Bush or Kerry? An Englishman Speaks Out

I really ought to hesitate before offering a view on how Americans should vote on Tuesday. This is not because we nonresident aliens have little at stake in the election—we have plenty. It is more a question of good manners: "No representation without taxation," or something along those lines, would seem to apply. It is also a question of self-preservation. The United States does not take kindly to being bossed around by foreigners—just one of its many admirable traits.

Ask Britain's Guardian newspaper. This left-of-center publication, which believes that America poses a graver threat to civilization than do mere nuisances such as Al Qaeda, has been hoping to swing some votes for John Kerry in Ohio. With that goal in mind, it launched a letter-writing campaign, supplying "concerned readers" (wonderful condescension in that "concerned") with the names and addresses of voters in Springfield, Ohio, and urging them to make their distaste for George W. Bush very plain.

Lately, The Guardian has been publishing some of the letters that the good people of Springfield sent in reply. Rarely has it offered such enjoyable reading. Putting party loyalties aside, the voters of Ohio seem to agree that they need no guidance from The Guardian's anxious readers. Many expressed themselves very forcefully, with threats of violence, and frequent (entirely justified) references to the state of Britons' teeth. Democratic voters have been promising to switch allegiance simply to annoy The Guardian—as good a reason as any, to be sure. If Bush wins the state by a few hundred votes, and, hence, the presidency, the newspaper must be given due credit. (It has now asked its readers to stop sending letters: spineless, as well as sanctimonious.)

One way for me to avoid an awkward situation like that would be to confine this column to disinterested comment on foreign perceptions of the candidates, just in case any readers of National Journal might be curious about that. But I have a problem there, too. I cannot claim to be a typical Englishman in this regard, still less (heaven forbid) a typical European. Slavish devotion to most things American rules me out as a representative of foreign opinion, or even as somebody who can claim to understand foreign opinion. The "concerns" of The Guardian's readers strike me as mostly unintelligible; when I can understand them, they strike me as wrong.

The compromise I have settled on is to tell you what I think about the candidates, while urging you to ignore what I say when casting your vote. Doing so will be difficult for you, obviously. But I cannot see how else to meet the otherwise conflicting demands of honesty and propriety.

It works out pretty well, in fact, because if I had a vote in this election, I would be struggling to decide how to cast it. Bush and Kerry are both awful candidates, in my opinion, though in completely different ways. Bush has done badly enough in so many areas of policy that one longs to see a strong Democratic alternative. Unfortunately, Kerry is not it. He makes one think nostalgically of Bill Clinton—something I never expected to say (and would not dare say, I confess, if my friend and onetime NJ columnist and editor Michael Kelly were still alive).

My guess is that Kerry could have not just won this election (as he may well do, of course), but he could have won it by a landslide. To be sure of winning, I think, Kerry only needed to give Bush generous credit for the things he got right, while lacerating him, quite properly, for the things he got wrong. Driven by a logic that escapes me, he chose instead to attack Bush on everything, even when doing so forced him into incoherence, vacillation, and self-contradiction, and despite the fact that such an all-fronts repudiation of Bush's record (and of the lessons of Clinton's political career) must have repelled many moderate Republicans who might otherwise have swung Kerry's way.

Bush has grasped that the attacks of September 11 transformed the way America needs to think about security. There is no longer any excuse for failing to see that the civilized world faces a patient and coordinated assault on its very existence. The terrorists who launched those attacks are part of a network that wants to destroy us and our way of life. It is that simple. Without scruple or remorse, they are literally beyond reason. As soon as these maniacs obtain weapons of mass destruction, as they will, those weapons will be used against us. When it comes to addressing the core of this problem, Cold War concepts such as deterrence and containment are not merely irrelevant; they are laughable. Aggression and pre-emption, as Bush says without apology, are justified and necessary. Middle America plainly agrees with the president, even if it turns out that it cannot bring itself to vote for him. Kerry, incredibly, has allowed doubts to arise about where he stands on this pre-eminent question of our time.

Kerry says he understands the gravity of the Qaeda threat: How could he not? The doubts spring from his iterations over the war in Iraq, and from his criticism of the administration for making itself unpopular with supposed allies such as France. The right thing—right politically, and right on the merits as well—was to say that the war against Iraq was justified on the evidence available at the time. More than that, Kerry should have congratulated Bush on removing Saddam Hussein. Despite the intelligence errors over WMD, a post-sanctions Iraq with Saddam still in power, free to resume his weapons programs and to forge links with terror groups, would soon have posed a grave threat to America.

As for relations with the allies, Kerry just seems naive. It will always be in Europe's interests to let America do the heavy lifting on anti-terror efforts. Europe lacks the will for the fight—just look at its defense budgets. Why should Europe mind if America remains Al Qaeda's principal target? Kerry's election would alter none of that.

Having backed the war in principle, having taken Bush's side against the pusillanimous allies in old Europe, Kerry could then have attacked Bush for the terrible incompetence of the occupation. He could have deplored Bush's inability to admit, or learn from, mistakes. He could have pointed out that aggression and pre-emption require high-quality intelligence, and he could have mocked the administration's confused efforts on that front. He could have said that winning the war for hearts and minds in the Middle East requires, among other things, the highest standards of conduct among American occupation forces—and that the Abu Ghraib calamity, in which the highest reaches of the Bush command are implicated, was a crippling setback for American security. He could have said he would demand the support of other countries in the war against terror, even if that meant making America less popular.

In all these ways, Kerry could have attacked the administration from a position that underlined his commitment to security. Instead, by vacillating over Iraq and sobbing over America's unpopularity abroad, he put that commitment in doubt. Kerry could plausibly have promised to bring greater competence and brainpower to the ferocious prosecution of the war that Bush had correctly envisioned. Instead, he disagreed—or only kind of agreed, or something—with the idea that September 11 had changed the world.

So the choice would appear to be between a man who understands what needs to be done but is apparently unable to do it, and a man who might be better at doing what needs to be done, but cannot see it.

Do domestic and economic policies break this dismal tie over foreign policy? These days, those issues come a distant second to national security. Having said that, on social policy, Kerry would certainly get my vote. That is mainly because he is not in thrall to the intolerant Religious Right. (I am enough of a European, I suppose, to be a secularist on what I regard as matters of personal conscience, such as abortion and stem cells.) But I would score fiscal policy a draw. Kerry says he wants to cut the budget deficit and (unlike Bush) seems to mean it, but his proposals for extra spending and extended middle-class tax cuts say otherwise. And Kerry could be a disaster on trade policy. When it comes to outsourcing, he seems as proud of his economic illiteracy as Bush is when talking about the deficit. Not that Bush has much to boast about on trade: Think of steel tariffs and the farm bill.

Heavy are the burdens of citizenship. If I had a vote, I would grit my American teeth, turn out, and cast it. But I won't say for whom. That would be presumptuous. And you might vote the other way in protest.