David Brooks has yet another brilliant and astute column in The New York Times on how the lessons Vietnam apply to our time. The issue of Bush’s National Guard service, or John Kerry’s protestations, are but a shadow of the real argument that cuts to the heart of what this election is about: how are we to view the world in the age of terrorism?
Brooks puts it like this:
The Democrats Americans trusted, from Harry Truman to John Kennedy, lived in the shadow of World War II. They’d learned the lessons of Munich and appeasement. They saw America engaged in a titanic struggle against tyranny and believed in using military means for idealistic ends. They also had immense confidence in themselves and in their ability to use power to spread freedom.
Their confidence took them into Vietnam and into the quagmire. There were two conflicting lessons that could be drawn from that experience. Scoop Jackson Democrats saw Vietnam as a bungled battle in what was nonetheless a noble anti-Communist war. Most of these people ended up as Republicans.
But most Democrats — and John Kerry was very much a part of this group — saw Vietnam as a refutation of the cold war mentality. These liberals saw the bungling and the lies as symptoms of a deep sickness in the military-industrial complex. So we got movies like “Dr. Strangelove” and “M*A*S*H,” which treated military life as insane.
These Democrats saw Vietnam as an indictment of a Manichaean good vs. evil worldview, of an overweening arrogance that led hawks into parts of the world they didn’t understand. Most of all, they saw it as an indictment of American nationalism, the belief that America was culturally superior and should venture around the globe defeating tyranny.
Hence Democratic foreign policy in the 1970’s was isolationist at worst, modest at best. Democrats eschewed flag-waving and moralistic language about the Soviets. Jimmy Carter talked about root causes like hunger and poverty. For many liberals, as Charles Krauthammer recently said, “cold warrior” was an epithet.
These liberals were horrified when a group of former Democrats, led by Ronald Reagan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, led a hawk resurgence. The Reaganites believed in American exceptionalism, saw themselves as the heirs to Truman and Kennedy, and sought to confront and defeat the evil empire. The Democratic establishment — again, with Kerry playing a crucial role — recoiled from such language, and opposed the Reagan arms buildup.
Most Americans decided that Reagan was right about the world, and that the Democrats were naïve.
Brooks leaves it as an open question whether Kerry’s rhetoric puts him on the Kennedy or the Carter side of the issue – I don’t think it’s even debatable.
Kerry represents the weakness of the post-Vietnam Democrats. The true heir of the Scoop Jackson legacy was not John Kerry but Joe Lieberman, and that link was thoroughly rejected by the Democratic Party. The Democrats are once again the party of weakness abroad – they want to slash the military and institute more failed social programs. They don’t see this as a time of war, they see this as a political opportunity to unseat a President they don’t like. To them, this election isn’t about Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden, it’s about George W. Bush. Bush has become the White Whale to the Democratic Ahabs who would ignore all perils to persue their singleminded end.
Kerry is much like Clark, using service as a shield for criticism. Kerry may have performed bravely in Vietnam, but that doesn’t mean that his opinions on the use of American power are any more correct than anyone else. Indeed, based on Kerry’s attempts to neuter our military, tie the hands of our intelligence services, and subjugate our foreign policy to the UN, it’s clear that Kerry is exactly the wrong person to be our Commander in Chief in the middle of a war in which our very civilization could be at stake.
The Democrats have learned the wrong lessons for Vietnam, the lesson that America must bow to those who would spread tyranny, that the military is something to be hated and loathed, and that appeasement is better than victory. Rather than acknowledge the horrors of Communism, the Democrats chose to ignore them and allow them to spread to places like Angola and Afghanistan.
Unlike communism, the doctrines of Islamism aren’t bound by basic self-interest and rational behavior. They care little for terroritory, seeking to strike at the heart of what they see as the vangard of the Western Civilization they loathe – meaning that the price of appeasement is so much greater.