August 29, 2004

Vietnam and Kerry's Worldview

I did not know John Kerry in Vietnam, but I knew the area he was in, having served in the same area as a civilian. I've talked to him often about Vietnam in recent years, and there is no question in my mind that it was the defining experience of his adult years, just as it was for me and hundreds of thousands of other Americans, including those now attacking him.

His personal saga embodies the American experience in Vietnam. First he was a good hero in a bad war -- a man who volunteered for duty in the Navy and then asked for an assignment on the boats that were to ply the dangerous rivers of Vietnam -- when most of his college-educated contemporaries (including George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton) -- found easy ways to avoid Vietnam. Then, carrying shrapnel in his thigh, he became an eloquent but moderate member of the antiwar movement. John Kerry introduced his Vietnam record into his campaign because it is a central part of who he is.

-- Richard Holbrooke, writing in the WaPo yesterday.

It's interesting that Holbrooke would write (in an op-ed doubtless approved by Kerry) that Vietnam is the "defining experience" of Kerry's adult years. Given that the op-ed appeared yesterday, weeks into the Swift Boat maelstrom, it appears Kerry has decided he will not be cowed by all the Swift Boat going-ons (into soft-pedaling his Vietnam history). Indeed, Kerry instead appears to be purposefully keeping Vietnam front and center via prominent surrogates like Holbrooke.

Given this, I think it behooves us to analyze Kerry's '71 Senate testimony in more detail. To be sure, let's recall that it was a long time ago. That he was a pretty young man. And that Kerry himself has suggested some of his comments were a bit on the overzealous side.

Still, if Vietnam is Kerry's formative experience, his comments merit closer analysis than I've seen of late. So let's take a look at a few key grafs from Kerry's testimony. Here, for instance, is Kerry recommending to the Senators that the U.S. pull out of Vietnam asap:

My feeling, Senator, is undoubtedly this Congress, and I don't mean to sound pessimistic, but I do not believe that this Congress will, in fact, end the war as we would like to, which is immediately and unilaterally and, therefore, if I were to speak I would say we would set a date and the date obviously would be the earliest possible date. But I would like to say, in answering that, that I do not believe it is necessary to stall any longer. I have been to Paris. I have talked with both delegations at the peace talks, that is to say the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government and of all eight of Madam Binh's points it has been stated time and time again, and was stated by Senator Vance Hartke when he returned from Paris, and it has been stated by many other officials of this Government, if the United States were to set a date for withdrawal the prisoners of war would be returned....I would, therefore, submit that the most expedient means of getting out of South Vietnam would be for the President of the United States to declare a cease-fire, to stop this blind commitment to a dictatorial regime, the Thieu-Ky-Khiem regime, accept a coalition regime which would represent all the political forces of the country which is in fact what a representative government is supposed to do and which is in fact what this Government here in this country purports to do, and pull the troops out without losing one more American, and still further without losing the South Vietnamese.

Put aside the dreary notes of pompousness and self-importance ("I have been to Paris.") Focus instead on Kerry's likely disingenuous concern about the South Vietnamese. It's clear he's hell-bent on getting all U.S. troops out as soon as possible. But, and at the same time, Kerry claims that he's interested in not losing too many South Vietnamese lives in the midst of his recommended uber-hasty departure from Vietnam.

But how does that jibe with this part of his testimony later?

Senator Aiken: I think your 3,000 estimate might be a little low because we had to help 800,000 find sanctuary from North Vietnam after the French lost at Dienbienphu. But assuming that we resettle the members of the Saigon government, who would undoubtedly be in danger, in some other area, what do you think would be the attitude, of the large, well-armed South Vienamese army and the South Vietnamese people? Would they be happy to have us withdraw or what?

Mr. Kerry: Well, Senator, this obviously is the most difficult question of all, but I think that at this point the United States is not really in a position to consider the happiness of those people as pertains to the army in our withdrawal. We have to consider the happiness of the people as pertains to the life which they will be able to lead in the next few years.

If we don't withdraw, if we maintain a Korean-type presence in South Vietnam, say 50,000 troops or something, with strategic bombing raids from Guam and from Japan and from Thailand dropping these 15,000 pound fragmentation bombs on them, et cetera, in the next few years, then what you will have is a people who are continually oppressed, who are continually at warfare, and whose problems will not at all be solved because they will not have any kind of representation.

The war will continue. So what I am saying is that yes, there will be some recrimination but far, far less than the 200,000 a year who are murdered by the United States of America, and we can't go around- President Kennedy said this, many times. He said that the United States simply can't right every wrong, that we can't solve the problems of the other 94 percent of mankind. We didn't go into East Pakistan; we didn't go into Czechoslovakia. Why then should we feel that we now have the power to solve the internal political struggles of this country?

We have to let them solve their problems while we solve ours and help other people in an altruistic fashion commensurate with our capacity. But we have extended that capacity; we have exhausted that capacity, Senator. So I think the question is really moot.

