Monday, October 11, 2004

Pillar of Salt

Matt Bai tries to articulate the Kerry strategy against terror in the New York Times Magazine. Kerry, he thinks, was one of the first political leaders to realize that war as we formerly knew it is obsolete. Bai believes Kerry's experience with law-enforcement issues in the Senate alerted him to a new kind of threat that was grounded in neither formal state aggression or normal criminal groups. 

Through his immersion in the global underground, Kerry made connections among disparate criminal and terrorist groups that few other senators interested in foreign policy were making in the 90's. Richard A. Clarke, who coordinated security and counterterrorism policy for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, credits Kerry with having seen beyond the national-security tableau on which most of his colleagues were focused. ''He was getting it at the same time that people like Tony Lake were getting it, in the '93 -'94 time frame,'' Clarke says, referring to Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security adviser. ''And the 'it' here was that there was a new nonstate-actor threat, and that nonstate-actor threat was a blended threat that didn't fit neatly into the box of organized criminal, or neatly into the box of terrorism. What you found were groups that were all of the above.''

In other words, Kerry was among the first policy makers in Washington to begin mapping out a strategy to combat an entirely new kind of enemy. Americans were conditioned, by two world wars and a long standoff with a rival superpower, to see foreign policy as a mix of cooperation and tension between civilized states. Kerry came to believe, however, that Americans were in greater danger from the more shadowy groups he had been investigating -- nonstate actors, armed with cellphones and laptops -- who might detonate suitcase bombs or release lethal chemicals into the subway just to make a point. They lived in remote regions and exploited weak governments. Their goal wasn't to govern states but to destabilize them.

From this premise, Bai believes Kerry has a better model for understanding terrorism than George Bush who he believes is fixated upon the role of state sponsorship in terrorism. Bush, for example, is described as foolishly restricting the terrorist threat to an "axis of evil" composed of a few states, when in reality the threat is much more diverse. The task, as Bai thinks Kerry sees it, is to mobilize world states -- the forces of order -- against the forces of chaos, by returning to the very diplomatic channels that Bush has rejected.

If forced democracy is ultimately Bush's panacea for the ills that haunt the world, as Kerry suggests it is, then Kerry's is diplomacy. ... The only time I saw Kerry truly animated during two hours of conversation was when he talked about the ability of a president to build relationships with other leaders. ''We need to engage more directly and more respectfully with Islam, with the state of Islam, with religious leaders, mullahs, imams, clerics, in a way that proves this is not a clash with the British and the Americans and the old forces they remember from the colonial days,'' Kerry told me during a rare break from campaigning, in Seattle at the end of August. ''And that's all about your diplomacy.''

He would begin, if sworn into office, by going immediately to the United Nations to deliver a speech recasting American foreign policy. Whereas Bush has branded North Korea ''evil'' and refuses to negotiate head on with its authoritarian regime, Kerry would open bilateral talks over its burgeoning nuclear program. Similarly, he has said he would rally other nations behind sanctions against Iran if that country refuses to abandon its nuclear ambitions. Kerry envisions appointing a top-level envoy to restart the Middle East peace process, and he's intent on getting India and Pakistan to adopt key provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. (One place where Kerry vows to take a harder line than Bush is Pakistan, where Bush has embraced the military ruler Pervez Musharraf, and where Kerry sees a haven for chaos in the vast and lawless region on the border with Afghanistan.) In all of this, Kerry intends to use as leverage America's considerable capacity for economic aid; a Kerry adviser told me, only slightly in jest, that Kerry's most tempting fantasy is to attend the G-8 summit.

Then terrorism, rather than being swollen in importance to the level of a new Nazism would shrink to its true proportion. Military force would be used, but sparingly, because law enforcement and international cooperation are the best way -- not to extirpate it -- because that is impossible, but to reduce it to nuisance proportions.

''We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance,'' Kerry said. ''As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life.''

Bai thinks the Kerry vision is revolutionary and if not for the hysteria which has gripped America since September 11, would be a natural sell.

