It would have been a catastrophe for democracy itself if liberal leadership during the past century had been unequal to the challenges of national defense. But under Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the United States and its allies prevailed in both world wars. FDR and Harry Truman, advised by such “wise men” as George F. Kennan, created the alliances and international institutions that were foundations of U.S. security in the postwar era. And John F. Kennedy upheld and extended the same liberal internationalism at the height of the Cold War.
Nonetheless, when John F. Kerry presented himself and his fellow Democrats at their July convention as a credible party of national defense, some observers were skeptical, as if this could only be a masquerade or a makeover instead of being rooted in a long tradition.
The convention highlighted Kerry's own personal bravery in war, a narrative with obvious parallels to the biography of the original JFK. But there were more substantive continuities: In his emphasis on restoring strong ties with our allies and respect for America abroad, Kerry was reasserting the internationalism that is one of liberalism's central tenets and signal achievements. And by declaring that the United States should go to war only when it must, Kerry was rejecting the missionary vision of war as a means of remaking the world in our own image. That, too, reflects a hard-won liberal understanding of the past century, acquired more than once after painful experience.
What liberalism properly calls for in defense and foreign policy is a certain combination of toughness, prudence, and humanity -- the military capacity and readiness to defeat genuine threats to America's security and the determination to build international institutions, cultivate alliances, and use law and diplomacy to resolve conflict. Just as liberalism has historically sought to protect individual rights through the rule of law and limits on unbridled power at home, so it has sought to project those same norms of respect for law, life, and liberty into the international arena -- conscious, however, that force may ultimately be necessary for self-defense, and that force spent unwisely may undermine security rather than ensure it.
Does terrorism require us to change? Tactics, yes, but philosophy and institutions, no. Terrorist networks have made international cooperation all the more necessary. The potential scale of the terrorist threat has made the prudent and focused deployment of power all the more urgent. And the pressure to sacrifice our liberties has made their vigilant protection all the more vital.
Most of those who oppose George W. Bush's policies do so not out of pacifism or delusions about Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein but out of dismay at the administration's ham-fisted conduct of the nation's affairs. The president has squandered international goodwill, gratuitously alienated our allies, compromised our ideals, and distorted the truth -- and, in the process, weakened the United States. By overthrowing Hussein, Bush may have intended to deter other regimes from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. But, Iran and North Korea, seeing how overstretched we are in Iraq, have moved ahead with steps necessary to produce nuclear weapons. Perversely, the war has made American power less of a deterrent.
Liberalism's troubles with national security date to the Vietnam War, a fiasco for which a liberal administration was originally responsible. Kerry, among many others at the time, was right to turn against the war. Contrary to the neoconservatives, the opposition to the war upheld America's ideals as well as its true interests -- one of our interests being that we recognize mistakes when we make them. That is basically what is at issue now, even as Kerry also recognizes the need to see the continuing struggle in Iraq through to an honorable conclusion.
The 2004 campaign may be the last battle over the Vietnam War -- between those who learned one lesson from the war and those who learned another. Vietnam unleashed a conflict at home in which Kerry and Bush chose opposite sides, and that conflict is still playing itself out. But as a veteran who fought in the war and then fought against it (and as a stalwart on defense who helped heal the nation's Vietnam POW wounds in a bipartisan way) Kerry may be ideally suited to end the recriminations from Vietnam, to put to rest the canard that Democrats cannot be trusted on national security, and to reclaim the tradition of an internationalist, tough, prudent, and humane foreign policy.