Kerry Faces the World

What would a John Kerry foreign policy look like? In some ways a lot like one the current President's father could endorse

Other key appointments would most likely be filled by the advisers who have surrounded Kerry since he launched his bid for the nomination. Rand Beers is often touted as a Democratic successor to Condoleezza Rice; he functioned as the equivalent of a National Security Adviser to Kerry throughout the primaries, crafting many of his policy positions. Others who figure prominently are Nancy Stetson, the chief foreign-policy adviser on Kerry's Senate staff, and Jonathan Winer, a longtime aide who specialized in international money laundering and terrorist financial networks for Kerry in the 1980s and early 1990s, and later in Clinton's State Department.

From the archives:

"Spies, Lies, and Weapons: What Went Wrong" (January/February 2004)
How could we have been so far off in our estimates of Saddam Hussein's weapons programs? A detailed account of how and why we erred. By Kenneth M. Pollack

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Weapons of Misperception" (January 13, 2004)
Kenneth M. Pollack, the author of The Threatening Storm, explains how the road to war with Iraq was paved with misleading and manipulated intelligence.

A number of former Clinton officials, turned out by Bush's victory, would probably return to fill additional positions in a Kerry Administration. Some likely candidates are Ron Asmus (a State Department veteran and a possible assistant secretary of state for Europe), Jamie Rubin (Madeleine Albright's chief spokesman at the State Department), and several notable veterans of Clinton's National Security Council staff, including James Steinberg, Ivo Daalder, and Kenneth Pollack. Although some divisions exist among them (Daalder was an adviser to Howard Dean, for instance), these veterans tend to take a more hawkish approach to foreign policy than most professional Democrats of the post-Vietnam generation and even many current Democratic voters. Pollack is the author of The Threatening Storm, an influential book that argued for regime change in Iraq and was frequently cited by Republicans during the buildup to the invasion. Late last year, when Howard Dean was the front-runner, Pollack, Asmus, and another key Kerry adviser—the former State Department official Greg Craig—signed a manifesto titled "Progressive Internationalism: A Democratic National Security Strategy," which aimed to put the Democratic foreign-policy establishment on record against Dean's perceived slide toward the party's dovish past.

Over the course of Clinton's presidency, especially during his second term, the President's foreign-policy team crafted a new vision of how America should engage with the post-Cold War world. Because this process got into gear well before 9/11, when the world was less keenly attuned to lofty questions of foreign policy, their vision received far less attention than the high-octane theorizing of Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, and the neocons before and after the attacks. Nevertheless, it offers a road map to the probable overall direction of a Kerry Administration—one that might surprise people familiar with Kerry only through his relentless criticism of Bush on the campaign trail. These ex-Clintonites are quite comfortable with the use of force, and actually agree with the Bush Administration on some key goals—for instance, exporting democracy and political liberalization—though they differ significantly on how they would pursue them. They also differ on the question of where the true threats to America lie and how to combat them. Kerry's advisers focus less exclusively on nation-states like those Bush identified in his infamous "Axis of Evil" speech and more on the host of diffuse dangers that have arisen in the wake of globalization: destabilization, arms smuggling, and terrorism.

As the situation in Iraq has worsened, Kerry has stepped up his criticism of the Bush Administration. In an April 30 speech at Westminster College, Kerry laid out a three-part plan for the occupation and reconstruction of the country. First he would expand and internationalize the security force by seeking the support of the UK, France, Russia, and China, and also NATO, which, he suggested, might take control of the borders and train Iraq's army. Second he would propose an international high commissioner to oversee elections, write a constitution, and organize the reconstruction efforts. Third he would launch a "massive training effort" to expand Iraqi security forces. Taking those steps, Kerry declared, "is the only way to succeed in the mission while ending the sense of an American occupation." On the surface this may sound like merely a difference of emphasis—as though the only change Kerry proposes is a dash more multilateralism and UN involvement. But beyond specifics, the significance of which can be misinterpreted, lies a fundamental difference in world view between Democrats and Republicans—a difference in how they see the nature of the threat facing America. This, more than any distinction between hawk and dove, is also the fundamental foreign-policy difference between Bush and Kerry.

From its inception the Bush Administration has viewed states as the key actors on the world stage, and relations among them as the primary concern of U.S. foreign policy. It is a mindset rooted in the realities of the Cold War, which defined U.S. foreign policy at the time when most of the President's key advisers gained their formative experience in government. The fixity of this mindset also explains why the Bush Administration spent its first months so heavily focused on the issue of national missile defense, and seemed so surprised by al-Qaeda's transnational terrorism. The Bush team didn't discount the problem of weapons of mass destruction; it simply expected trouble to come from an ICBM-wielding "rogue state" like Iraq or North Korea, rather than from Islamic terrorist groups.

Viewed through this lens, the Administration's fixation on Iraq after 9/11 becomes somewhat easier to understand. As Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith explained to Nicholas Lemann, of The New Yorker, on the eve of the Iraq War, "One of the principal strategic thoughts underlying our strategy in the war on terrorism is the importance of the connection between terrorist organizations and their state sponsors. Terrorist organizations cannot be effective in sustaining themselves over long periods of time to do large-scale operations if they don't have support from states."

To the Democrats in Kerry's orbit, this approach is at best inefficient and at worst akin to fighting fire with gasoline—for example, it has created terrorism in Iraq where little or none previously existed. Last fall, when I asked the presidential candidate General Wesley Clark about Feith's characterization of the threat, he said it was the "principal strategic mistake behind the Administration's policy." Clark went on, "If you look at all the states that were named as the principal adversaries, they're on the periphery of international terrorism today."

First as a military negotiator in Bosnia and later as NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the second Clinton Administration, Clark was one of the figures at the center of the process that shaped current Democratic foreign-policy views. In its early years, rhetoric aside, the Clinton Administration hewed closely to George H.W. Bush's policy of studied non-involvement in the Balkans, even as Yugoslavia slid into chaos. But over time that region became a forcing ground for re-evaluating Democratic beliefs about foreign policy. The Balkans proved that soft-sounding concerns like human-rights abuses, ethnic slaughter, lawlessness, and ideological extremism could quickly mount into first-order geopolitical crises.

By the mid-1990s this had led the Clinton Administration to focus on terrorism, failed states, and weapons proliferation, and as it did, its foreign-policy outlook changed. The key threats to the United States came to be seen less in terms of traditional conflicts between states and more in terms of endemic regional turmoil of the sort found in the Balkans. "The Clinton Administration," says Jonathan Winer, "started out with a very traditional Democratic or even mainstream approach to foreign policy: big-power politics, Russia being in the most important role; a critical relationship with China; European cooperation; and some multilateralism." But over the years, he went on, "they moved much more to a failed-state, global-affairs kind of approach, recognizing that the trends established by globalization required you to think about foreign policy in a more synthetic and integrated fashion than nation-state to nation-state."

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In