And yet, you can understand why Kerry has been so tentative in advancing this idea. It's comforting to think that Al Qaeda might be as easily marginalized as a bunch of drug-running thugs, that an ''effective'' assault on its bank accounts might cripple its twisted campaign against Americans. But Americans are frightened -- an emotion that has benefited Bush, and one that he has done little to dissuade -- and many of them perceive a far more existential threat to their lives than the one Kerry describes. In this climate, Kerry's rather dry recitations about money-laundering laws and intelligence-sharing agreements can sound oddly discordant. We are living at a time that feels historically consequential, where people seem to expect -- and perhaps deserve -- a theory of the world that matches the scope of their insecurity.

Theoretically, Kerry could still find a way to wrap his ideas into some bold and cohesive construct for the next half-century -- a Kerry Doctrine, perhaps, or a campaign against chaos, rather than a war on terror -- that people will understand and relate to. But he has always been a man who prides himself on appreciating the subtleties of public policy, and everything in his experience has conditioned him to avoid unsubtle constructs and grand designs. His aversion to Big Think has resulted in one of the campaign's oddities: it is Bush, the man vilified by liberals as intellectually vapid, who has emerged as the de facto visionary in the campaign, trying to impose some long-term thematic order on a dangerous and disorderly world, while Kerry carves the globe into a series of discrete problems with specific solutions.

Bai's article reminds me of one of those products which are described on the packaging as being a new space age, high-technology, portable illumination aid which on closer inspection turns out to be a flashlight. When the newfangled description of terrorism as a "blended threat" is subtracted, the entire program consists of the policies of the late 1990s. Bilateral talks with North Korea. Oslo. G-8. The United Nations. Warrants of arrest. Extradition requests. Not a single new element in the entire package, except the fancy rationale. There is nothing wrong with that, any more than there is anything objectionable about a flashlight, but a more candid characterization of Kerry's proposals is not a voyage into uncharted waters so much as return to the world of September 10; in Kerry's words "back to the place we were". It has the virtue of producing known results, and suffers only from the defect that those results do not include being able to prevent massive attacks on the American mainland.

Kerry's world, in a way, is where one goes if George Bush's vision proves false: the frying pan, as a place of refuge if one lands in the fire. As a negative vision it will always hold some attractions; which will grow in proportion to failures in the Global War on Terror and fade in proportion to its successes. Roger Simon succinctly described Bai's article as a plea to return to "business as usual", a call to the past from "the ultimate conservative". It is heartbreakingly pathetic in its own way.

I cannot help but think that September 11 was far more tragic to Liberalism than to anyone else. Over time it will be represented as a kind of Fall,  the moment Eden was stolen, in a way that an earlier generation saw the Kennedy assassination as the end of a dream and the way some undefined instant in the 1970s marked "the day the music died". The United Nations, the photo opportunities with Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn, the outward solidarity with Europe must seem so tantalizingly close, an election away; just a month distant, but it may be already past, even with a Kerry presidency. In reality even Kerry will be forced to live in a changed world. He may mount the United Nations podium again, but it will not be the same podium; and revive the same policies only to discover they have acquired strange, new and unpredictable effects. Bai's most revealing exchange with Kerry is about water, the kind that you drink.

"Can we get any of my water?" he asked Stephanie Cutter, his communications director, who dutifully scurried from the room. I asked Kerry, out of sheer curiosity, what he didn't like about Evian.

"I hate that stuff," Kerry explained to me. "They pack it full of minerals."

"What kind of water do you drink?" I asked, trying to make conversation.

"Plain old American water," he said.

"You mean tap water?"

"No ... There are all kinds of waters," he said finally. Pause. "Saratoga Spring. ... Sometimes I drink tap water," he added.

I felt a moment of deep sympathy for a man trying to maintain the certainties of his milieu with his bottles of water, beyond my ability to convey. You wished him luck and knew it would not be enough. "And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it."