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Debate: National Security in the 2004 Election

Authors: Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, and Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
June 14, 2004


President George Bush and his presumptive Democratic rival, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, are conducting a debate on national security issues via a series of speeches. Bush reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling terrorist organizations and helping the people of the Middle East “seek their future in freedom” in a June 2 commencement speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy. His five-point strategy to help Iraq become free and self-governing was the subject of a major foreign policy address May 24 at the Army War College. Kerry’s speeches have focused, in part, on eliminating the threat of nuclear terrorism, building strong international alliances, and modernizing the military. asked two Council fellows— Max Boot and Steven Cook— to examine the candidates’ positions on national security in an email exchange that will proceed for several days.

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Steven CookJune 14, 2004


At the outset, I just want to say that it is a real privilege to be debating you. You are a prolific writer and I enjoy reading your work— even the stuff that is wildly off base.

I also want to say that I have been combing through the president’s speeches over the last few weeks and I have to be honest, I agree with everything he says. Yes, we need to hit terrorists hard. Yes, we need to forge ahead with a credible political process in Iraq. And yes, “a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East” is necessary. The problem is the Bush administration doesn’t seem to be doing any of this. Max, I am hoping you can fill me in on what I’m missing.

On terrorism:

The United States and its allies won a resounding victory in Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002. But that was only round one [of the war on terror]. The Taliban and al Qaeda were bloodied and weakened, but not beaten. Their strategy was to hide out, melt in to the population, bide their time, and regroup when the opportunity arose. We gave them that chance. Instead of a sustained campaign that kept the pressure on, the administration decided to open a “second front in the war on terror”--i.e., Iraq. So in the spring of 2002, the administration settled for the lowest common denominator in Afghanistan— a relatively stable and secure Kabul— and began shifting resources to the Persian Gulf to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. I’ll give the president credit: He was true to his words from the 2000 campaign, he doesn’t like nation-building.

On Iraq:

I could go on forever, but I won’t. Things are going well in Iraq. Oh yes, there have been a few bumps in the road, but Iraq is on the path to democracy. Isn’t it? Indeed, The New York Times reported yesterday that the hand-off of sovereignty has already begun. Max, you’re a historian. Were the British bureaucrats who advised Egypt’s King Farouk and successive Egyptian governments in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s called “consultants”--or is that something new? Also, how is the state sovereignty thing going to work? Another famous thinker named Max [Weber] once made a very interesting point: the key aspect of a state—and its sovereignty—is its monopoly over the use of violence. Also a smooth move— handing Falluja over to a former Iraqi general who seems a little less than reluctant to disarm the militia there. In all seriousness, I think President Ghazi al-Yawar and Prime Minister Iyad Allawi are formidable personalities with significant prestige. I am cautiously optimistic about the ability of these guys.

Still, I want to point out that this was not the way it was supposed to happen. The Coalition Provisional Authority chief, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, showed up in Baghdad expecting to stay five years. The administration never thought we would encounter significant resistance to our occupation. That’s because our Iraq occupation was predicated on a number of false assumptions about how U.S. forces would be welcomed and, in turn, the relative ease of the occupation. In any event, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani outmaneuvered the administration, which radically altered our postwar plans, and U.S. forces are engaged in a dirty war with remnants of the old regime, Shiite fundamentalists, and a whole host of foreign jihadis. Now, Iraq really has become the central front in the war on terror.

On democracy in the Middle East:

I am not sure the administration believes its own rhetoric on this one. I thought the G-8 summit was a success. I am a full supporter of putting political liberalization and economic reform high on the U.S.-Middle East agenda. Good stuff, but Max, take a look at the details of the “Partnership for Progress and a Common Future with the Region of the Broader Middle East and North Africa,” a k a PFPCFRBMENA. Two problems: 1) other than the government-to-government Forum for the Future, there is nothing new there; and 2) it is heavily weighted toward technical and economic issues. Two cheers for the literacy program, but the rest of this stuff is based on the belief that if people are empowered in the economic realm, they will demand political rights. It’s not so simple. Economic development seems to correlate with democracy, but doesn’t cause it. Politics seems to have a funny way of intruding on economic development. What does the PFPCFRBMENA do in the way of convincing Arab authoritarians to cede power?

