The domesticated Dean

Posted: Dec 04, 2003 12:00 AM

Sen. John Kerry has come to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York to deliver a major foreign-policy address, and he looks great. With his cragged face and silvery hair, he is the very picture of a senator. But at a time when Democratic activists are fed up with a party establishment that they think hasn't been confrontational enough toward President Bush, Kerry's senatorial looks aren't necessarily an asset. It is the pugnacious, sleeves-rolled-up Howard Dean who has been routing Kerry in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Dean first got his momentum with his opposition to the Iraq War. As he has thrived, the other candidates, very much including Kerry, have adopted his tone of outright rejection of all things Bush. So, as Kerry stands before an audience that represents the epicenter of the American foreign-policy establishment, he is essentially domesticated Dean. He's not shouting or pointing. But the message is the same -- that, in Kerry's words, Bush "has pursued the most arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in modern history."

Whoever is the eventual Democratic nominee will make this case against Bush, so Kerry's 45-minute speech provides a good occasion to ask: Does it make any sense?

On the one hand, Kerry excoriates Bush for running roughshod over U.S. allies in the run-up to the Iraq War. On the other, he stipulates that "we had to hold Saddam Hussein accountable, and we needed to lead in that effort." How would Kerry square those two positions given the French and German opposition to the war? The candidate says he would have delayed the U.S. invasion and gone back to France and Germany month after month to ask if they were finally ready to approve of it. Kerry's theory is that eventually this would have embarrassed them into going along.

This badly underestimates the depth of their opposition to the war. Germany at the time said that it wouldn't support an invasion even if a U.N. resolution passed explicitly authorizing it. And the French were clearly acting in bad faith, telling Colin Powell they would support the use of force if Iraq didn't comply with U.N. resolution 1441 without demanding another U.N. vote. They then demanded another U.N. vote and worked to defeat it. The French don't embarrass easily, and thinking that serially asking them "pretty please" would have changed much is fantasy masquerading as policy.

What now? Kerry criticizes Bush for what appears to be a "politically expedient" strategy of "cut and run" in Iraq. This is rather rich coming from the candidate who voted against the $87 billion package to rebuild Iraq and fund U.S. military operations there because he is trailing Dean. Kerry's implausible proposal is to hand operations over to the United Nations, an organization that already has cut and run from Iraq. More fantasy.

For the other trouble spots in the world, Kerry prescribes talk -- with Iran, the Palestinian Authority and North Korea. But the Clinton administration tried soft-touch diplomacy in all three cases and got respectively: nothing, a terror war against Israel, and a broken nuclear-arms agreement. Kerry displays a liberal's core belief that the world's bad actors will come to see reason so long as we keep up a cheerful patter with them. Yes, diplomacy has its place, but this faith in the power of talk for talk's sake is simply naivete.

Kerry scores some points. The administration has been too reluctant to cooperate with investigations into 9/11 and Iraq intelligence failures. Its public diplomacy has been lacking. And it has been soft on the Saudis. But these points won't add up to much if the Democrats can't convince the public that they represent a serious alternative on foreign policy and have a coherent critique of Bush. By this standard, Kerry's speech is in keeping with his entire campaign so far -- it's a failure.