John Kerry’s Pure Wind

“Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed, and are right.”
– H.L. Mencken

A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from my sister, a thoughtful and intelligent modern liberal. The discussion turned to politics, and my sister implored me to cast a ballot in November for John Kerry. She argued vehemently that the Bush administration’s policies on the Iraq war and civil liberties have been so deplorable that even non-interventionist libertarians, like her little brother, should support the Massachusetts senator’s presidential bid.

My sister needn’t waste breath convincing me that the Bush administration has been profoundly hostile to classical liberal values. A host of libertarian commentators and others have spent the past three years chronicling and denouncing the administration’s assault on individual rights and limited government. Since his 2001 inauguration, Dubya has presided over dramatic expansions in the size and scope of the federal government, most of which have nothing at all to do with the “War on Terror.” The Bush administration has also accelerated a number of long-established illiberal trends, including the ongoing centralization of state power, the plunder of peaceful producers for the benefit of the politically connected, the unconscionable rate of federal spending, and the continued erosion of Constitutional checks and balances.

My spirited sister is also quite right to admonish the Bush administration for its shameful civil liberties track record. Objective historians will forever associate the Bush legacy with the suspension of habeas corpus, systematic violations of the right to privacy, and the widespread use of secret and warrantless searches. From a pro-freedom perspective, one is hard pressed to find anything laudable in examining the past three years of executive policy-making. Of course, for freedom-loving Americans, the kicker is that the federal government has done it all with its figurehead habitually invoking the Orwellian rationales of “freedom” and “liberty” in his every public mumbling. As James Bovard astutely concluded in his book Terrorism and Tyranny, for Bush, freedom “appears to be simply a word to invoke to sanctify himself and his commands.”

Less than Liberal

“It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.”
Thomas Sowell

In light of the Bush administration’s conduct, I do sympathize with my sister’s Anybody-But-Bush election sentiment. However, this popular refrain is just the latest incarnation of the “Lesser-of-Two-Evils” argument with which advocates of a free society are needled every four years. Electoral support for Lesser presidential candidates has not halted the growth of Leviathan, and the U.S. government is now more powerful, invasive, wasteful, and destructive than ever before.

This year’s Lesser candidate, John Kerry, does not look promising as a champion of classical liberal values. On economic matters, Kerry spouts boilerplate Democratic class warfare rhetoric while demonizing producers for ills wrought by government intervention. With blithe disregard for freedom of association and the right to trade, Kerry branded business executives who move operations abroad as “Benedict Arnold CEOs.” Yet, the senator’s rhetoric of high treason has not prevented him from accepting campaign contributions from those who outsource jobs. Moreover, Kerry’s campaign Web site claims that his economic plan will reduce taxes for more than “99 percent of taxpaying companies” while “encouraging American companies to bring their foreign profits back to America as part of a comprehensive tax reform that ends incentives to keep future profits overseas.” These statements are a tacit admission that outsourcing is the result of an increasingly hostile business environment, and not an act of sedition. Unfortunately, the senator’s selection of a highly profitable trial lawyer as his running mate virtually ensures that a Kerry administration is unlikely to curb frivolous lawsuits that punish and preclude entrepreneurial activity.

In recent months, the Kerry campaign and sympathetic media outlets have marketed the Democratic candidate as a civil libertarian critic of the PATRIOT Act. In a March 2004 speech, Kerry proclaimed “it is time to end the era of John Ashcroft. That starts with replacing the Patriot [sic] Act with a new law that protects our people and our liberties at the same time.” Yet, Kerry voted for the PATRIOT Act, which, at the time of its passage, had not even been completed. In the politically driven rush for politicians to be seen as doing something following 9/11, most congressmen didn’t have time to read, much less consider, the portions of the bill that had been drafted.

Even at the time of its passage, the PATRIOT Act was widely known to eviscerate civil liberties. Therefore, a few conscientious congressmen opposed the bill, despite the fact that it was politically unpopular to do so. The opposition argued that it would be irresponsible for a legislator to support such a power grab when he or she did not know and could not know what the bill contained. Since a pragmatic presidential challenger will naturally follow public opinion as discontent with one of the incumbent’s initiatives swells, one shouldn’t confuse John Kerry’s political posturing on the PATRIOT Act with a principled stance on civil liberties.