Max BootJune 14, 2004


Welcome to the Council, glad to debate you, happy Flag Day, etc. etc. Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, let me offer a perhaps unexpected response to your first posting: I basically agree with you. You’re right: Bush talks a good game but doesn’t do enough to deliver.

The gap between rhetoric and implementation is especially obvious when it comes to the much-hyped “Greater Middle East Initiative,” which was so watered down after consultations with the Europeans and Arabs that it’s become almost meaningless mush. I also agree with you that Bush hasn’t done enough to secure victory in Afghanistan and Iraq, though in both places I see some signs of progress being made in recent weeks.

The question I have for you is: Will John Kerry do any better? Maybe he will. There’s a chance that a more diplomatic president could finish what Bush has boldly started. But I don’t have the faintest idea what Kerry would do as president, and neither do you. He’s taken so many different positions on the Iraq war that you need a spreadsheet to keep them straight. If I understand Kerry’s latest positions correctly, he’s basically offering a “me too” foreign policy.

In his June 1 Palm Beach speech, Kerry summarized his foreign policy platform as follows: “First, we must lead strong alliances for the post 9-11 world. Second, we must modernize the world’s most powerful military to meet new threats. Third, in addition to our military might, we must deploy all that is in America’s arsenal— our diplomacy, our intelligence system, our economic power, and the appeal of our values and ideas. Fourth, to secure our full independence and freedom, we must free America from its dangerous dependence on Middle East oil.”

I’m in favor of all that, and so is President Bush. What, exactly, would Kerry do to achieve these goals that the current administration isn’t doing? As seen from the latest U.N. resolution on Iraq and the G-8 summit, Bush is already trying to strengthen America’s much-frayed alliances. Military modernization has been one of the key thrusts of [Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure at the Defense Department. Bush has constantly pledged to “deploy all that is in America’s arsenal” to promote U.S. interests, and indeed that’s what he’s doing by starting Al-Hurrah TV, Radio Sawa, and other instruments designed to promote Middle Eastern liberalization. And Bush, too, has promised to lessen dependence on Middle Eastern oil—though his hope of drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has been stymied by congressional opponents—including Senator Kerry.

How exactly would Kerry achieve these tasks better? When it comes to the military, we need a major increase in manpower— at least 100,000 extra troops and probably a lot more. Kerry is promising only 40,000 more. When it comes to energy independence, we need to drill ANWR and other domestic fields, and we need a big boost in gasoline taxes to make cheap Middle Eastern oil less attractive. Kerry once supported a gas tax increase but that isn’t part of his current platform because he’s afraid of being labeled a “Massachusetts liberal.” And he won’t support more domestic drilling because that would alienate his environmentalist supporters. When it comes to promoting democracy in the Middle East, we need to be meaner to our putative allies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Will Kerry really be the man to get tough with [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak and [Saudi] Crown Prince Abdullah?

Actually, when he was recently interviewed by The Washington Post, Kerry suggested that democracy promotion would take a backseat in his foreign policy to old-fashioned realpolitik. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch told The New York Sun that Kerry was taking “a step toward Kissingerian realism.” While Roth thinks “Bush has lost the capacity to promote human rights,” he professed himself dismayed that “Kerry’s suggesting he’s not going to even try.”

Does the prospect of President Kerry fill you with any enthusiasm, Steve? To my mind the best argument for Bush is to look at who his opponent is.

Steven Cook
June 15, 2004


Thanks for the warm greetings. It was Flag Day yesterday? I missed it. You’ll be pleased to know that I intend to wrap myself in the flag today.

Max, you pose a very good question: Will John Kerry do any better? First let me dodge it: We do policy here at the Council, not politics. Now that I am covered, yes I believe Kerry will do a better job.