Translation: Get our boys home soonest--whatever happens to the South Vietnamese (what would Kerry have done in Korea? What might he do in Iraq?). And, regardless, we can't go around, willy-nilly, trying to help oppressed peoples in so distant places like Prague or Saigon.

This isn't just far-away history, of course. When Bosnians were being massacred in large number--Kerry voted against lifting the arms embargo on the long suffering Bosniaks and using NATO air-power against Bosnian Serb gunners terrorizing "safe" havens like Sarajevo and, most tragically of all, Srebrenica.

Why, one wonders? Wouldn't a liberal Senator from Massachusetts want to help victims of genocidal policies? Because I think, to his core, Kerry's Vietnam experience has left him highly suspicious of the use of American power. He appears to think it an overly blunt instrument that, more often than not, causes more harm than good on the world stage. So, therefore, a policy of authorizing NATO warplanes into flight to protect civilians being shelled to death becomes cause for deep suspicion. Put differently, how could a military adventure by the Americans be for a good cause? (Note also, and perhaps this is strange for the son of a diplomat, that one espies isolationist tendencies within Kerry too).

Then there's this:

Senator, I will say this. I think that politically, historically, the one thing that people try to do, that society is structured on as a whole, is an attempt to satisfy their felt needs, and you can satisfy those needs with almost any kind of political structure, giving it one name or the other. In this name it is democratic; in other it is communism; in others it is benevolent dictatorship. As long as those needs are satisfied, that structure will exist.

But when you start to neglect those needs, people will start to demand a new structure, and that, to me, is the only threat that this country faces now, because we are not responding to the needs and we are not responding to them because we work on these old cold-war precepts and because we have not woken up to realizing what is happening in the United States of America.

Is it just me, or is it an odd concept to think of societies as simply mechanisms by which to "satisfy their felt needs"? And is there not an alarming relativism buried in this Marxist-like cogitation about "structure"? Put differently, if the "felt needs" are satisfied via communism fine. By dictatorship, fine. Democracy is just the "name" we use in these United States. We are left wondering whether it really means anything special, no?

Look, I'm not saying Kerry thinks communism and democracy are equally good or bad. What I'm saying is that I don't really know what Kerry is willing to fight for. I feel a dearth of true conviction in this man (war hero one day; dissident the next; medals good; medals, or ribbons, bad).

Containing communism in Central America or Vietnam was not worth our blood and treasure (opposing totalitarian ideologies). Preventing genocidal conduct in the heart of Europe wasn't (humanitarianism). Securing Kuwait's sovereignty and protecting Saudi Arabia's oil supplies wasn't (realist reasons). Well, it's fair to ask, what is then? (ed. note: You might quibble with me here and say it's merely the way we have tried to achieve our geopolitical objectives that bothers Kerry. But this is unpersuasive. I challenge readers, for instance, to show me what he would now do differently in Iraq than Bush is doing--a war Kerry himself provided the President the authority to wage. And, no, vague talk of being more multinational and realist ain't gonna cut it.)

To be sure, too much Manichean-style conviction can be dangerous as well (what gets Bush critics up in arms). But, in a post-9/11 world where the risk of apocalpytic terror by fanatical terror groups is very real--I want someone in power who believes societies are sometimes inherently different. That they might even share different core values, mores, and priorities (ie., not merely all going about satisfying their 'felt needs' in similar fashion in morally neutral fashion).

Someone who might even believe that our values are, on occasion, superior to those of some of our foes. Put another way, I want someone in power who believes that our values (when linked to tangible national interests of import) might be worth fighting for--even with painful expenditures in blood and treasure occasionally necessitated--in the furtherance of human advancement and liberty.

Look, Saddam was a monster--can anyone deny his passing from the scene is not a positive development? Of course, we committed many missteps during the post-major combat period--but the Iraq project could still ultimately prove a success. If it did--would we not all rejoice that an Arab democracy took root in Mesopotamia--a democracy that would replace a morally bankrupt system defined by neo-Stalinist thuggery of the most brutish stripe?

We might fail, yes, and such failure would be at great costs to the stability of the region and American credibility worldwide. But I think the risk of failure is lower with Bush in for a second term than with Kerry winning in November. For Bush, I believe, thinks there is something worth fighting for in Iraq. I'm not sure Kerry really does. So Kerry, I suspect, would have us do what he counseled re: Vietnam. Get out, and let the locals sort out their difficulties, as they will be better off without us.

He could be right, of course (that, all told, the Iraqis would be better off without us--though the specter of horrific and large-scale inter-sectarian revanchist killings makes that hard to believe). But I think (despite too few troops, Abu Ghraib, the situations in Najaf and Fallujah) that we can still turn Iraq into a success (defined as a unitary, viable democratic polity). This effort, of course, needs to unfold within the larger context of a generational committment in the Middle East on a variety of levels (forging an Arab-Israeli peace settlement; better public diplomacy, helping foster conditions of sustainable economic development).

But, arguably most of all at this juncture, it means seeing Iraq through.

Would John Kerry?

Posted by Gregory Djerejian at August 29, 2004 01:51 AM
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