October 9, 2004

"Kerry's Undeclared War."

A fascinating article by Matt Bai in the Sunday NYT Magazine:
Kerry seems to find presidential politics in the era of Karl Rove as treacherous as riverine warfare, and he has run for the presidency in much the same way. From the beginning, Kerry's advisers said that the election would be principally a referendum on Bush, whose approval ratings, reflecting public anxiety over Iraq and a sluggish economy, were consistently low for a president seeking re-election. All Kerry had to do to win, the thinking went, was to meet a basic threshold of acceptability with voters and avoid doing or saying anything that might be fatally stupid. The riverbanks were lined with hostile Republicans and reporters, lying in wait for him, and Kerry's goal as he sailed upriver was simple: Stay down. Exercise caution. Get to November in one piece.

Which is exactly what it's like to interview Kerry as he runs for the presidency; he acts as if you've been sent to destroy him, and he can't quite figure out why in the world he should be sitting across from you. When I met him for our first conversation, in his cabin aboard the 757 that shuttles his campaign around the country, Kerry didn't extend his hand or even look up to greet me when I entered, and he grew so quickly and obviously exasperated with my questions about his thoughts and votes on Iraq that he cut the interview short. ...

Kerry's guardedness has contributed to the impression that he does not think clearly or boldly about foreign policy. ... Kerry's adversaries have found it easy to ridicule his views on foreign policy, suggesting that his idea of counterterrorism is simply to go around arresting all the terrorists.
In this light, consider the quote, also in the NYT article, from Richard Holbrooke, who seems to be the most likely candidate for Kerry's secretary of state:
"We're not in a war on terror, in the literal sense. The war on terror is like saying 'the war on poverty.' It's just a metaphor. What we're really talking about is winning the ideological struggle so that people stop turning themselves into suicide bombers.''
Bai confronts Kerry about this, and Kerry does not directly agree with the Holbrooke statement, but ultimately, Bai concludes:
One can infer ... that if Kerry were able to speak less guardedly, in a less treacherous atmosphere than a political campaign, he might say, as some of his advisers do, that we are not in an actual war on terror. ... If Kerry's foreign-policy frame is correct, then law enforcement probably is the most important, though not the only, strategy you can employ against such forces, who need passports and bank accounts and weapons in order to survive and flourish. ... [Kerry] may well be right, despite the ridicule from Cheney and others, when he says that a multinational, law-enforcement-like approach can be more effective in fighting terrorists. But his less lofty vision might have seemed more satisfying -- and would have been easier to talk about in a political campaign -- in a world where the twin towers still stood.

UPDATE: I'm looking at the paper version of the NYT Magazine now. The cover photograph is quite striking. Possibly the picture is completely neutral and you just project your own opinion of the candidate onto it, but if so, the opinion I'm projecting is: blankness. A willfully blank facial expression fits with the thesis of the article: Kerry is withholding his real plan for how to deal with the war on terror. This thesis, I note, would account for his continued use of the phrase "I have a plan," which is frustrating to some people, who perhaps find themselves yelling at the TV screen: Yeah, what is it? Maybe Kerry really does have many plans, wants to be seen as a man who plans things quite carefully, but is also trying very hard to avoid revealing what his plans are. It may well be that our uneasiness with him is that we sense that he's doing this. Interesting that the NYT, who I assume strongly supports Kerry, is printing this article. Maybe the NYT thinks that most of its readers really would like to see terrorism reconceptualized as organized crime.

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