Before I get into an analysis of Kerry’s foreign policy, I want to point out that it is the president, not Senator Kerry, who is offering a “me too” foreign policy. The White House seems to be taking a page from the Clinton team’s playbook. Remember triangulation? It drove the Republicans nuts. Well, the president is pursuing the same strategy with respect to Senator Kerry’s foreign policy. The senator calls for a broader international mandate in Iraq; the president then goes to the United Nations and compromises—a lot—to get a unanimous resolution. Senator Kerry calls for repairing relations with the United States’ traditional allies—I think he means “Old Europe”; the president goes to Europe and Sea Island and makes nice with [French President] Jacques Chirac and [German Chancellor] Gerhard Schroeder. Kerry suggests that the United States should focus its efforts in the war on terrorism and not let Afghanistan deteriorate, and all of a sudden the Bush administration discovers Afghanistan again. Come on, Max, what is really going on here? Has there been some shift in thinking at the White House or is this just politics?

Here is one of the primary reasons why I believe Senator Kerry will do a better job than President Bush: There may be nothing earth-shattering in the Kerry foreign policy, but the senator and his team seem to have a better grasp of the appropriate means to achieve national priorities than the president. In the post-World War II era, the United States was able to build the political and economic institutions that guided the West through the dark days of the Cold War. This was made possible through Washington’s cooperation with important allies. While the new global threat—terrorism—presents a novel challenge, this does not preclude the need for allies. The West’s triumph over the Soviet bloc, the establishment of a liberal economic order, and the reversal of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait were all crowning achievements of U.S. diplomatic, military, and political power and they were achieved in close collaboration with allies. I am not suggesting, nor is Senator Kerry, that Washington allow itself to be tied down like Gulliver and the Lilliputians. The United States should always reserve the right to act unilaterally.

Now to get into your specific complaints: Yes, Kerry is promising only 40,000 more troops, but who over-stretched and over-committed the military with an invasion of Iraq before the battle in Afghanistan was won? Kerry will have to clean up this mess and, at the moment, 40,000 is what seems most realistic. Energy independence? Max, did you know that ANWR in Arabic—anwar— roughly translates into “enlightened”? This is unfortunate, because drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is hardly an enlightened position. It’s not because of the poor polar bears and caribou, but because drilling in ANWR will do very little in terms of energy independence. It doesn’t contain enough oil for all those behemoth SUVs running around menacing the rest of us. The best thing the United States can do about energy independence is conservation. My mom and dad got rid of their Buick Electra in 1980 and bought a Toyota Corolla. We would do more in terms of energy independence if people dumped their Hummers, Escalades, and Durangos for more fuel-efficient cars. But then again, the Bush administration gave some back-door tax loophole for people purchasing these gas guzzlers. I am sorry Kerry dropped the gas tax, it was good policy. On the Middle East, I have no idea whether Senator Kerry would talk tough with the Egyptians or Saudis; I hope that he does. Yet I do know that President Bush has so little credibility in the Middle East that it makes it more difficult for the United States to pursue its interests in that part of the world.

As far as making democratization secondary, see my first posting. But I’ll just add that what we are doing in Iraq at the moment seems all too similar to our policy in Afghanistan, where we are settling on stability, and vaguely reminiscent of a policy called “Vietnamization.”

Looking forward to your response.

Max Boot
June 15, 2004


We could argue endlessly about who is imitating whom. The bottom line is that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference at the moment between Bush’s foreign policy and Kerry’s. That’s not a criticism, mind you: I think it’s generally healthy in a democracy not to have huge divisions on such critical issues. The question therefore becomes who can carry out broadly agreed-upon goals more effectively.

Before getting into that issue, let me just pause and say that Bush deserves some credit for redefining our foreign policy goals in ways which now seem inevitable but were actually bold and brave. His broad shift toward preemption, preeminence, and democracy promotion— the hallmarks of the Bush Doctrine— have the potential to guide U.S. foreign policy for decades, in much the way that the containment doctrine did during the Cold War. Bush deserves a lot of credit for facing up to the threats we face, and realizing that the old ways of confronting them were no longer working. John Lewis Gaddis of Yale has written a short little book that, I think, places the Bush Doctrine in proper perspective as one of the most important redefinitions of foreign policy in U.S. history.

