Kerry Against Bush - Why
Is This About Vietnam?

By Terrell E. Arnold
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 that mission.
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



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