If Kerry’s PATRIOTism fails to dispel the myth that he’s a principled civil libertarian, his suggestion that “we must break down the old barriers between national intelligence and local law enforcement” ought to. But most disturbing of all is Kerry’s approach to the issue of conscription – according to his campaign Web site, “John Kerry is proposing the largest increase in domestic national service in our history” and he “will propose a comprehensive service plan that includes requiring mandatory service for high school students.” In addition, the Democratic candidate has not opposed the Democrat-sponsored congressional proposals for a military draft. By what standard can a politician who is willing to import a Cuban-style Young Pioneers program be seen as a champion of civil liberties? If Kerry would force people into service of the nation-state, why should anyone believe that he’ll take a principled stance in defense of such comparative trivialities as the right to privacy or freedom of speech? These are riddles that perhaps only the Democratic National Committee can decipher.

Evidence of the Senseless

“When the mass media in some foreign countries serve as megaphones for the rhetoric of their government, the result is ludicrous propaganda. When the mass media in our country serve as megaphones for the rhetoric of the U.S. Government, the result is responsible journalism.”
– Norman Solomon

Kerry’s track record on economic issues and civil liberties will not rally advocates of a free society to his cause. Yet, I wondered if Kerry’s approach to foreign policy and the Iraq war might warrant support by non-interventionists from across the ideological spectrum. In light of the staggering deceit and bellicosity of the Bush administration, as well as the despicable torture practices that surfaced at Abu Ghraib and Bagram, I decided to examine Kerry’s foreign policy record of the past few years.

In an October 2002 speech, Kerry explained his support of the resolution authorizing the administration to invade Iraq. Although my girlfriend likened an attempt to interpret a Kerry speech to “nailing Jell-o to a tree,” this is my swing of the hammer.

First, it’s important to note the assumptions on which Kerry based his pro-resolution address. In his speech, the senator spoke of the “realities” of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, and he repeated the Bush administration’s claims regarding Iraq’s WMD capabilities verbatim:

“With respect to Saddam Hussein and the threat he presents, we must ask ourselves a simple question: Why? Why is Saddam Hussein pursuing weapons that most nations have agreed to limit or give up? Why is Saddam Hussein guilty of breaking his own cease-fire agreement with the international community? Why is Saddam Hussein attempting to develop nuclear weapons when most nations don’t even try, and responsible nations that have them attempt to limit their potential for disaster? Why did Saddam Hussein threaten and provoke? Why does he develop missiles that exceed allowable limits? Why did Saddam Hussein lie and deceive the inspection teams previously? Why did Saddam Hussein not account for all of the weapons of mass destruction which UNSCOM identified? Why is he seeking to develop unmanned airborne vehicles for delivery of biological agents?”

As exemplified by this quote, Kerry did not question the veracity of the claims forwarded in support of the invasion. In addition, October 2002 was not the first time that John Kerry warned of the ostensible threat posed by Hussein – nor was it the first time he recommended the use of military force. In November 1997, on the floor of the Senate, Kerry proclaimed:

“In my judgment, the Security Council should authorize a strong UN military response that will materially damage, if not totally destroy, as much as possible of the suspected infrastructure for developing and manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, as well as key military command and control nodes. Saddam Hussein should pay a grave price, in a currency that he understands and values, for his unacceptable behavior. This should not be a strike consisting only of a handful of cruise missiles hitting isolated targets primarily of presumed symbolic value.”

In February of 1998, Kerry said:

“Saddam Hussein has already used these weapons and has made it clear that he has the intent to continue to try, by virtue of his duplicity and secrecy, to continue to do so. That is a threat to the stability of the Middle East. It is a threat with respect to the potential of terrorist activities on a global basis. It is a threat even to regions near but not exactly in the Middle East.”

Co-signed by Kerry and other congressmen, an October 1998 letter to President Clinton concludes:

“We urge you, after consulting with Congress, and consistent with the U.S. Constitution and laws, to take necessary actions (including, if appropriate, air and missile strikes on suspect Iraqi sites) to respond effectively to the threat posed by Iraq’s refusal to end its weapons of mass destruction programs.”

In support of the Clinton administration’s December 1998 launch of Operation Desert Fox, Kerry added:

“Americans need to really understand the gravity and legitimacy of what is happening with Saddam Hussein. He has been given every opportunity in the world to comply (with weapons inspections) … Saddam Hussein has not complied. Saddam Hussein is pursuing a program to build weapons of mass destruction.”

