Sen. John Kerry lost for many reasons. Perhaps the most critical was fear: Americans, including the famous soccer moms, turned to President Bush for safety in what was seen as a frightening world full of terrorists and nuclear weapons. The "tough and consistent" strategy for America's global engagement, promised by the president, seemed reassuring.
Sadly, Kerry joined in this appeal to America's fears, arguing that he, better than the president, could prosecute the war on terror and the struggle in Iraq. He was not credible and failed to distinguish himself from the president. He did not define a robust alternative for Americans that promised hope and daylight in the war on terror.
Democrats do not do well appealing to fear. Republicans are simply more credible playing this card. Polling made it clear that the issue that most distinguished Kerry from Bush was the president's credibility in prosecuting the "war on terror."
Fear and the false promise of safety worked for the president's re-election. But it is a dangerous, counterproductive strategy for American policy. Democrats will be challenged over the coming months to define an alternative, because the administration's strategy is guaranteed to create more terrorists seeking weapons of mass destruction.
It is, of course, necessary to combat terrorist organizations (though arguably the Iraq invasion and occupation made this problem worse, not better), but terrorists are symptoms, not the global security disease. The president's (and implicitly Kerry's) focus on terrorists condemns the U.S. to a permanent game of "whack-a-mole" – hit the terrorists here and they will only pop up again over there. As the moles continually reappear, our forces are more stressed, our national security strategy becomes more militarized, our civil liberties are threatened and budget deficits soar.
The Democrats will need to define an alternative vision. It should address the powerful underlying trends that spawn terror and stimulate their search for weapons of mass destruction. Three interrelated trends threaten global security over the long term: the inequalities spawned by a globalized economy; brittle or failed governance; and an epidemic of hatred that pits tribe against tribe. These dilemmas co-exist from southern Africa to Indonesia and are the fertile breeding ground for terrorists.
America will need a global economic policy that helps close the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots." We will need to invest in programs that build responsive governance, which, even if imperfectly democratic, is necessary for citizens of these regions to feel secure. And we will need to focus on tribal divisions, creating a global religious and ethnic dialogue that is absolutely necessary to stem the tide of tribal wars.
As the administration's game of "whack-a-mole" flounders and the number of those who hate us grows, we will need a different way of tackling this deeper security challenge. First, we will need to demilitarize our security policy. This means calling for the integration of all our tools of statecraft – diplomacy, economic policy, intelligence and public diplomacy, as well as our military capability.
Second – and this is the piece Kerry articulated clearly – the United States will need to step away from the unilateral impulse and into a vital engagement with like-minded and not-so-like-minded countries and organizations in the world whose contribution will be necessary to accomplish the mission. While this will stimulate an argument about "permission slips" and "global tests," it is the only way to deal with the underlying problems. To lead in an effective way, we will need the active participation of other nations – friends, allies and even those wary of our leadership and intentions, participants whose goodwill the administration has squandered over the last four years.
Most important, we need to recognize that we are not the exceptional nation or the indispensable nation we would like to think we are. As long as we continue to act like one, we are only creating greater hostility and threats to our security.
Though powerful, the United States is just another actor in the world system, an actor whose past and present policies have interacted globally for more than a century. We have become the global elephant of which the ants are wary. And we are startled, in our ahistoric way, when we are not beloved abroad. It's not our culture or our values, "it's the policy, stupid."
We need to start seeing ourselves from the other guy's point of view, instead of consistently seeking to impose our views on the rest of the globe as a benign hegemon.
Until we get past seeing the actions and responses of outsiders as crazy or misinformed, American national security policy will not find many supporters and allies and will ensure passionate support for those, such as al Qaeda, who mean us serious and real harm in retaliation.
The president in the 2000 campaign called for "humility." We need to be more humble and more aware of our history and its impact on the rest of the world, more ready to listen without losing our own confidence and pride, more self-aware.
Kerry lost the election because he did not articulate such a vision, deeply rooted in the traditions of Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy. It is going to become increasingly necessary, as the administration acts on what it thinks is a mandate supporting its current approach to our global role. As it does so, we will become more insecure for a very long time, and all too ready to lash out in ways that may make us feel good but increase the risk to our security. The alternative will be sorely needed.
Gordon Adams is director of security policy studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University.
This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 8, 2004. Reprinted with permission of the Chicago Tribune. Copyright © 2004 Chicago Tribune.