That said, I don’t think Bush has done a great job of implementing his grand ideas. He’s needlessly alienated allies and world opinion. And he’s made miscalculations about what is required to effect the changes he desires. His failure to expand the size of the active-duty armed forces— which shrank 40 percent during the 1990s— will, I fear, jeopardize our chances of success in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s quite possible that Kerry could do better. Possible, but perhaps not likely. Kerry is an almost complete cipher as far as I can tell. He has a very left-wing record as a senator, having consistently voted against more defense spending and led the opposition to support for the contras and other vital programs needed to win the Cold War. During the primaries he was trying to out-Dean Howard Dean by voting against the $87 billion aid package needed to help win the war in Iraq, even though he supported the initial authorization to send troops there. Since winning the nomination, he has moved to the center, for which I commend him. His refusal to harshly criticize Bush’s conduct in Iraq, or to call for a pullout of U.S. troops, is not only good policy but also smart politics. But what will he do if he actually becomes president? Who knows? His confusion is indicated by the fact that he said that either Carl Levin [D-Mich.] or John McCain [R-Ariz.] would make a good defense secretary— the former one of the most dovish senators, the latter one of the most hawkish senators.

I am generally impressed by the foreign policy team Kerry has assembled, composed mainly of old Clinton hands. There is no doubt that they would be more multilateral than Bush has been. The question is whether they would sacrifice vital U.S. national interests just to keep allies happy? There is some evidence of the Clinton administration having done just that. [Former White House terrorism and cyber-security chief Richard A.] Clarke, for instance, has said that Clinton hesitated to approve strong retaliation against al Qaeda for fear of upsetting the Oslo Process— which was going nowhere, as it turns out. My big concern is that if the Clinton team were to get into power again, they might once again defer difficult decisions— e.g., toppling the Taliban or Saddam Hussein— in favor of happy talk.

But perhaps that misses the point. The question is whether Kerry would really listen to any advisers, whether from the Clinton administration or anywhere else. His record indicates that he doesn’t surround himself with strong aides, and he has a lot of difficulty making hard decisions. Those could be major liabilities in a president.

Is it too late for Kerry to run as vice president on a John McCain ticket? Or maybe the Democrats can import Tony Blair as their leader once he’s toppled as the head of the Labor Party? I’d feel a lot more comfortable with one of them as the next president than I would with John Kerry.

Steven Cook
June 16, 2004


You are quite correct— there is not a lot of difference between the Kerry and Bush foreign policies. Of course, this is the result of the president appropriating sensible Democratic positions on a variety of issues. A good example of this was yesterday’s news conference in the Rose Garden. Poor Hamid Karzai. On his last trip to Washington, the Afghan leader had to beg for support. As we enter the campaign season, the tone was a bit different. So Karzai had to withstand both the DC heat and the political theater of the Bush administration expressing its commitment to Afghanistan.

Who am I to argue with John Lewis Gaddis? A shift in U.S. foreign policy was necessary after 9/11. Still, I hope you won’t mind if I point out a few things about preemption, preeminence, and democracy promotion. First, what the United States did in Iraq was not preemption. It was a preventive war based on hypothesis-driven intelligence about Iraqi WMD. A good example of preemption, in contrast, was Israel’s lightning strike on Egyptian forces in the Sinai in June 1967. Second, preeminence is nothing new. The concept goes back, at least, to the presidency of the first Bush, but there have been elements of preeminence in U.S. foreign policy for quite some time. Third, I am all for democracy promotion.

You mentioned Kerry’s liberal voting record. That “Northeastern Massachusetts liberal thing” is so 1988. And weren’t you the one who said, “I think it’s generally healthy in a democracy not to have huge divisions on such critical issues?” So then why are you ripping Kerry over the fact that either Carl Levin or John McCain would be a good secretary of defense in his administration?