In June 2003, Kerry told an AP reporter that Bush had “misled every one of us” regarding Iraq’s alleged WMD programs and capabilities. Kerry supporters and journalists have since repeated the refrain that the Bush administration duped the Democratic nominee-to-be, thereby implying that Kerry would not have supported an attack if he had only known the truth. This is an interesting claim, coming as it does from a senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee member who presumably had access to the evidence. After all, if Kerry did not review the evidence for himself in the years leading up to the invasion, what business did he have supporting the resolution and spreading alarm by repeating these claims verbatim in his October 2002 speech and afterwards?

Undermining Kerry’s Bush-misled-every-one-of-us defense, the Clinton and Bush administrations’ claims regarding Iraqi WMD have been confronted by many, including a handful of the senator’s associates in Congress. In particular, Representative Ron Paul (R-Texas) consistently met the government’s claims and policies with probing skepticism, rigorous questioning, and principled opposition. When viewed in the light shed by such critics, Kerry’s statements on Iraqi WMD should give pause to those who view the Democratic candidate as an antidote to the mendacity of the Bush administration. As Robert Higgs noted, “One is hard pressed to understand how the government, with its vast multi-billion-dollar intelligence apparatus, managed to get so many things wrong while isolated individuals with no privileged access to classified or inside information … managed to get them right all along.”

If Kerry was indeed duped by Bush on the topic of Iraqi WMD, one arrives at two conclusions: First, the former Texas governor has had an astonishing degree of influence over the Massachusetts senator since the 1990s, when Kerry first called for the use of military force against Iraq; and, secondly, Kerry lacks the ability to distinguish conclusive evidence from unsupported assertions. The first possibility should raise American eyebrows from coast-to-coast, while the second conclusion is a deeply troubling deficiency in a man who would be king.

The Kerry Doctrine

“Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
– George Orwell

A case study in political rhetoric, John Kerry’s pro-resolution address is exactly what one might expect from a career politician with presidential ambitions. Regardless of the war’s outcome, Kerry could later claim to have been on the “right” side from the outset. If the invasion had proven a “success,” Kerry could say that he was tough on Hussein and backed the resolution authorizing the executive to launch the attack at its discretion. If things went badly, as they have, he could say that he only supported the attack if 1) Iraq posed an imminent threat, 2) efforts to return weapons inspectors proved fruitless, and/or 3) the US government’s attempts to recruit allies had been exhausted. Although Kerry’s support of the resolution negates any expressed reservations, he continues to cite these supposed caveats to defuse electoral anger over his complicity in the war.

First, consider the senator’s “imminent threat” caveat from this October 2002 address:

“If we do wind up going to war with Iraq, it is imperative that we do so with others in the international community, unless there is a showing of a grave, imminent – and I emphasize ‘imminent’ – threat to this country which requires the President to respond in a way that protects our immediate national security needs.”

Elsewhere in the speech, the senator stated that Hussein “will provoke, misjudge, or stumble into a future, more dangerous confrontation with the civilized world. He has as much as promised it.” So, according to his own statements, Hussein had both the means and intent to harm America (which I assume Kerry considers part of the civilized world). For many folks, this is the definition of an imminent threat, and it was one rationale used by the Bush administration to launch the invasion six months later. Yet, despite his comments, Kerry apparently did not believe Hussein posed such a danger in October of 2002:

“Every nation has the right to act preemptively, if it faces an imminent and grave threat, for its self-defense under the standards of law. The threat we face today with Iraq does not meet that test yet.”

Following this endorsement of the preemptive strike doctrine, Kerry indicated that he would only consider Iraq an imminent threat if it were “about to launch an attack.” But how is one to know when aggression is pending? In this age of intercontinental ballistic warfare and clandestine terrorist attacks, armies rarely amass across borders, and rulers are unlikely to deliver battlefield invitations to their adversaries. And where should one draw the line between an enemy who is “about to launch an attack,” and one who intends to attack but plans to wait a while? As Kerry handed Congress’ war-making authority to the president, he left his audience to debate the meaning of the word “about.”

