record in the Senate. This is a record about which all reasonable observers agree: Senator Kerry has voted sharply to the left of most Americans, particularly on national security issues.
The key references to national security issues from Senator Kerry’s July 29th acceptance speech reveal where his candidacy has and has not moved:
“I ask you to judge me by my record” … as a prosecutor …as a Senator…”
 Senator Kerry then pointedly omits any references to his voting record on national security issues, such as his attempt to gut the national intelligence budget and his opposition to the first Gulf War.
“I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war…”
 Here he intends to leave the implication that, had he not been misled about the WMD issue, he would have opposed the Iraq war. The incoherence of this position, particularly in light of the nearly unequivocal advice rendered by George Tenet, Clinton’s CIA head, will likely lead the Senator into another nuance cascade during the campaign.
“We are a nation at war – a global war on terror against an enemy unlike any we have ever known before…”
 This is the first in a series of the “Bush Lite” comments, designed to reassure the national security crowd that Kerry is no Carter or Howard Dean.
“…some issues aren’t all that simple…”
 This is Kerry’s defensive riposte to his reputation for artful ambiguity. He follows with a rhetorical list of some the president’s premature claims.
“As president, I will ask hard questions and demand hard evidence… [assuring that] The United States of America goes to war not because we want to; we only go to war because we have to.”
 This is good example of Kerry’s purposeful ambiguity. This leaves him free to say that, as president, he would have gone in to Iraq, too, but only after more international support and better planning for the aftermath, or that he would have not gone in at all.
[We must try] “everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harms way”.. [only committing forces] when we had no choice [but] to protect the American people, fundamental American values from a threat that [is] real and imminent… [T]his is the only justification for going to war.”
 Here Kerry repudiates preemption except in those cases where the threat is well proven and immediate. The president has explicitly said that, in the post-9-11 environment where chemical, biological and radiological weapons may fall into the hands of terrorists, the country can’t afford to wait until a threat becomes imminent. I predict that Kerry will have to retreat from this position during the campaign or otherwise cloud the issue with additional ambiguity, as in the next passage:
“I will never hesitate to use force when it is required. Any attack will be met with a sure and certain response. I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security.”
 The “no veto” disclaimer is a retreat from earlier remarks made in the primary campaign that, taken seriously, would have made our self defense hostage to the French. At first blush, the tone of this passage appears to resurrect the possibility of a more rapid response to a threat profile, even – dare we think it – preemption. Actually it is a restatement of the containment and retaliation strategy that had dominated pre-9-11 policy. The passage perfectly captures the 9-10 thinking that still dominates among the liberal intelligentsia, and it frames the sharpest of the differences in approach between a Kerry and a Bush administration.
“We will add 40,000 active duty troops – not in Iraq, but to strengthen American forces that are now overstretched…”
 Ordinary housekeeping is conflated as “building up” the military. Kerry had a cheap opportunity to move slightly to the president’s right, by offering to bulk up the Iraq forces. He couldn’t bring himself to do it.
“I will fight a smarter, more effective war against terror.”
 During the campaign, “smarter” will translate as “more cautious and more prudent” unless the Senator has some meat for this bone.
“We need to lead a global effort against nuclear proliferation – to keep the most dangerous weapons in the world out of the most dangerous hands in the world.”
 This is Bush policy, too. Is there any venue whatsoever in which Senator Kerry would advocate a more robust, more effective approach? We’ve yet to hear it.
The Context of Transformation
The context of the national security discussion forever changed on the morning of September 11, 2001. When we went to bed on September 10:
Our borders were porous to terrorists with phony visas.
Public opinion was ill prepared for any sacrifice of convenience at the airport.
Our military had lost major elements of its force structure as the “peace dividend” following the end of the cold war.
Our law enforcement and intelligence apparatuses were poorly coordinated at best.
The American people had no appetite for taking the fight to the enemy.
Americans wondered– What fight was it anyway? Against what enemy?
Recall that our nation’s response to the blatant aggression by an anti-American dictator in a region affecting our vital interests, Gulf War I, almost failed to get Congressional authorization (coming within one vote in the Senate of defeat, with Senator Kerry, among others opposing the war).
