It's been almost 25 years since foreign policy played a critical and unpredictable role in a presidential race. In 1980, it was Iran. Today, it's a different set of actors on different stages from Iraq and Afghanistan to Haiti. Ironically, the context then and now is Vietnam.
In 1980, we were watching the hostage crisis unfold in Tehran, but the emotion it generated had as much to do with the raw wounds and tough lessons from Vietnam as with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Today, while the prominent faces on the screen are Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the debate about our military strength, international credibility and political leadership once again comes back to questions of quagmire, hubris and history.
In light of Sept. 11, 2001, it's not surprising that national security has taken center stage in the presidential race. But amidst the early skirmishes over charges of AWOL and doctored photographs of Jane Fonda, can the proper direction for the next four years be gleaned not from the past three years, but from experiences more than 30 years ago?
Yes. In this impending contest, biography should matter. This is about more than politics and, if we have the right debate, the country may end up better off because of it.
For John Kerry, like most soldiers, sailors or airmen who went to Southeast Asia, the Vietnam conflict defines his life. His extensive involvement in military and international issues is rooted in his war experience. For George Bush, he joined the Texas Guard and went to pilot training. It is this experience that helps him to connect with the military he leads.
The depth of their respective military experience is important, since somewhere on the campaign trail, the American people take measure of whether the candidates have enough of what it takes to be commander-in-chief.
Early on, Kerry appeared to be handicapped by the meaning of a heavily qualified vote for military action in Iraq. But he gained strength from his past and momentum as veterans embraced his campaign.
The Bush administration, sinking in popularity in its first nine months, has since been defined by the terror attacks in New York and Washington and military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. The attempt to highlight the president's military background with his donning a flight suit and landing on the Abraham Lincoln turned from golden photo-op to political liability as casualties mounted in Iraq.
Arguably, Bush's Guard record would not be an issue without the carrier event. But it's fair to ask whether, in evaluating his performance as commander-in-chief, there are dots that should be connected back to his – let's be generous – less than extensive military record and limited international experience.
For example, the president suggested to Tim Russert during his Meet the Press interview on Feb. 8 that he was not surprised by the intensity of the Iraq insurgency. If this is true, then why was the Pentagon forced to substantially lengthen troop deployments in Iraq, angering Army soldiers and families? The fact is that the president's plan did not anticipate the chaos that followed the combat, in part because he willfully discounted any efforts to plan.
Why the disconnect? His administration has, from the start, proceeded with a moral certitude that has discounted the lessons of past history. He has demonstrated, in sharp contrast to the efforts of his father in putting together a deep and broad-based international coalition in the first Gulf War, a keen disinterest in the art of diplomacy. Or perhaps he missed the drill session on defense planning, budgeting and alliances.
Kerry will undoubtedly be pressed to explain his vote for the war and against funding for the reconstruction of Iraq. And while he may argue persuasively that the Bush administration entered Iraq in the wrong way and for the wrong reason, he should spend more time explaining, given that we are likely to be there for a while, how long he will keep them there and how much we should spend to get Iraq right.
It's not likely we can get to a "demilitarized zone" where we completely take politics out of military issues. At the same time, we need to get past the phony political debate of the past 15 years that one side has a monopoly on national security. There is a national security policy divide today that is somewhat caricatured by both sides as the internationalists vs. the unilateralists. While this does not strictly run along party lines, there is a camp that is more comfortable with the use of force, but cares far less about its long-term consequences, and sees the international community as an impediment to action. There is another camp that defines national security more broadly, sees the military as one option among many and looks at the international community as a source of legitimacy.
This divide is rooted in the echoes of Vietnam, which is why Vietnam belongs in this campaign. It is not a matter of who went and who didn't. But we will learn much about Bush and Kerry if they are able to explain what lessons they draw from the singular conflict of their lives; how our lack of historical context in Vietnam led us to confuse communism with nationalism and ignore the dangers of insurgency then; and whether we rushed into Iraq without a full appreciation of the insurgent risks and confront a confluence of terrorism and nationalism now.
This is a real debate we could have this year. Bring it on.
P.J. Crowley, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, is a retired Air Force colonel and served on the National Security Council staff and in the Department of Defense during the Clinton administration.