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Public Statements

Addressing the Democratic Deficit

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Special Report: If I were president...


By John Kerry

March/April 2003

Democrats must resist a new orthodoxy within our party-a politically stagnating shift that does a disservice to more than 75 years of history. That is the new conventional wisdom of consultants, pollsters, and strategists who argue that Democrats should be the party of domestic issues alone.

They are wrong. As a party, Democrats need to talk about all the things that strengthen and protect the United States. We need to have a vision that extends to the world around us, and we should remember that this vision is as old as our party. Woodrow Wilson was elected president during a time of peace, but he led during a time of war. Franklin Roosevelt was elected to tackle the Great Depression, create Social Security, and put the United States back to work. But no one should forget that he did those things even as he responded to Pearl Harbor and marshaled the nation's troops from Normandy to Iwo Jima. And John F. Kennedy didn't try to change the subject of the debate when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president brought up foreign policy. Kennedy challenged the United States globally, insisting that the country do more and better, not because these things are easy but because they are hard.
It's our turn again to talk about things that are hard.

The war on terrorism is different than any war in history. Intelligence is this nation's most important weapon but also its greatest vulnerability. It is now common knowledge that crucial intercepts from September 10, 2001, weren't translated until two days later because of severe understaffing at U.S. intelligence agencies. As of January 2002, the U.S. Army had an average 44 percent shortfall in translators and interpreters in five critical languages: Arabic, Korean, Mandarin-Chinese, Persian-Farsi, and Russian. The State Department reported a 26 percent shortage of authorized translators and interpreters.

To remedy this intelligence deficit, U.S. college campuses need to overcome a Vietnam-era mind-set that demonizes the CIA and FBI. To respond to the new threats, we must redouble our information-gathering efforts and make sure proper officials heed critical information, so that when we talk about preventing another September 11, we're dealing in reality, not rhetoric. We also face critical choices in the makeup and structuring of the U.S. armed forces. Operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, and the Persian Gulf have highlighted changes in military tactics and equipment needs. Outdated military equipment may please defense contractors, but it won't win tomorrow's battles. A modern military means smarter, more versatile equipment; better intelligence; advanced communications; long-range air power; and highly mobile ground forces.
Predictably, the Bush administration has talked about improvements but so far has failed to enact meaningful change. It is up to Democrats to understand and prepare for Fourth Generation warfare (fighting unconventional forces in unconventional ways), so our nation can be better prepared to wage and win the new war.

We must also change the way we interact with the world. For people who have suggested that unilateralism is "just the American way," it's time to acknowledge that more and more, our allies are our eyes and ears around the globe and will play a critical role in intelligence operations. We need partners. We should work on our public and private diplomacy more thoughtfully, sensitively, and intensely to develop both.

I support the Bush administration's goal of a regime change in Iraq. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is a renegade and outlaw who turned his back on the tough conditions of his surrender put in place by the United Nations in 1991. But the administration's rhetoric has far exceeded its plans or groundwork. In fact, its single-mindedness, secrecy, and high-blown phrases have alienated our allies and threatened to undermine the stability of the region.

As both a soldier and a senator, I learned that when it comes to war, our goal must not be just regime change but a lasting peace. The United States has won the war in Afghanistan without securing the peace. This administration has failed to make its case on the international stage or to the American people for the rationale of starting the war or for the means of ending it. We cannot afford to put the security of our allies, the region, and ultimately ourselves at risk for the vague promises we have heard to date. We must do better.

American leadership means we must listen to the cultures and histories of other countries and work harder to build coalitions and partnerships. But for two years, the Bush administration has drifted from its chosen proactive message of disengagement to the reactive, mixed, and contradictory messages of reluctant engagement.

We can and must engage thoughtfully, strategically, and firmly. Nowhere is the need more clear or urgent than in North Korea.
But the Bush administration has offered only a merry-go-round policy: Bush and his advisors got up on their high horse, whooped and hollered, rode around in circles, and ended up right back where they'd started. By suspending the talks initiated by the Clinton administration, asking for talks but with new conditions, refusing to talk under the threat of nuclear blackmail, and then reversing that refusal as North Korea's master of brinkmanship upped the ante, the administration sowed confusion and put the despot Kim Jong Il in the driver's seat. By publicly taking military force, negotiations, and sanctions off the table, the administration tied its own hands behind its back.

Now, finally, the Bush administration is rightly working with allies in the region-acting multilaterally-to pressure Pyongyang. It's gotten off the merry-go-round; the question is why one would ever want to be so driven by unilateralist dogma to get on in the first place. Draining the swamps of terrorists will require much greater involvement in the world. It must include significant investments in the education and human infrastructure of troubled countries. The globalization of the last decade proved that simple measures like buying books and teaching family planning can do much to expose, rebut, isolate, and defeat apostles of hate. These and other techniques are crucial to ensuring that children are no longer brainwashed into becoming suicide bombers and that terrorists are denied the ideological swamplands in which they thrive. Foreign aid must be increased and reformed to focus on education. We must give countries in the Middle East a reason to want peace. In the next few years, if changes aren't made, the potential for violence in that region will only increase. If we fail to reach the children and the families wrecked by the violence of poverty and seclusion, the growing population of unemployed and unemployable kids will find in fanaticism a tragic answer to its problems. Americans' security depends on helping the people of the Middle East see and act on a legitimate vision of peace.

It's up to the United States to respond. Only the United States is in a position to lead the effort with other governments and private-sector partners to beat this pandemic; only the United States has the resources to make a difference. An American president once said, "We cannot . . . be content to rot by inches in ignoble ease within our own borders, taking no interest in what goes on beyond them, sunk in scrambling commercialism; heedless of the higher life, the life of aspiration, of toil and risk . . . We cannot sit huddled within our own borders and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond."

The Republican Party has in too many ways already disavowed the lessons of that Republican leader, Teddy Roosevelt. Our party can't afford to repeat those mistakes, not when national greatness hangs in the balance. It is time for Democrats to make clear once more: We will never surrender or submit-not on any issue, and not on any question before this country.

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