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Thursday, February 26, 2004

Is Kerry soft on terror?

Yesterday, I looked at the National Security Blog and discovered a post entitled "ElBaradei's Warning: We Can't Sit Idly By." After running a long quote noting the importance of the threat from nuclear proliferation, the blogger, John Little, then refers readers to a recent quote by John Kerry claiming that the threat of terrorism had been overstated by the Bush administration. Poke around the website and you know Little is not making this contrast because he agrees with Kerry.

Little implies that even UN-types like ElBaradei agree that nuclear proliferation is a great threat, while Kerry disagrees.

This is a misleading argument on many levels.

First, I'm sure ElBaradei and Kerry would agree that the world is not sitting idly by on the proliferation question. Indeed, both would agree that the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and IAEA are important norms and institutions that need to be strengthened. Both support ongoing work by the international community to engage potential proliferants in meaningful dialogue about their programs, inspect their facilities, and disarm them via arms control. Sanctions have been used to great affect against many worrisome states.

This was the pathway used effectively against Iraq and is in various stages in Libya, North Korea and Iran. By contrast, of course, the Bush administration quickly reversed sanctions against Pakistan in fall 2001, imposed because of their nuclear tests in 1998. They wanted Pakistan's help against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and decided the near-term anti-terror policies were more important than the long-term non-proliferation policies.

Moreover, it was the Bush administration who didn't trust the IAEA's March 2003 finding that Iraq had no nuclear weapon. As I noted recently, Cheney basically accused the IAEA of being fools.

All of these decisions are debatable, but it is obviously false to portray one's political opponents as weak on a particular type of threat just because they feel that it might deserve greater or lesser attention. Kerry clearly supports numerous anti-terror and nonproliferation efforts.

Second, Kerry was talking about terrorism and not proliferation per se, which the Bush administration has linked since the "axis of evil" reference in the State of the Union address in January 2002.

Sure, there's a risk that terrorists could obtain nuclear material, and ElBaradei acknowledges that, but Kerry was talking about the threats I was discussing in multiple posts yesterday. Edwards and Dean, for example, explicitly discussed September 11 in response to the same question.

Bush's blurring of these threats conveniently occurred after its policy reversal on Pakistan (and India, I might add). This blurring has not served the US well in Iraq. After all, the administration's hand-picked hawkish arms inspector, David Kay, himself declared the preemption policy DOA. This is the primary new policy option the administration has announced to address proliferation threats. The Iraq war weakened the US posture.

Third, Kerry and other Democrats have been proposing all sorts of policies to fight terror and work against proliferation (like spending a lot more money on Nunn-Lugar to protect former Soviet arms stocks). They oppose the unilateralist and inflammatory policy pursued by the Bush administration.

In other words, Democrats primarily disagree with the administration about the means to fight the war on terror, not so much about the ends. It is absolutely false to try to frame the national security debate as if Democrats don't care about these issues. They do care a great deal, but they often have different tools in mind.

Of course, many Democrats, including Kerry, think the administration has exaggerated the threats to build public support for its "war on terror." It's pretty clear that the threat from Iraq was exaggerated, including the alleged link to al Qaeda.

Numerous people in the national security establishment (the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, the think tanks) essentially agree with Kerry about the Bush administration's views of many of these threats. Indeed, the Wesley Clark/James Webb view might represent a plurality opinion -- Iraq was a distraction from the real war on terror.

That doesn't mean that everyone doesn't also agree with ElBaradei about the importance of proliferation.

In sum, neither the Kerry position on the war nor his position on terror are inconsistent. Terrorism and proliferation are worrisome, but other issues matter too and the administration has inflated threats (and arguably had political reasons for doing so). Kerry and the Democrats have advanced many worthwhile ideas about strengthening multilateral cooperation and targeting higher priority concerns.

By way of contrast, do the Republicans have careful plans to insure the 40 million who lack health insurance? Do they have an economic idea other than making permanent the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans?

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