Saturday, July 31, 2004

The War Party Candidate

Donald Sensing tries to understand the circumstances under which John Kerry would go to war. Sensing believes that the Kerry might have announced a qualified doctrine of preemption during his speech at the Democratic National Convention. Although he acknowledges that others, like Bill Hobbs perceive the Kerry's position as reactive, the equivalent of "no first strike", the Reverend Sensing feels that Kerry could be capable of "launch on warning" if intelligence detected a strike in progress but before it had actually arrived. He says:

... Kerry is saying (I think, but who knows?) that he will wage war pre-emptively: "to protect the American people ... from a threat that was real and imminent" (itals added), that is, not an immediately present threat. Furthermore, pre-emption of an imminent threat is a "justification for going to war," although it's the only justification. So just what is Kerry's basic defense doctrine? Apparently it is that Kerry will make war upon those who actually attack us, as would any president, and against those who threaten us, but only if the threat is imminent.

But imminence is an uncertain thing. Despite the large physical signatures of  ICBMs and bomber fleets "false warning" was a serious problem during the Cold War. One incident during the Carter administration was particularly instructive.

The false warning problem has never been a hypothetical one. During the Cold War and after, both the United States and Russia received mistaken warnings of attack. One of the most alarming incidents took place during 1980 when National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski received a middle-of-the-night phone call reporting that warning systems indicated a Soviet all-out attack of 2,200 ICBMs. Just before he was about to call President Carter, who would have had about three to seven minutes to make a decision, Brzezinski learned that other warning systems showed that there was no attack; it was a false alarm. Someone had inserted a tape for a military exercise into a warning system computer. The warning systems were finally accurate, but the danger and possibility of error was never more evident.

If a combination of failures could produce false warning signatures not just in the United States but in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, what standard of proof would a President Kerry require where indications of imminence are not 2,200 missile booster flares but human intelligence or chatter gleaned from intercepted signals? We now know that not only Western intelligence, but Arab capitals were convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in the days prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, a consensus unlikely to be matched by any operational warning a President Kerry would have available to him.  General Tommy Franks says that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah both told him that Saddam had WMDs and would use them against Frank's command if he invaded Iraq. In an interview with Parade, the former CENTCOM CINC said:

The biggest surprise for him was that they've found no weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the "reason we went to war." He says multiple Middle Eastern leaders, including Jordan's King Abdullah and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, told Franks that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. In January 2003, Mubarak said point blank to Franks, "Saddam has WMD-biologicals, actually-and he will use them on your troops."

Yet Kerry is one of President Bush's harshest critics in this precise case of "launch on warning", a category to which Operation Iraqi Freedom certainly belongs. The hope that Kerry will act preemptively assumes he will act like President Bush in the future when he would not act like him in the past. The political controversy surrounding Operation Iraqi Freedom decision has created an unreachable standard for future preemptive action. Kerry, having thrust a sword into George Bush would be the last to turn it on himself.

The real question is not whether this new avatar of the War Party is a "no first strike" or "launch on warning" kind of candidate: but whether he is at minimum someone who will retaliate after a first strike. In framing his policy in terms of how he would respond to a hypothetical attack on America, John Kerry glosses over how he intends to respond to the actual attack of September 11. That event is curiously undefined in his tale of events. If the attack on Manhattan was an act of war how would John Kerry win it? Is it already won and if so, did George Bush win it? If September 11 is not a first strike in John Kerry's eyes, then what is his theoretical threshold for decisive action?

Voters need more than an index of a Kerry administration retaliatory threshold to judge him as a potential Commander in Chief. Kerry should clarify how he plans to win, if not the present war, then at least a future one, if it comes according to his standard. The cast of characters, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are unlikely to change. The electorate should be granted a glimpse into his roadmap to victory and whether he believes in the concept itself as distinct from mere retaliation. Any brawler with fists can retaliate but it requires a Commanders in Chief with a strategy to lead nations to victory. Even Bill Clinton was prepared to retaliate against Osama Bin Laden for the USS Cole attack by firing hundreds of cruise missiles at his training camps. But George Bush tried to defeat him and for this stood condemned. It is this precise striving for victory, not any single act of retaliation that has made George Bush so illegitimate in the liberal mind. For liberals retaliation  is soley used to "send a message"; it always an invitation to negotiation, like the ones Johnson sent Ho Chi Minh without reply; it is never part of the solution itself. In this curious mental universe, force is immoral unless it is also pointless. John Kerry's self-chosen identification with the Vietnam War is a strangely ambiguous image, which escapes being tragic only for so long as you allow only questions for which there can be no answers.