Turning to his weapons inspections caveat, Kerry recounted the presumed failures of inspections from 1991 to 1998, averring that Hussein consistently deceived inspectors and purposefully frustrated their efforts. He then stated his primary motivation in supporting the resolution, and insisted that efforts to reintroduce weapons inspectors be exhausted prior to launching an invasion:

“Let me be clear, the vote I will give the President is for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies.”

For twelve years, the U.S. Government had sponsored an egregious embargo and regular bombing in an attempt to persuade Hussein to comply with inspections. Since the time inspectors were withdrawn at the behest of the Clinton administration in 1998, the U.S. Government launched over 40,000 bombing sorties to “encourage” compliance. During that time, numerous UN and U.S. officials called on Hussein to permit inspectors to return, and U.S. Officials lobbied the UN to enforce its resolutions with Iraq. The UN declined.

Aside from calling for a “tougher” UN resolution, Kerry didn’t specify what further measures he would have the UN or Bush administration take. The senator also failed to explain why the existing resolution wasn’t tough enough. The UN could pass all the resolutions it wanted, but that would do nothing to gain compliance from Hussein. In the way of suggestions, all Kerry offered was an expressed willingness to “force” inspections:

“There is no question that Saddam Hussein represents a threat. I have heard even my colleagues who oppose the president’s resolution say we have to hold Saddam Hussein accountable. They also say we have to force the inspections. And to force the inspections, you have to be prepared to use force. So the issue is not over the question of whether or not the threat is real, or whether or not people agree there is a threat. It is over what means we will take, and when, in order to try to eliminate it.”

A politically useful statement, this comment enabled Kerry to pose as being tough on Hussein while also implying that the Bush administration had yet to exhaust all “forceful,” non-war options. 

If repeated bombings, the embargo, and diplomatic outreach failed to make Hussein comply with inspections, what other measures short of invasion could the UN or U.S. have taken? I disagree with the rationale, and I didn’t support the invasion, but the Bush administration had a point that if Iraq had WMD (as Kerry agreed they did), and non-compliance with inspections justified war (as Kerry also agreed), then four-and-a-half years should be sufficient time to allow alternative strategies to succeed (or 12 years, depending on how one looks at things). And, as the administration suggested, even if Hussein re-admitted inspectors, what reason is there to believe that the Iraqi dictator wouldn’t employ the evasive tactics Kerry cited and warned against in his own speech?

Diplomacy is the subject of Kerry’s third caveat for war. The senator spent much of his speech urging the Bush administration to assemble a coalition before invading Iraq, and he criticized the administration’s diplomatic approach. Yet, aside from broad injunctions for the administration to work with the UN, Kerry did not offer any prescriptions for future diplomacy.

Bush himself cited the importance of assembling a coalition, and the administration lobbied UN members and other countries for their support. In fact, the administration doled out billions of dollars in American wealth to bribe foreign politicians to join the coalition. If these tactics were insufficient in Kerry’s view, one can only wonder what other measures he would have endorsed.

Since the Bush administration did attempt to build a coalition, Kerry’s criticism of American diplomacy is a matter of degree or style, rather than a difference of principle. In fact, Kerry repeatedly agreed with Bush’s contention that in the event that the U.S. failed to secure international support, a unilateral attack would be justified. And, as Anthony Gregory pointed out, if Kerry were sincere about the importance of coalition building, why did he not insist on it as a condition for his support of either the 1998 or 2002 resolutions?

Ultimately, the bluster over the issue of coalition-building is overblown. Either the U.S. was justified in launching the invasion, or it was not. The number of aggressors in a conflict should have no bearing on the morality or rationale of an attack. Furthermore, if more nations had participated, it may well have widened the conflict as more people in the Islamic world would be inclined to view the war as a clash between Christendom and Islam, rather than primarily an American-instigated aggression.

In his October 2002 pro-resolution speech, John Kerry did not question the morality, rationales, justifications, or purported evidence advanced by the Bush administration in support of the war. Rather, his criticisms focused on the administration’s diplomatic efforts and the timing of the invasion. These details do not constitute a substantive departure from the Bush Doctrine.