Core principles are important in foreign policy, but I would also like to have a president and a foreign policy team that combine principles with a healthy respect for the nuances of global politics. As the great Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban said on the occasion of dedicating his personal papers to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “Ideological consistency in the ebbs and flows of crises is an excuse for intellectual laziness.”

It’s funny how in some circles Richard Clarke is beyond the pale when criticizing the Bush administration, but a paragon of sensibility when he takes off on the Clinton folks. The Clinton foreign policy was not perfect; it was too often bogged down in the nitty-gritty details of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Still, I don’t think they compromised core principles. According to Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin, authors of “The Age of Sacred Terror,” the Clinton team was near-obsessed with the bin Laden threat. Let’s not forget what else Richard Clarke asserts in his book— he says he had trouble getting the Bush administration to focus on terrorism before September 11.

Max Boot
June 16, 2004


You claim, “the Clinton team was near obsessed with the bin Laden threat.” It’s hard for me to imagine how they would have acted differently if they had been ignoring bin Laden. Their response to this grave and gathering threat was to lob a few cruise missiles at Afghanistan and the Sudan after the 1998 attacks on our embassies in Africa. The 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole produced no discernible reaction whatsoever.

I agree that Bush didn’t do any better in his first few months in office, but it’s understandable that there wouldn’t be a radical shift of policy when a new foreign policy team was just taking over. I hate to rain on Bill Clinton’s parade, now that he has his new memoir coming out— and I’ve actually gained strange new respect for him since he left office: he makes a better ex-president than Jimmy Carter— but I have to say that he is primarily to blame for allowing al Qaeda to become the threat that it is today. If Clinton had acted decisively when bin Laden had declared jihad on the United States in the 1990s, who knows how many lives might have been saved. Dick Clarke was one of the few people in the Clinton administration who took this threat seriously enough to advocate major military action; he was ignored by the president and his senior advisers. Now that’s what I call compromising core principles of American security. It’s pretty rich that Clarke now seems bent on apportioning more blame to Bush, who had eight months to deal with al Qaeda, than to Clinton, who had eight years. I trust that the 9/11 Commission, when it issues its final report, will offer a more balanced assessment.

I think you misconstrued my remark about how it’s generally healthy not to have huge differences between the political parties on foreign policy. This does not mean that such differences don’t exist among individual members of the two parties, and on national security policy, it’s hard to think of two senators as far apart ideologically as Carl Levin, a dove, and John McCain, a hawk. I’m glad that Kerry seems to be embracing Bush’s more hawkish foreign policy, but I wonder how sincere his statements are given a) his past voting record and b) his stated willingness to appoint either Levin or McCain as his defense secretary. I think McCain would be a great secretary of defense; Levin, a disaster (think Les Aspin redux). The fact that Kerry doesn’t perceive any difference between them is disturbing. Kerry can address lingering concerns about his foreign policy by leaking word in advance of who the major players on his foreign policy team will be. I would be much reassured if he promised to make Dick Holbrooke secretary of state. I think Holbrooke would do a much better job than the current occupant of that position.

You’re barking up the wrong tree by dissing Bush for too much “ideological consistency” in his foreign policy. I don’t think there’s much danger of that right now, since Bush is preaching democracy one day and embracing tyrants like [Pakistani president Pervez] Musharraf and Mubarak the next. It is also not an indication of fanatical consistency that he waged a preemptive (or, if you prefer, preventive) war against Saddam Hussein while doing little about the greater proliferation threats emanating from Iran and North Korea. Nor is Bush’s attitude toward the United Nations— disdainful one day, conciliatory the next— exactly a model of consistency. Personally, I wish Bush were more consistent, not less, though in terms of inconsistency it’s hard to match John Kerry’s famous statement that he voted for the $86 billion Iraq appropriation before voting against it.

As I’ve said before, I agree with Bush’s principles but have major concerns about the ways he’s gone about implementing them. When it comes to Kerry, I’m not sure what his principles are.