Suddenly, the presidential race has devolved into a debate about young John Kerry's actions in Vietnam. First, Kerry made his military service the central theme of the Democratic convention. Now some anti-Kerry veterans have issued a book and television ads that impugn that record.
Kerry's strategy was not hard to understand. In normal times, the Democrats' strong suit -- domestic policy -- counterbalances the GOP's advantage on national security issues. With the country at war, however, national security trumps. So Kerry promised a "more effective war on terror," and he labored to make the case, as columnist E.J. Dionne put it, that he "was actually tougher than Bush."
The detractors may only be playing into his hands by focusing on what he did or did not do on the Mekong 35 years ago. The more telling point is that nothing he has done since then sustains the claim that he would be an effective leader in the war we face today -- any more than George McGovern's 35 combat missions in World War II, which won him the Distinguished Flying Cross, qualified him to lead us in the Cold War.
The Cold War also provides our best measuring stick for estimating how Kerry might perform as commander in chief, and in that conflict Kerry's instincts were always awry. Had the country heeded his counsel, we might not yet have won it.
Many leaders had a hand in Washington's Cold War triumph, but Ronald Reagan's contributions were pivotal, and Kerry opposed every one of them. Reagan's defense buildup disabused Soviet leaders of any hope that they could ultimately come out ahead of the United States. Kerry derided these military expenditures as "bloated" and "without any relevancy to the threat." In particular, Reagan's plan to seek a missile defense system against Soviet ICBMs and NATO's decision to station new missiles in Europe to counteract the new Soviet deployment there rendered futile the Kremlin's vast investment in nuclear supremacy. Instead of these measures, Kerry advocated that we adopt a one-sided "nuclear freeze."
Reagan also showed the Soviets that history was not necessarily on their side by ousting the erratic communist regime in Grenada and arming anti-communist guerrillas to challenge the leftist oligarchs of Nicaragua. Kerry condemned the U.S. action in Grenada as "a bully's show of force," and he opposed our support for guerrillas in Nicaragua as vociferously as anyone in the Senate, even traveling to Managua to try to cut a deal with Sandinista strongman Daniel Ortega to thwart Reagan's policy.
Reagan also put the U.S. on the ideological offensive when he branded the Soviet Union an "evil empire." But Kerry's harshest words were reserved for our own country, which he accused -- during his years as an antiwar leader -- of "crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command."
Not only in the Cold War but also in other events that foreshadowed today's challenges, Kerry consistently got it wrong. In 1986, Reagan bombed Moammar Kadafi's residence when intelligence intercepts showed that the Libyan dictator was behind the terrorist bombing of a nightclub full of American soldiers in Germany. Kerry denounced the U.S. retaliatory strike as "not proportional." And when Saddam Hussein swallowed Kuwait in 1990, Kerry opposed using force to drive him out, calling instead for reliance on economic sanctions.
All in all, in his 20 years in the Senate, Kerry ranks as one of the five most dovish or liberal members on foreign policy if you tally up the key votes selected by the liberal advocacy group, Americans for Democratic Action. Is it any wonder that Kerry is seeking to focus voters' attention on his courage as a Navy officer rather than his judgment as a political leader?
Since 1972, when McGovern jettisoned the tradition of Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and made the Democrats the party of dovishness, only two Democrats have won the White House. Both of them, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, presented themselves as more hawkish than their Republican opponents. In 1976, Carter targeted the detente policies of Gerald Ford. In 1992, Clinton lambasted George H.W. Bush's refusal to defend Bosnia or criticize Beijing. Once in office, each pursued softer foreign policies than the Republican he had defeated.
That Kerry comes from Massachusetts -- the only state that opted for McGovern in 1972 -- makes his projection of hawkishness a harder sell. The military veterans with whom he surrounded himself at the convention, and the reminders of the honor with which he himself served, make the claim more plausible. Until you look at the political record.
Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.