What Bush Could Learn From JFK

John F. Kennedy was decorated for his military heroism in the South Pacific in World War II. However, he showed even greater courage as president during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. At that time, his right-wing critics were denouncing him for pursuing a "no-win policy" in his approach to the Soviet Union's Cold War military challenge. Nevertheless, when this nation was subjected to its greatest threat, by the sudden, secret emplacement of Soviet nuclear missiles 90 miles from our shores, Kennedy had the courage and confidence to communicate, negotiate, even compromise with his chief adversary, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the man whose recklessly hostile arms deployment had every appearance of preparing for anything from the intimidation to the devastation of the United States. It was a compromise in the pursuit of a peaceful settlement, under which the Soviets swiftly withdrew all their missiles, under inspection, and without the United States ever firing a shot.

Eight months later, Kennedy demonstrated the same kind of courage, defying his domestic critics with a bold commencement address at American University, a speech without precedent, in which he urged the American people to re-examine the usefulness of the Cold War, to re-examine the very meaning of peace itself. In that same speech, Kennedy also called for the adoption of a nuclear test ban to slow down the arms race, beginning with the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to prevent further poisoning of the atmosphere. Public-opinion polls at the time showed not only conservatives but also most Americans to be deeply suspicious of any treaties with the Soviets. But Kennedy plowed ahead, obtaining Senate consent to ratify the Limited Test Ban Treaty, reaching agreement with the Soviets on a "hot line" communications link between Moscow and Washington to avoid the kind of negotiating delays that kept the world on the brink of disaster in October, and laying the groundwork for the end of the Cold War. That speech was titled "The Strategy of Peace."

Advocates of peace and demonstrations of courage are in short supply in Washington today. The Bush administration has no strategy for peace, only a strategy for continuous war. A government that prefers to ignore the United Nations while paying little attention to the wishes of its allies and even less to international law is a government that feels free to launch preemptive strikes against any nation that it decides is unworthy. It is also a government that will feel free to choose one war after another, usually against smaller adversaries.

With great political and rhetorical skill, George W. Bush was able to justify his action to the American people by convincing a majority that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was behind the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks on the United States, and that America's security was directly threatened by a tin-pot dictator who had neither an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction nor the means of delivering them to our territory. As a result, Bush hastily took our country into a costly war and occupation that is draining our treasury and the lifeblood of too many of our young men and women.

In his reckless zeal to play commander in chief, Bush has endangered both the physical and the financial security of the American people, possibly for generations to come. Lacking either the courage or the ability to stand up to the hawks in his administration and the right-wingers in his party, Bush finds war an easy way, as election year approaches, to rally voters behind a commander in chief who, unlike Kennedy, never discovered the ills of war firsthand.

To be sure, the Kennedy era was a very different one. Though this country possessed the most awesome military force in the world -- indeed, in human history -- Kennedy took care to see to it that the United States was respected primarily for the economic, educational, and civil opportunities and rights it offered its citizens, for its great institutions of learning and for its commitment to peace, not primarily for its military might. He both represented and conveyed to the world the best instincts and traditions of Americans as a generous, peaceful people, thereby increasing the affection and respect with which we were regarded around the world. This made us a less likely target for resentment and attack from terrorists and other America-haters. "The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war," Kennedy said at American University. "This generation of Americans has already had enough -- more than enough -- of war ... [W]e shall also do our part, to build a world of peace. Confident and unafraid, we labor on -- not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace."

What America most needs now is a new strategy of peace. The centerpiece of Kennedy's strategy was the concept of "world law." This included an emphasis on treaties, alliances, arms control and the United Nations, all of which Bush has backed away from. Kennedy particularly called for strengthening the United Nations as an instrument of world peace and law by improving its financing and its procedures for the settlement of international disputes. Kennedy would not have seen any sense in Bush's disdain for that organization.

However, it is not too late for Bush to lead the world in enabling the United Nations to have more peacekeepers, more weapons inspectors, more human-rights monitors and more international law prosecutors stationed in the countries that most need them. Americans increasingly realize, as Bush eventually will, that this country cannot maintain global peace, human rights and disarmament on its own. The United Nations is the only impartial multinational, multicultural organization that can effectively address the causes, chaos and consequences of global terrorism.

When America was savagely attacked by al-Qaeda terrorists on 9-11, virtually all the world was with us. The standing of the United States in world opinion was high, reflecting the values communicated around the world by JFK, Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and a host of other U.S. leaders. But that moment of universal goodwill was squandered by Bush's emphasis on American exceptionalism. His speeches bordered on nationalism, even chauvinism, as though ours were the only country experiencing terrorism and the only one that should lead a war against global terrorism and select its targets. The president called for a new global coalition against terrorism, apparently unaware that one already existed. It is called the United Nations, which had already developed, with global participation, 12 treaties and conventions against terrorism, the financing of terrorist activities, and the training and harboring of terrorist squads, among other things. Ironically, the same anti-treaty Bush administration had dragged its feet on some of those treaties and conventions.

At the same time, members of the Bush team quickly seized the 9-11 tragedy as an opportunity to invade Iraq, despite the lack of any meaningful communication or cooperation between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. When Bush invoked the war on terrorism in every speech justifying an attack on Iraq, the rest of the world was not convinced. When he used the war on terrorism as an excuse to crack down on civil liberties in our own country, in particular on foreign-born residents and on critics of his foreign policy, it sent an unfortunate message that the United States lacked sufficient confidence in winning its battle to avoid imitating its enemies.

Most perplexing of all was the administration's insistence on undermining the new International Criminal Court (ICC), the very tribunal that should hold international criminals like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein accountable for their crimes against humanity. The administration not only refused to subscribe to the Treaty of Rome establishing the ICC but tried to force sigNATOries into agreeing to support provisions holding U.S. soldiers and citizens immune from any charges that might be brought before that court.

Ultimately, the U.S. government suspended military aid to 35 countries that refused to grant such advance immunity, thereby extinguishing any hope that those nations might join us in the war on terrorism or in the coalition occupying Iraq. Among the governments denied long-promised funds for new military training and equipment were Slovenia, on the eve of its entering NATO (requiring a substantial modernization of its military); Colombia, where a long-running narco-guerrilla rebellion poses a continuing threat to peace and stability throughout the Americas; and a variety of other friendly countries whose help might otherwise have been sought in Iraq. (Colombia has since yielded to U.S. pressure.) It was a move that could only encourage increased resentment of the United States as a unilateral bully, thereby facilitating the recruitment of still more anti-American terrorists.

The International Criminal Court is only the latest and most encouraging of the new international tribunals that have sprung up under UN auspices in recent years to hold accountable the authors of genocide in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere. These tribunals -- and courts of longer standing, such as the International Court of Justice (World Court), the Inter-American and European Courts of Human Rights, and others -- form the institutional foundation for President Kennedy's dream of a world law. Given America's worldwide business, diplomatic and other interests, no country has a larger stake than ours in the successful establishment and continued functioning of those institutions of world law. That way lies our best hope for a new strategy of peace.

"What kind of peace do we seek?" Kennedy asked in his American University speech. "Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war." Unfortunately, a Pax Americana is precisely what Bush seems to have in mind.