John Kerry is supposed to be the man of nuance. But he can't seem to grasp the implications of his boldest foreign policy statement in last week's presidential debate - a principle that might be described as the "Mother, May I?" doctrine.
In the debate, you may recall, Kerry alluded to the "global test" a president must pass before committing troops to war. The Bush campaign, reeling from an unexpected loss in the first debate, wisely used Kerry's words against him. The next day Bush declared about his opponent: "He said that America has to pass a global test before we can use American troops to defend ourselves. . Senator Kerry's approach to foreign policy would give foreign governments veto power over our national security decisions." The Bush campaign followed up with an ad making much the same point.
The Kerry camp responded with something less than subtlety, immediately rolling out an ad saying, in effect, Liar, liar pants on fire. "George Bush lost the debate," the ad declared. "Now he's lying about it." Paul Krugman of the New York Times picked up the Democrats spin, also calling Bush a liar.
Krugman and the Kerry camp base their charge on this evidence: During the debate Kerry had said, "No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America." So you see, there's no way you can say that Kerry would give foreign leaders a "veto" over American national security.
No so fast. It all boils down to what Kerry means by "necessary."
Consider the parallel example of gun control. John Kerry - and most other liberals, as well as many conservatives - say they believe in the Second Amendment right to own guns. But they also believe in setting strict rules by which you can own, purchase and use guns. The gun-controller's position, in other words, is that, sure, you have the right to own a gun, but the state and the community have a right to put limitations on how you exercise it.
Yes, John Kerry believes presidents have the right to preemption. But he also believes that that right should be subject to serious regulations by the "international community," the United Nations and the opinions of our allies. These regulations are no less real because they are informal and take the form of Kerry's personal preferences.