Speak up, Mr. Kerry

Posted: May 05, 2004 12:00 AM

This week, Senator Kerry launched a $25-million advertising campaign in which his boat mates commend him for his physical courage in battle 30 years ago. There is nothing wrong with that. Politicians with good war records usually trumpet such heroism. Indeed during his campaigns, President G.H.W. Bush showed pictures of him being pulled out of the ocean after being shot down during WWII. But John Kerry could advance both his electoral interest and the national interest if he would show some political courage now in 2004.

 This is the first presidential campaign being run in the Age of Terror. We have not yet had a genuine national debate on what strategies and tactics to follow to try to prevail in this struggle that will almost certainly last as least as long as the Cold War did. President Bush, in the immediate aftermath of the first strike on September 11, boldly moved forward with the actions and strategies with which we are all familiar. There was little debate as the nation rallied round the flag -- some literally in the ashes of Manhattan.

 Many of us believe President Bush has taken us down a useful line: acting promptly against bin Laden's terrorist bands, while also targeting rogue states with ties to terrorism and the potential for developing WMDs. To that end the president endorsed and carried out preventive wars.

 Inevitably, over these last two and a half years, many Americans have expressed displeasure with President Bush's approach. Yet so far, Mr. Kerry, the opposition candidate for president, has failed to dispute and engage the president's policies in any substantial manner. Oh, he has quibbled over the precise role of the United Nations. He has claimed he would work closer and to better effect with our traditional allies.

 But he has expressed no fundamental dispute with the president about the war on terrorism in general, Iraq in particular, nor the homeland security efforts (other than to point out that chemical plants need more attention -- which President Bush himself had already requested from Congress).

 Even as a strong supporter of the president, I hardly think his design and execution of policy has been flawless. For example, the bureaucratic conditions in Iraq are dysfunctional. Defense, State, Commerce, CIA, AID, other government agencies, the Coalition Provisional Authority, contract employees and NGOs all overlap one another in the country, while the chains of command back to Washington provide confusing guidance. Sen. Kerry might usefully bring together experts to help him formulate an alternative management model -- not just for Iraq, but for other countries we may find ourselves in as time goes by.

  That would provide the country with a healthy debate and would probably drive the president to get his hands more directly on the problem.

 At a grander level, the whole outreach to Islam by the United States seems to be unformulated and largely unacted upon by the Bush government. This, admittedly, is a formidable challenge. But it is central to our entire war on Islamic terror. Ultimately, Islamic terrorism will be solved -- if it is solved -- by Islam itself, which is in worldwide ferment.

 The terrorist-jihadist faction of that great passion is tiny but overbearing. We need to be reaching out and helping to shape and empower the non-jihadist reformers to win their struggle against the terrorists in their midst. Their struggle will also be against the authoritarian governments that currently rule most of Islam, and with whom we are currently loosely allied.

 If Senator Kerry has developed any thoughts on this matter, he should engage the president in robust debate. If he hasn't developed any thoughts, that tells us something about his seriousness of purpose in running for president.

 Nothing has been more controversial than the carrying out of preventive wars by President Bush. If Mr. Kerry disagrees with that central strategy of the Bush doctrine, he should explain himself in detail. In the past, Mr. Kerry has been on both sides of the issue, but no matter. Let him give a major policy address in which he lays out, with precision and wisdom, when and if he would start preventive wars.

 If he is categorically against them, let him explain how he would otherwise protect the country when there appears to be a building threat. For example, what would he do next year about Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons?

 It will take some political courage to march into such tricky and controversial matters. On the other hand, the debate would be useful. If Mr. Kerry would start talking about things that matter, nobody would waste their time talking about his war ribbons, SUVs, $5,000 bicycle, expensive haircuts and other amusements which currently seem more important to the top journalists in the country than anything Mr. Kerry has said recently.