Kerry’s Three-Faced Foreign Policy

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

If I read the tea leaves at the Democratic convention correctly, it seems that John F. Kerry served in Vietnam. But seeing as how Vietnam vets run the gamut from doves like Ron Kovic to hawks like Oliver L. North, Kerry’s four months “in country” don’t tell us much about what he would do in the next four years as president.

Figuring out in advance what any potential president will do is a difficult undertaking in the best of circumstances, because political rhetoric often has little in common with actual policy. Witness George W. Bush’s transformation from skeptic to champion of nation-building. Or Bill Clinton’s metamorphosis from China-basher to China-booster.

But prognostication is especially tough in Kerry’s case. There are three main schools of American foreign policy: isolationism, idealism and realism. At various points in his career -- sometimes at various points in the same speech -- Kerry has championed all of them.


Kerry first strode onto the national stage with his 1971 congressional testimony against the Vietnam War. He called the conflict “barbaric,” accused U.S. soldiers of atrocities “reminiscent of Genghis Khan” and beseeched Americans to “conquer the hate and the fear that have driven this country these last 10 years and more.” Anyone who thinks America is guilty of such terrible crimes obviously would not support military action unless the U.S. suffered a major attack -- something that’s happened only twice in recent history (Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001). This is the definition of an isolationist, and that’s exactly what Kerry sounded like early in his career.

After winning election to the Senate in 1984, he was a vocal critic of support for the Contras fighting to free Nicaragua from the Sandinista dictatorship; he even journeyed to Managua to shake hands with strongman Daniel Ortega. He consistently voted against defense spending and in favor of a nuclear freeze. He opposed the 1983 invasion of Grenada (“a bully’s show of force against a weak Third World nation”) and the 1991 Persian Gulf War (“a war for pride, not for vital interests”). It did not matter to Kerry that the U.N. Security Council had voted unanimously to authorize military action to free Kuwait; at that point, isolationism was more important to him than multilateralism.

Kerry changed his tune with Clinton’s election in 1992. He supported all of Clinton’s military actions -- in Bosnia, Haiti, Iraq and Kosovo -- although these were manifestly wars of choice, not necessity. He chided Republican realpolitikers who opposed using force for humanitarian ends, warning them in 1999 “of the human price the world suffers when we avert our eyes from international atrocities.” In keeping with his support for humanitarian interventions, Kerry has recently criticized President Bush for not doing more in Liberia, Haiti and Darfur. This would seem to make Kerry a Wilsonian idealist who is willing to promote human rights at gunpoint if necessary.

Except that during the last year he’s also developed a realist critique of Bush’s foreign policy. In discussing the war on terror, he seems to have adopted the Kissingerian view that we should defend only our vital strategic interests, not try to promote our “ideology” (a.k.a. our ideals). One of his aides told the Atlantic magazine that there would be “a lot of similarities” between his foreign policy and the cautious, status quo approach pursued by the first Bush administration, which was once roundly criticized by Democrats, including Kerry, for being amoral.

So which course would Kerry adopt as president? Idealist, realist or isolationist? His convention acceptance speech was no help. “I will never hesitate to use force when it is required,” he proclaimed, yet he offered no criteria to suggest when that would be, save when “we have to.” He didn’t say whether Iraq qualified. He criticized Bush for “misleading” us into the war and not doing enough to win the peace, without explaining his own votes in favor of the resolution to use force and against the $86 billion needed for reconstruction.

He promised “to bring our allies to our side” while attacking one notable ally -- Saudi Arabia. He talked about making “America once again a beacon in the world,” but had nothing to say about the need to promote democracy in Afghanistan or Iraq. How brightly would America’s beacon shine if we left either country prematurely without an elected government in place? Kerry was silent on that score. He stressed, instead, the need to “reduce the cost to American taxpayers, reduce the risk to American soldiers.”

This muddle raises the question of whether Kerry has a worldview, or whether he merely goes wherever the political winds blow. Surely it’s no coincidence that his stances track precisely mainstream Democratic opinion, which was isolationist in the 1970s and 1980s, idealistically interventionist in the 1990s and coldly realist since 2001. When the Democrats were split, as they were over Iraq in 2002 and 2003, he clumsily tried to appease both hawks and doves. Where he will wind up nobody knows -- not even, I suspect, him.