The Magazine

John Kerry, Reactionary

From the July 19, 2004 issue: He's against a heroic foreign policy.

Jul 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 42 • By THOMAS DONNELLY and VANCE SERCHUK
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WITH HIS JULY 4 OP-ED in the Washington Post, "A Realistic Path in Iraq," presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry lays claim to being the genuinely conservative foreign-policy voice in this fall's election. Arguing that, in Iraq and in the greater Middle East, the United States needs "a policy that finally includes a heavy dose of realism," Kerry sounds more like Henry Kissinger than the Massachusetts liberal of Republican party dreams.

There's undoubtedly a good deal of campaign strategy in this. The idea of attacking Bush from the right is just the sort of man-bites-dog angle that appeals equally to Beltway political junkies and journalists. In any event, it makes the 2004 election not just a referendum on Iraq per se, but on the principles that should guide the use of American power in the world. The contest is between Bush the revolutionary and Kerry the reactionary.

The "realism" of Kerry's July 4 column comes as no surprise to those who have followed the senator's campaign. For several months, Kerry has downplayed democracy in Iraq, insisting, "I have always said from day one . . . that the goal here is a stable Iraq, not whether or not that's a full democracy." The idea that the greater Middle East suffers from a freedom deficit has found little resonance with Kerry; speaking with the editors of the Washington Post, he explained that, if elected, he would emphasize political reform and human rights in Egypt and Saudi Arabia less than traditional U.S. interests such as "general stability in the Middle East."

Writing in the New Republic this spring, Franklin Foer made a persuasive case that Kerry learned his realism at an early age, from his father. Richard Kerry spent much of his professional life as a foreign service officer, and seems to have imbibed the antidemocratic habits of that trade. Richard Kerry's 1990 memoir, The Star-Spangled Mirror, complained about excessive American moralism in international affairs. The United States, wrote Kerry père, committed the "fatal error" of "propagating democracy" throughout the Cold War and failed "to see the parallel between our use of military power in distant parts of the world and the Soviet uses of military power outside the Soviet Union." The book concludes, reports Foer, in "a plea for a hardheaded, realist foreign policy that removes any pretense of U.S. moral authority."

Joshua Micah Marshall, in an article in the current Atlantic Monthly, likens Kerry's realist attitudes to those of George Bush senior and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft. It's a comparison that Rand Beers, Kerry's top foreign policy adviser, and another Kerry aide, Dan Feldman, welcome.

Part of the allure of this ideology is that it's supposed to be the "mature" approach to national security policy: sober, coolly calculating, and adult. And indeed to social scientists of the realist persuasion, their understanding of international politics is less a matter of choice than a description of the world: All actors on the world stage are governed by a Leviathan-like logic propelling them to maximize their own power. All states, regardless of their internal politics (democracy, dictatorship, whatever), act in accordance with the dictates of power, and all seeming differences in international behavior can be explained in this way if fully investigated and correctly understood.

The gods of realism of the nineteenth century--Talleyrand, Metternich, Bismarck--were the masters of realpolitik and the balance of power, wherein process and purpose are often hard to distinguish. These were great statesmen, to be sure, but their talents were at the service of deeply conservative regimes increasingly more fearful of their own people than of their fellow kings and kaisers.

Translated through the works and careers of the "wise men" of the late 1940s and early 1950s, then of Henry Kissinger, these attitudes wormed their way into American strategy-making. Fittingly, Kerry's op-ed urged that we "look back at NATO and the Marshall Plan, the enduring creations of the Truman administration." Never mind that this analysis leaves out half the story--neglecting, for example, the Truman Doctrine, which unilaterally pledged American support to "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures"; the decision to fight in Korea; and NSC-68, which "militarized" the Cold War. Hans Morgenthau, dean of American realists, forcefully argued against each of these policies, and Dean Acheson routinely complained of Truman's annoying habit of seeing the Cold War in moral terms, of making bold speeches "clearer than truth."