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PRESIDENTIAL RACE

Kerry: a Lighter Shade of Bush

June 20, 2004|William M. Arkin | William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail: warkin@igc.org

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. — Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry got a boost last week when 27 retired U.S. diplomats, admirals and four-star generals, including a number of prominent Republican appointees from former Bush and Reagan administrations, publicly urged Americans to vote President Bush out of office.

They did not explicitly endorse Kerry, but the old warriors and insiders find themselves far more comfortable with the Massachusetts senator than with Bush when it comes to their favorite subject. Not only has Kerry firmly surrounded himself with Clinton standard-bearers on foreign policy and defense, but he has espoused his own brand of warmongering.

I would love nothing better than to see Bush out of office, but Kerry is a gloomy alternative. Worse yet, in the short term, his "me too, only better" approach to the war on terrorism could actually serve to make the United States less safe.

Kerry's defense plans might be a slam-dunk for the atherosclerotic set in the national security community, but here is the alternative that the senator offers to Democrats and people of liberal values in November:

* no plan to withdraw from Iraq, not even the kind of "secret plan" the late President Nixon offered on Vietnam, and no change in Afghanistan;

* continuation of Bush's preemption policy;

* a larger military with many more special operations units, plus accelerated spending on "transformation," which in today's defense jargon means creation of greater capability to intervene around the world on short notice;

* a new domestic intelligence agency and a vastly beefed-up homeland security program.

Kerry's defense advisors see much of this as innocuous rhetoric to protect the Democratic candidate's flanks from traditional conservative accusations of being soft on national security. At the same time, it represents a calculated strategy to "keep your head low and win."

In his stump speeches, Kerry stresses a spirited dose of alliances, the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and a return to what he calls an "America that listens and leads again." He roundly criticizes the Bush administration on Iraq, Afghanistan and homeland security. He promises as commander in chief that he will never ask the troops "to fight a war without a plan to win the peace."

All that is to the good. Yet when Kerry describes the contemporary world, and the challenges that the U.S. faces, he sounds just like the president, the vice president and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Terrorism, he says, "present[s] the central national security challenge of our generation." Preventing terrorists from "gaining weapons of mass murder" is his No. 1 security goal, and Kerry says he would strike first if any attack "appears imminent." The senator promises to "use military force to protect American interests anywhere in the world, whenever necessary." On May 27 in Seattle, he promised to "take the fight to the enemy on every continent" (I guess that probably doesn't include Antarctica).

Beyond rhetoric, Kerry proposes to add 40,000 troops to the Army and to double the "Special Forces capability to fight the war on terror," presumably jumping from the current 48,000 to 96,000.

On homeland security, there isn't a constituency that Kerry doesn't pander to. National Guard, local government, police, firefighters, public health services, even AmeriCorps -- the modest domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps -- all should be beefed up, he says, to "protect America." He even proposes a new "community defense service" of homeland security wardens a la civil defense in the Cold War, which would surely be the looniest club that ever existed.

Even his serious proposals are problematic. The homeland security plan is defeatist and out of control. On the Army, though it sounds as if adding active-duty troops would solve the current overburden in Iraq and relieve the National Guard and reserves, the reality is that adding 40,000 to the end strength would take two or more years, according to one of Kerry's own advisors. Special Forces are even more difficult and time-consuming to manufacture.

But the biggest problem is that the basic premise of military growth is that we will continue to fight at the Bush pace. And relying more on special operations? That's the Rumsfeld doctrine: fast and light, covert and unaccountable. But anyone who is not an administration toady must recognize by now that ninja magicians can do only so much and that the cost of not having enough regular soldiers on the ground is a theme that runs from Tora Bora and the postwar insurgency in Iraq to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Special-ops troops tend to get you involved in, well, special operations. Making them a centerpiece of U.S. military planning and force structures builds a bias into the decision-making process that favors covert action and the unfortunate belief that we can prevail over terrorism by killing terrorists faster than they are recruited.

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