The hoo-ha about John Kerry’s Vietnam War record reminds me of a conversation I had with a teenage baby-sitter back in the 1960s when the war was actually going on in Vietnam.
The girl had brought her high-school history book with her, so I asked her if she liked history.
"It’s OK," she said, "except for that real old stuff like World War II."
For most of today’s voters, the Vietnam War has become "that real old stuff." It is enough to know that Kerry volunteered to serve and George Bush did not, nor did Vice President Dick Cheney. That’s the only relevance that the now-long-ago war has for this campaign. The new war is in Iraq and Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter what happened in the old war. What is relevant is how the president, whoever he is next January, conducts the new one.
We know how the Bush administration has handled the war: It fouled up royally. First, it had bad intelligence. Second, administration members shut their eyes and their minds to all advice, to all of the caveats from the intelligence community, that didn’t justify going to war. Third, the administration disregarded sound military advice that a lot more troops would be needed than it was sending. Fourth, by not giving the UN weapons inspectors time to finish their job, the Bush administration lost the support of France, Germany, Russia and most of the rest of the world. Fifth, it did not stop the looting. Sixth, it did not anticipate and prepare for the resistance. Seventh, its occupation has been nothing but a cluster-blunder. And eighth, it has overextended the U.S. military but stubbornly refuses to admit it.
It would be difficult for Kerry or anybody else, for that matter to do a worse job as commander in chief than the incumbent. Whatever reason people find to vote for President Bush, certainly no rational person can base his or her vote on Bush’s conduct of the war. It has been characterized by one foul-up after another.
I noticed that Mr. Bush has added Afghanistan and Iraq to the roster of democracies in one of his campaign ads, which, in a bizarre fashion, has clips of the Olympics. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is a democracy. They are both led by U.S.-appointed people. Both rely on U.S. forces for security. Both are unstable, are dominated by warlords and are far from peaceful.
Mr. Bush seems to have a talent (some would call it a mental aberration) of believing that things are so if he merely says they are so. Thus, Iraq, which he once said had weapons of mass destruction, is now a democracy in his mind, despite the fact that no elections have been held. He also believes that we have a robust economy, which is something else that is not in sync with reality.
That’s what worries me most about President Bush. He seems to live inside a bubble created by his staff and cronies and to be genuinely unaware of what’s going on outside his bubble. It is very dangerous to have a president who cannot see the world as it really is. Novelist Ayn Rand once observed that while we can ignore reality, we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.
President Bush has proven to be all campaign and no governance. Every word out of his mouth, every policy, seems to have been crafted by campaign aides with the goal of not accomplishing anything but his reelection.
That, too, is a dangerous situation. Every president has to keep an eye on the electorate, but the best ones have always tried to do the right thing even if their campaign aides objected. A true leader will do the right thing and then try to convince the voters that he has done so. An empty suit will do whatever his campaign manipulators tell him is best for the reelection campaign.
And right now, devoid of a record that can be defended, the president’s campaign aides are telling him to attack Kerry. You’d almost think Kerry was the incumbent instead of the challenger.