The decision to destroy the World Trade Center showed the audacity of our enemies. Even King Kong only climbed the Empire State Building; he did not topple it. Where the monstrous ape failed, the servants of God hoped to succeed.
“No foreign people or force has ever done this to us,” the Governor said. “Until now, we were invulnerable.” In the ensuing panic, suddenly vulnerable New Yorkers summoned their pluck, burying the dead and repairing the damage. But the nation still had to decide how to respond to the attack. While the language of war was tempting, the administration ultimately took the longer view, prosecuting the main actors in court.
That’s what happened in 1993, when the jihadists attacked New York the first time, planting a bomb at the base of the World Trade Center that killed six, wounded scores and forced thousands to evacuate. But the bomb failed in its goal of tipping one tower into the other and bringing both down. We went back to business as usual. So did the jihadists, until they came up with a better plan.
The most important question about John Kerry is: Does he know that the world has changed since 1993? I argued in my last column that George W. Bush knows that it has, has acted on his knowledge, and therefore deserves re-election. But his opponent could be even smarter and tougher, and therefore deserve election more. Or he could be equally resolute, in which case our vote could turn on Social Security or stem cells. Or John Kerry could give every sign of being very much worse.
Some small points first. Mr. Kerry has spent the bulk of his public life in the Senate. This, not any deep character flaw, may account for the caution (Republicans call it “flip-flopping”) that has marked his campaign. The undemocratic features of the Senate—the length of tenure, the parity of states, the relative smallness of the body—encourage two seemingly contradictory trends: bloviating and trimming. Senators either talk like Robert Byrd, or cut little deals like Bill Frist and Tom Daschle. The first expresses their power, the second is how the powerful deal with their peers. In John Kerry, we get both—oracular hemming and hawing. Blame the Senate.
Should he win, ex-Senator Kerry will move to the executive branch, a very different place. Hundreds of people, some of them scoundrels and others morons, will besiege him with problems that he must decide. Talk won’t help him then; neither will hopscotch. Maybe he will find his inner leader. Maybe four months in a Swift boat 34 years ago was preparation enough. We will all get to watch the experiment.
Among the scoundrels and morons besieging President Kerry will be many of the people who labored to elect him. Michael Moore, the boobish America hater; George Soros, the billionaire currency speculator; the stars of Hollywood—what a gang. Back in the 1960’s, when the John Birch Society was following the trail of Moscow gold to the Eisenhower family, Barry Goldwater—darling of the right and the far right—said he didn’t support the John Birch Society, so why did it matter that they supported him? In logic, Goldwater was correct, but in life, it takes some effort to launder one’s coattails. How will the Kerry White House signal its break from Michael Moore—screening Team America at Camp David?
The best window into Mr. Kerry’s mind so far was opened by Matt Bai’s article in The New York Times Magazine (“Kerry’s Undeclared War,” Oct. 10). Perhaps Mr. Bai’s title was misleading, for Mr. Kerry did say that war had been declared. “When your buildings are bombed and 3,000 people get killed … and people continue to plot to do you injury, that’s an act of war.”
How then would Mr . Kerry fight it? He gave Mr. Bai a list of four measures. “Cutting off financing” led the list, since it tracked work that Mr. Kerry had done in the Senate investigating BCCI, the crooked bank that funded all sorts of unsavory activities. When jihadists use everything from charities to honey salesmen to move cash around, this is an obvious but important point.
Next came “Improving our intelligence capabilities.” This is another no-brainer. Everyone, including John Kerry, thought that Saddam already had W.M.D. We should know better than everyone, especially if everyone is wrong.
Problems begin with No. 3: “Training our military and deploying them differently … specializing in special forces and special ops.” How could Mr. Kerry do more of this than the current administration? Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon is pulling out of useless bases in Europe and Saudi Arabia, and has made a fetish of flexibility, including Special Forces. Indeed, Mr. Kerry criticizes them for it when he says that we “outsourced” the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora to Afghan auxiliaries. That’s what Special Forces often do.
Fourth—and in Mr. Kerry’s words, “most importantly”—is a two-parter, diplomacy and principle: “Restoring America’s reputation as a country that listens,” and “us[ing] our … high-level values to augment us …. “
Take diplomacy first. Mr. Kerry has high hopes for it. “A new presidency with the right moves,” he told Mr. Bai, “can dramatically alter the world’s perception of us very, very quickly.” What moves would those be? Radical madrassas have been spewing anti-American hate for decades; France and Germany are serious second-rate powers with a Europeanist agenda.
How will Mr. Kerry “very, very quickly” change these dynamics? By his charm? He did tell Mr. Bai that we could reactivate the Palestinian peace process. World diplomats certainly like it, though it had no effect on Mr. bin Laden, who plotted against us all the years we were stroking Yasir Arafat.
When it came to principle, Mr. Kerry suddenly pulled back. Democracy, he warned, is not “the automatic, easily embraced alternative to every ill” in the Middle East. “You can’t impose it on people. You have to bring them to it.” But don’t you sometimes have to bring it to them? Despite hideous obstacles, Afghanistan just held an election and Iraq plans to hold one in January. This is not because we wooed the Taliban and Saddam by letting them observe a Florida recount. Mr. Kerry thinks our values are so high-level that they must never come into contact with such a messy thing as war.
The Kerry program consists of the obvious and the wrong. Both (except for improving intelligence) are disturbingly retro. He wants to track terrorist financing, because he did something similar in the Senate. He says he wants to transform the military, though he doesn’t like it when it happens. He wants to recapture the glory days of Camp David summits, and he wants to talk about democracy without doing anything about it. As he said elsewhere in the Bai interview: “We have to get back to the place we were …. ” Mr. Kerry said that in response to the question “What would it take for Americans to feel safe again?” A better answer to that question would have been: “We’re not safe; the world is a dangerous place.”
We do know, however, what it takes for John Kerry to feel safe again—that is, doing what he always did. That isn’t enough on the dark doorstep of the millennium.