One of the most dramatic segments in John Kerry's speech at the Democratic National Convention seemed at first listening to be a ringing re-affirmation of a traditional American principle.
But listen carefully to how Kerry answered the question of when America ought to go to war and you will discover he wasn't echoing George Washington so much as doing a Clintonesque takeoff on Woodrow Wilson.
Said Kerry: "And as president, I will bring back this nation's time-honored tradition: the United States of America never goes to war because we want to, we only go to war because we have to."
Thus far, he resembled Washington, who studiously kept America out of a conflict between England and France, and who counseled non-intervention and deterrent military strength. But a moment later, Kerry resembled Woodrow Wilson, who converted World War I into an un-winnable crusade "for a universal dominion of right."
While expressing a Wilsonian view, however, Kerry used carefully parsed Clintonian language.
According to the text of his speech posted on his campaign Web site, Kerry said: "Before you go to battle, you have to be able to look a parent in the eye and truthfully say: 'I tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm's way. But we had no choice. We had to protect the American people, fundamental American values from a threat that was real and imminent.' So lesson one, this is the only justification for going to war."
Now look at these 18 words again: "We had to protect the American people, fundamental American values from a threat that was real and imminent."
Is Kerry giving "only" one justification for war, or two?
He appears to be offering Washington's and Wilson's at the same time: He would send your son or daughter to war 1) to protect "the American people" (Washingtonian realism), or 2) to protect "American values" (Wilsonian ideology).
Is this too picky a textual analysis? An alternative interpretation is that on the most significant issue, in his most important speech, Kerry was inadvertently imprecise in his choice of words.
There's undeniable power -- and jeopardy -- in a campaign promise unambiguously stated. President Bush's father coined a classic: "Read my lips: No new taxes." Kerry might have said 18 words that went like this: "Read my lips: No wars unless they are necessary to protect Americans from a real and imminent threat." But he didn't. He said those other 18 words.
Kerry has been called a flip-flopper. But give him credit here for a veiled consistency. He has indeed alternately supported wars he deemed necessary to protect "American people" and "values."
Mirroring President Bush's argument that it was necessary to protect Americans, Kerry voted for war in Iraq. "Iraq has some lethal and incapacitating agents and is capable of quickly producing weaponizing (sic) of a variety of such agents, including anthrax, for delivery on a range of vehicles, such as bombs, missiles, aerial sprayers and covert operatives which could bring them to the United States itself," Kerry said in the Senate before the war vote.
Arguing it was necessary to protect "international principles of decency," Kerry supported Clinton's intervention in Serbia's civil war. Appearing on CNN in 1999, Kerry said of the Kosovo war: "I believe in the stand we're taking here. This is not on the side of one combatant or another, this is on the side of international principles of decency and of the appropriate behavior that civilized nations should live by at the end of this century and the beginning of the next."
Kerry insisted the U.S. must be ready to risk ground troops for this cause. "I don't think it necessarily requires troops," he said, "though I have been very clear that they should not be taken off the table."
On CNBC that year, Newsweek's Howard Fineman pressed Kerry to explain why his argument for intervening in Serbia did not also apply to war-torn Rwanda. Kerry's 130-word answer started by conceding, "That's a very fair question . . ." and included, "maybe that's something that needs to be thought about in the future."
No, it's not.
If America fought foreign wars to protect "values" or "international standards of decency" even when the freedom and security of Americans were not threatened, there would be no end to the places presidents could send American sons and daughters into harm's way -- and in none would it be necessary for Americans to die.
To be sure, Bush has voiced Wilsonianisms, too, albeit without Kerry's Clintonesque obfuscation. But if there is one American tradition Republicans and Democrats ought to agree to restore now, it is the one given us by our first president: We will fight no war unless it is necessary to defend the American people.