Constitutional Thrust and Kerry

“The Constitution expressly and exclusively vests in the Legislature the power of declaring a state of war . . . A delegation of such powers [to the president] would have struck, not only at the fabric of our Constitution, but at the foundation of all well organized and well checked governments. The separation of the power of declaring war from that of conducting it, is wisely contrived to exclude the danger of its being declared for the sake of its being conducted.”
– James Madison

Despite John Kerry’s equivocal approach to war, the senator may deserve some credit. If Kerry worked to restrict the scope of the 2002 resolution to the issue of WMD, as he said in his speech, then I applaud him for that. However, that doesn’t absolve Kerry and other congressmen who abdicated their Constitutional responsibility to debate and issue a declaration of war. Observing the chronic death and destruction wrought by monarchs throughout the ages, the Founding Fathers purposefully vested the war-making power with Congress, not the president. As a check on unfettered executive war-making, this clause was drafted precisely to minimize the occurrence of unnecessary and injudicious wars, such as Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. By casting a ballot in favor of war, a congressman’s support for conflict becomes an irrefutable matter of public record for which he or she bears the consequences. As a result, legislators are much less inclined to support needless wars that lack compelling justification.

Today, under the American imperial presidency, Congress either takes no action when the president employs military force, or it simply rubber-stamps vague, open-ended resolutions empowering the executive to initiate war at the President’s discretion. As illustrated by John Kerry’s October 2002 speech, resolutions enable legislators to take credit if the war goes well. But if things go poorly, they can blame the administration, since the president ultimately makes the decision of how, when, where, and why. Shrewd congressmen, such as Kerry, also accompany their pro-resolution votes with a speech or paper in which they cite a wide range of vague or undefined caveats. Although these legislators may fail to insist on those caveats as a condition for their support of the war-making resolution, they can later point to the speech or paper as evidence of their “opposition” to the “administration’s war.” This practice amounts to little more than an exercise in Congressional ass-covering.

Along with Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) and a handful of other congressmen, Ron Paul (R-Texas) unflinchingly defended Constitutional checks and balances by insisting upon Congress’ war-making authority. While Paul’s approach to U.S. policies on Iraq stands in sharp relief with John Kerry’s, the speaking styles of the two men also present a stark and instructive contrast. Throughout the march to war, Ron Paul’s statements in opposition were always clear, logical, and unambiguous. Meanwhile, Senator Kerry’s pro-resolution comments were cloaked in purposefully vague and slippery rhetoric. As with so many political speeches, it sure sounds like the good senator is saying lots of super important stuff. But when you get right down to it, and examine it closely, is he really saying anything at all?

Presidential Soothsaying

“Force always attracts men of low morality.”
– Albert Einstein

As the election draws near, the nattering classes will devote the utmost seriousness to the reading of presidential tea leaves. Parsing the meaningless bilge and empty platitudes that pass for political debate, pundits will divine the meaning of each candidate’s platform, and uphold whatever concrete proposals materialize as portents of each man’s grand vision for America. Yet, as any politically aware American knows, the odds of a presidential candidate abiding by campaign promises are about as good as a five-team parlay in Vegas.

To cite just a handful of examples, George W. Bush assured voters his administration would pursue a “humble foreign policy“; Bill Clinton arrived in Washington following promises of tax cuts, and promptly raised taxes; George Bush Sr. told Americans to “read my lips; no new taxes“; Ronald Reagan was elected on a platform to balance the budget and shrink the federal government; Jimmy Carter vowed to reform the tax system and eliminate federal bureaucracies; Richard Nixon ran as the ‘Peace with Honor’ candidate; and Lyndon Baines Johnson marketed himself as the peaceful alternative to Barry Goldwater’s supposed warmongering. Contrary to its media-adorned façade, a modern-day presidential campaign is little more than bad theater with real consequences.

As my sister and others have suggested, perhaps the ouster of Bush will somewhat discourage future presidents from lying, stripping Americans of further civil liberties, or engaging in unjust and ill-conceived interventions. But the removal of past presidents with such track records doesn’t seem to have had that effect on their successors, so I remain skeptical. As for advocates of a noninterventionist free society intent on participating in this year’s corrupt electoral circus, they should evaluate the candidates on the basis of their actions, rather than the windy words politicians use to exalt themselves. In the case of John Kerry, we know he voted for the PATRIOT Act and the administration’s pro-war resolution. Therefore, freedom-loving Americans would be best advised to vote Libertarian or abstain, rather than breaking out straw hats and kazoos in support of Kerry. As for myself, I would happily settle for just a sign of good old-fashioned, patriotic disgust for the political class, rather than the inevitable partisan squabbling over which shysters will hold the reins of power.