And recall that Presidents Ford, Carter, Bush I, and Clinton were still trapped in the “I can’t order anyone to be killed” and “arrest not war” paradigms.
Under Bush II, the restrictive paradigms were being questioned but the new administration moved against the tide entirely too slowly. That said, the hijackers were in place and the plan for 9-11 was in play before the new president was inaugurated.
Yet all this begs the real question: What and who were not transformed by 9-11?
A short list of the untransformed:
Former President Jimmy Carter
Former Vice President Al Gore
The left-of-center activists who drove the democratic party to reject Gephart and Lieberman.
Anyone who was watching this president closely during those first hours and days can tell you the exact moment when he was transformed. George W. Bush was standing in the rubble of the Destroyed Towers. He put an arm around a fireman (and many of us we noticed how authentic and comfortable that gesture was). “We can’t hear you” they shouted. Then the president shouted back (and at that moment, he became president). He spoke from his gut: “They will hear from us!”
I was watching on television from a Manhattan apartment (close enough to the crime scene to smell the dust), and I could feel the old paradigms pop like balloons.
That was the moment when we took a different course.
Here is the question of the day: Was Senator John Kerry was transformed by 9-11?
Were we to take a pre-Iraq war snapshot, this is what we would see:
Really, there was very little difference between the preceding Clinton administration’s assessment of Iraq and that of the incoming Bush administration. The world’s intelligence agencies had achieved a consensus view in 1998: Iraq possessed banned stockpiles of biological, radiological and chemical weapons. Recall that 1998 was the year when the UN inspectors were evicted, and when Congress and the Clinton administration called for regime change as official US policy.
Time passed. US intelligence, dependant on a special relationship with the UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, effectively went blind. The intelligence community began relying on old information and new informants who couldn’t be corroborated. A new US administration came in, retaining the same intelligence apparatus. A few months later, the entire national security bureaucracy was blindsided by the 9-11 attacks on Manhattan and DC.
We need to remember that the pre-9-11 Bush administration was fairly isolationist at the outset, critical of Clinton’s nation building exercises and over-commitment of forces. The Bush NSC staff had to be converted to a forward, threat prevention policy by catastrophe and a self protective CIA. Burned by its massive pre-9-11 intelligence failure, the CIA reassessed every threat from a new perspective. The Bush administration began listening to the policy advocates who identified the problem as a systemic assault on the US and its allies by a world wide terrorist network sponsored and supported by the covert and overt support of a handful of governments in the Middle East region.
The CIA has properly been taken to task for its failure to assess the capabilities of the Iraq regime. But the assessment of Iraq’s malevolent intentions and potential threat was dead-on accurate. In retrospect, the CIA and other world intelligence agencies were wrong in aspects of the threat analysis, but the underlying facts were based on fairly solid intel. All individual intel sources are suspect, but most of the Iraq “misinformation” was well cross-corroborated. All bureaucrats everywhere practice the art of covering their posteriors. After 9-11, “CYA” rules governed the intelligence community: No one wanted to be associated with a “no threat here” conclusion, lest they be burned at the stake for failing to detect the next 9-11. So the analysis bias changed from complacency to hyper-vigilance.
The central difference between the post-9-11 Bush administration and the Clinton administration was this sea change in the analytic stance, a direct result of the September attacks, and the institutional failure to have seen it coming. Arguably, the Clinton administration would have gone though much the same process and come out in much the same place.
Here are the four most important elements of the change:
The risk / response profile radically shifted after the Trade Towers went down, the Pentagon was hit and at least one major DC target (White House? Congress? FBI Headquarters?) was nearly hit. Post 9-11, there was very little room for the notion of any “acceptable” risk because the realistic scope of danger now included American cities, government centers, communications and transportation infrastructure and other symbolic, economic or national security assets. Serious discussion about preemption took place because of this.
The 1998 consensus about Saddam’s weapon stockpiles became a presumptive finding that Saddam was a threat. The burden shifted to those who were prepared to prove that the threat was negligible or easily contained.
