George W. Bush has a decidedly mixed record as Commander-in-Chief. On Bush’s watch, the nation has suffered the worst terrorist attacks in history; a series of severe intelligence failures; an unnecessary war brought on partly by the biases of his advisors; and a weakening of the western alliance. It must be a measure of how much voters distrust liberals that many think John Kerry would do a worse job. But with polls showing a tight presidential race and the electoral college seeming to favor Kerry’s circumstances, there’s a real possibility the junior senator from Massachusetts could become Commander-in-Chief. What would that mean?
Iraq. Kerry would inherit an unpopular war grounded in flawed assumptions. Iraqis may yearn for democracy, but that doesn’t mean they can make it work in a divided country with no history of popular rule. Although the counter-insurgency campaign is going better than most people realize, history suggests that a stable, self-sustaining democracy cannot be created within Iraq’s current borders. Kerry would have to jettison Bush’s ethnocentric ideas without seeming to give insurgents a victory, and without creating conditions that lead to fundamentalist control of the world’s second-largest oil reserves. Faced with a choice between partition and the rise of new Saddams, Kerry would probably back a division of the country that creates multiple states and defangs former Baathists.
Terror. The 9-11 attacks were enabled as much by the incompetence of the federal government as the skill of terrorists. The Bush Administration can’t concede that point without taking some of the blame, but the evidence since 9-11 indicates that Al Qaeda isn’t a particularly imposing adversary. The threat of global terrorism seems to arise mainly from the way in which new technology empowers extremists of every stripe, rather than from the exertions of any particular group. Thus, danger will be with us for generations to come, regardless of what happens to Al Qaeda. Kerry would probably frame the threat in less alarming terms, and focus on controlling nuclear technology that offers terrorists the greatest potential for mass murder.
Strategy. Kerry would move to replace Bush’s unilateralism with a return to Clinton-era coalition warfare. But he would discover what every other administration has learned the hard way: when the chips are down, America’s “allies” are unreliable, due to a lack of military capabilities and/or courage. Britain may be the exception that proves the rule, but it will be a long time before the Brits follow America into another quagmire. So Washington’s rhetoric would change, but in the end Kerry would embrace preemption and self-reliance, because that’s what the times require.
Spending. The size of the defense budget is driven mainly by threats rather than political philosophy, so that wouldn’t change much under Kerry. But the composition of spending could shift considerably, with more money going to manpower and less to weapons (Kerry wants to cut missile defense and grow the Army, especially special ops). Many of the Pentagon’s more futuristic initiatives, such as Transformational Communications and the Future Combat System, would be slashed. But Kerry would keep money flowing to airlift, armored vehicles, helicopters and other items relevant in Iraq. He also would pour money into all aspects of intelligence — agents, networks, unmanned systems and satellites.
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