The biggest difference between John Kerry and George W. Bush is not what they did during the Vietnam War but what they've done during the war in Iraq.
Sen. John Kerry voted for going to war in Iraq based on what he knew when he knew it, just like the president. Later, when he felt the winds in the Democratic Party shifting, he voted against appropriating the money to support the American troops dispatched to liberate Iraq from the forces of hell. As a critic of the president's war policy he joins a pantheon of posturers who thrive on second guesses.
But he underestimates the president's war strategy. When NBC's Tim Russert asked the president whether he should have begun a preemptive war "without ironclad, absolute intelligence that (Saddam) had weapons of mass destruction" the president answered forthrightly: "There is no such thing necessarily in a dictatorial regime as ironclad absolutely solid evidence."
The president was forced to make a decision about whether to go to war under conditions of uncertainty. He learned reasoning at Harvard Business School, to understand statistics and to make decisions based on "probabilities, not absolutes," writes economist Arnold Kling at techcentralstation.com. Americans like certainty, but in making life-and-death decisions, black-and-white absolutes often fade into shades of gray.
If the president didn't have all the "facts," his understanding of the big picture led him to make removing Saddam Hussein part of his strategy of fighting terrorism. Several of those European countries that were against us going to war are trying now to figure out how to benefit from having a democratic regime in Iraq.
"Paradoxically, the future of Iraq, which two years ago threatened to destroy the alliance, may turn into an opportunity to rebuild the Atlantic Alliance and beyond that the international order in general," writes Henry Kissinger in The Washington Post.
In a widely read article in Newsweek, "The Arrogant Empire," Fareed Zakaria criticized the United States for not building a better international consensus before invading Iraq, but he uncovered an intriguing global survey that had been largely unreported: "Large majorities of people in most countries thought that the world would be a more dangerous place if there were a rival to the American superpower."
For all of the America bashing, for all their envy of American affluence, those polled say that the right side won the Cold War. Except for countries with vested interests in conducting terrorism, majorities - and large ones - in the world today no doubt want America to be the winner in the Middle East, too. Resentment, fear and distrust are trumped by the instinct for self-preservation. Who wants to live under a global Taliban (or any other kind of religious state)?
In his provocative new book, "Civilization and its Enemies: The Next Stage of History," Lee Davis offers reasons why these majorities will be on our side. It's not because of our track record of humanity and generosity, he writes: "The civilization that the United States is now called upon to defend is not America's or even the West's; it is the civilization created by all men and women, everywhere on the planet, who have worked to make the actual community around them less addicted to violence, more open, more tolerant, more trusting."
He continues: "They bash us, and yet they recognize our legitimate authority." With a wry twist of interpretation, he declares, "What is cause for astonishment is not how much they distrust and fear us, but how freely and confidently they are able to express this distrust and fear."
In the broadest sense, American interests in spreading democracy in the Middle East are in the interests of these other countries, too. That's why building the peace in Iraq will require a wider base and the United States will have to lead the coalition of the willing.
Intellectuals have been throwing around lots of presidents' names to make comparisons with George W. Bush. Lee Davis adds George Washington. "The world is beginning to show toward us that cynical disrespect for authority that has always been one of the hallmarks of our national character," he writes. "Just as George Washington's enemies attacked him for wanting to make himself king, so our enemies attack us for wanting to make an empire, and with equal absurdity." They know better.
George Bush was right when he said, "It's important for people to understand the context." It's a lesson John Kerry and his friends will have to learn, too.