- In the European media this week, the lead story on the
2004 US presidential campaign is about John F. Kerry's military record
in Vietnam. That fact alone may convince Europeans that the Americans
altogether have lost it. But a serious issue on the table for Americans
in general is: Why has the campaign been pushed to issues so remote from
America's present and future needs? With a military service record that
has been considered exemplary up to now, and with a distinguished record
in the US Senate, why does the Bush campaign feel it is useful to blast
away at Kerry's performance in Vietnam? With the Bush record on Vietnam
as sketchy and unflattering as it is, why would Bush campaign leaders view
this as such an attractive campaign issue?
- The up-front answers are simple: Anything but Iraq.
Anything but the War on Terrorism. Anything but the state of the US economy.
Anything but the Bush record on the environment. Anything but the Bush
record on social programs and human rights. Anything but Bush decisions
on the development of nuclear weapons. Anything but the Bush record on
health care. Anything but the Bush capitulation to Israel. Anything but
Bush borrowing to overcome the budget effects of his tax cuts. In short,
anything but the performance of George W. Bush as President of the United
States. That makes the Bush campaign manager task as delicate as can be:
How can we sell this guy as a second term President when we cannot say
anything about his performance as a first term President?
- The answer must be: Kerry's performance in Vietnam.
Why? Because that is as far from reality in Washington as one can get
without falling off the planet. It is also the kind of trivial revelation
by trivial revelation that media love because it generates daily 30-second
sound bites for days at a time. It is a trivial pursuit about important
people in an important process, but what the media like are the sound bites
that are accompanied by equal if not longer pauses to talk about everything
from sex enhancers to spot removers. The real American presidency is lost
in this sea of trivia.
- Given the agenda outlined above, Bush is likely to do
nothing to improve the information situation for American voters, but what
can Kerry do about it? If his campaign is up to it, he can do plenty.
- To be sure, Kerry has set some critical limitations for
himself and his campaign. For starters, even before he was nominated,
Kerry committed himself wholly and completely to Israel as a friend and
advocate. That puts him in the same position as Bush, except that, as President,
Bush has gone further, usurped the entire role of the United Nations and
pretty much told Ariel Sharon he can have Palestine, if he can take it.
It would appear that Kerry gratuitously has signed on to this thoughtless
if not illegal accord with 'me, too' gestures affirmed by his brother to
Sharon. Granted, Kerry is not yet President, and his promises to the Zionists
do not count the same way Bush promises do. Thus, when elected Kerry will
have some room to evaluate this situation and decide what he wants to say.
He has already indicated he wants a great deal more international involvement
in Middle East decisions, and that is a good start.
- Despite being part of the Congressional crowd that ceded
war-making authority to Bush, and despite his stated campaign position
that he still agrees with the decision to invade Iraq, Kerry still has
very different options for dealing with that situation. He does not have
to be committed unequivocally to having gone into Iraq. Bush still has
to explain that; Kerry does not. He would be committed, though, to getting
us out at minimum cost and with as much foreign policy gain as possible.
Here again, his stated desire to take a more international approach could
extricate us from Iraq in a way that actually improves our country,s image.
One of his successes might be figuring out how to assure reliable access
to Iraqi oil without having to make hostages of the owners. One obvious
solution to that is to make an enduring peace with the oil exporter countries
in the context of assured access to supplies. Another enormous opportunity
here is to work at the same time on means to reduce American dependence
on oil through developing alternative energy sources.
- The American economic agenda is Kerry,s next most critical
area. The world economy is changing and has been doing so for decades.
The nasty term for this process now is 'outsourcing', but that is one manifestation
of a much larger set of facts. Development economists for years have sought
to promote a global economy in which capable partners interacted at all
levels of economic activity as equals. That is far from an accomplished
fact after half a century of varied investments in it. However, major
challengers in the labor market are now India and China, with lesser contributors
in the whole, so-called non-aligned community.
- India and China have labor pools representing about one-third
of the world's labor force, and they have too little to do, along with
growing appetites. They perforce are less costly, but they are hardly unskilled,
and the invasion of American markets by their output of everything from
household goods to computer software and other technology products are
only benchmarks of a more competitive future. That is the nub of outsourcing,
and it will get more competitive. The challenge is how we keep our viability
as a contributor to this intensive international exchange without harming
our own work force. Redefining our role in this opening world economy
is a vital mission, and this presidential campaign must address it. Kerry
must do that sensibly.
- Regardless of how often and how disparagingly the hard
right conservatives view it, social welfare is a major and growing concern
in our society. It has been obvious for some time that if our people are
going to live between 80 and 100 years, we need new rules in many sectors
of human activity. Whether we keep people in the wage-earning labor force
for 40 or 50 years, rather than 30 or so, is indeed an important issue,
but probably not as important as how we constructively engage a healthy,
long-lived people. We need new or updated training, development, education,
employment, health, public service, and retirement rules for our society,
and the time to start on those rules is now.
- It may be assaulting one of our country's great taboos,
but we need critically to examine the balance of government and private
roles in assuring effective delivery of the products, functions, services
required to meet the needs of all our people. That will not happen unless
inspired leadership tackles it. The issues here are well known, and they
should be squarely addressed in this campaign. If they are not, when our
media and especially the internet are so thoroughly aware of and prepared
to take these issues on, then the campaign will have become an exercise
in futility: Producing a leadership without a mission. Kerry must define
- America's role in foreign affairs is bigger and much
more important than the Bush stumble into Iraq. It is significantly larger
than the Bush preoccupation with terrorism and the Middle East. We cannot
solve our energy problem without addressing everybody,s energy problem.
We cannot bully any of the world,s people with the expectation that they
will take it lying down. One way or another, we will pay. We cannot even
breathe without changing the atmosphere of India. We have been so well
off for so long that we have come to ignore how much we truly depend on
other people. At the same time, we have had trouble capturing the rules
for effective interdependence. A narrow, unilateral approach to service
of American interests is a disaster in the making, and bringing ourselves
back into the family of nations is the only solution. This takes vision,
but it is not visionary. Kerry must see it and explain it to us.
- Six billion people are a challenge to our planet, and
the experts say we could be ten billion before our baby-boomers all die
off. But when we reach that point, Americans will be only about 4 percent
of the people. We have achieved tremendous, even excessive power as that
small minority, and we have done it by substituting technical for human
muscle. But our position in this scheme faces growing challenge. Nuclear
weapons, F-16s and bunker busters will not buy us friends and cooperating
partners. And those capabilities are too gross to deal with small groups
of people or individuals who are offended by what we do. We must have better
strategies for engaging the rest of the world than pre-emptive strikes.
Kerry needs to think about those strategies, and he and his team are smart
enough to come up with some good ones.
- Vietnam is totally irrelevant to these equations. However,
Kerry and his campaign must spend enough time on it to be sure that lies
do not dominate, that the simple truth is known, and if that simple truth
must be repeated every remaining day of the campaign, the team must do
it. But the Bush campaign seizes on Vietnam because it has little to say
about performance. Kerry should not let the Bush diversionary tactic of
Vietnam get in the way of defining what Kerry can do for America,s future.
- The writer is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer
of the US Department of State. He will welcome comment at email@example.com