Isolationism and narrowly crafted legalistic defense measures were no longer politically or morally defensible.
International support, while seen as desirable, was no longer a condition precedent to the use of military force in self defense, including preemption. [Here the ground had already been partly broken by the Clinton administration whose Yugoslavia military action was never presented to the UN for approval.]
Recall that both the pessimists and optimists were wrong about Iraq. Invasion pessimists were wildly off the mark, both in grossly overestimating American casualties and underestimating the rapidity that American forces were able to topple Saddam. Liberation optimists were seriously off the mark when the cheering crowds quickly mutated into rioters and an easy liberation mutated into an uneasy occupation.
Could Saddam have been contained? Who would bear the responsibility if containment had failed and a cache of biological, radiological or chemical weapons were transferred by Iraq to terrorists or delivered to another country via banned missiles?
After it is all said and done, we can be certain that at the time that Saddam evicted the weapons inspectors, his regime possessed strategically significant quantities of one of more of the above WMD’s. Every major intelligence agency in the world thought so. There is absolutely no credible evidence to the contrary. Did Saddam secretly destroy these assets?
Where is the evidence? I for one am morally certain that Saddam would never have destroyed his WMD assets. He would have scattered them in small stockpiles on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border.
If this view proves out, and I am confident that it eventually will, the Iraq War demonstrated both the futility of containment and a belated invasion. In retrospect, only a massive surprise attack taken a full year before the actual invasion might have succeeded in trapping the illegal weapons in place. Distracted by Afghanistan, a reluctant Pentagon, and its own internationalists — and weakened by the Florida balloting controversy and a deeply divided country — the Bush administration just couldn’t get it together in time.
For now, the Bush administration enjoys a high retaliatory credibility with our enemies in the region. Syria, the most likely recipient of Saddam’s WMD’s, doesn’t dare do a thing with any WMD’s on its territory. That, of course, could change the moment a softer, gentler administration takes office. This is tragic for the democrats because the situation is ready made for a tough challenge from the national security right.
This is acutely tragic because (with the demise of Scoop Jackson, the retirement of Sam Nunn, and the marginalization of Joe Lieberman) there is no viable national security wing in the Democratic Party.
Senator Kerry has ambiguous credentials at best; following his flirtations with the anti-war left, he has little credibility as a hawk left. Fully 85% of his convention audience on the 29th swallowed their anti-war sentiments to cheer – not for Kerry’s centrist message – but for their passion for someone, anyone who might defeat this incumbent wartime republican president.
President G. W. Bush and this country have been inadequately served by the intelligence community. As would Senator Kerry had he been in Bush’s place on 9-11. That said, Mr. Bush’s judgments were and are appropriate to the post 9-11 circumstances. National security policy is now governed by a far more muscular “Never Again” ethos.
As a “Truman democrat”, I believe that sea change is essential to our survival. It transcends party and personality. Any administration in the post 9-11 era must continue follow, support, and implement these three principles:
Regimes can no longer hide in the shadow world of neutrality in the war on terror. Nation states – all nation states – are either against the terrorists or they are potential enemies, subject to sanctions for aiding those who would do us harm. And sanctions now include possible military and paramilitary action.
The war on terror can no longer be fought as a mere legal battle between lawyers and crime scene investigators, chasing a mobile, armed clandestine enemy capable of attacking the White House, the Pentagon, and core facilities by unconventional means.
When the truly dangerous weapons are concerned, especially the compact, highly deliverable radiological and biological weapons, we (and indeed any civilized nation state) need not wait until we are damaged to neutralize the threat. Whether this is characterized as preemptive action or not is beside the point. The prospect of highly portable WMD’s have forever changed the self defense equation.
Intelligence is never perfect but it is our only tool to assess threats to our nation’s security in a dangerous world. New threats, every bit as serious as 9-11, will continue to develop. Given the stakes, would we prefer to err on the side of overreaction or underreaction?
Where is Senator Kerry on all this? After watching the campaign to date and piercing the Fog of ambiguity that surrounds him at every turn, my assessment can be summarized in a single word: untransformed.
Jay B. Gaskill
July 30, 2004