Is Kerry Really More Open than Bush to Alternative Foreign Policy Perspectives?

Some progressive supporters of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry have argued that, despite his support for the invasion of Iraq and other neoconservative-driven foreign policies of the Bush Administration, at least a President Kerry – unlike the incumbent president – would be more willing to listen to the views of those with more moderate perspectives than himself.

A President Kerry, so goes this argument, while likely to take a number of foreign policy positions more hawkish than most Democrats could support, would at least be more open to hearing a number of competing assessments and policy options before choosing military solutions to foreign policy problems.

Unfortunately, while a President Kerry would almost certainly be less ideological and impulsive than President George W. Bush in formulating his foreign policy, there are a number of areas in which the Massachusetts senator appears to be just as unwilling to listen to alternative viewpoints regarding foreign affairs as the incumbent president.

Take Senator Kerry’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example:

Kerry shares the Bush administration’s support for the policies of the rightist Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon. He has defended the Israeli re-occupation of much of the West Bank; Israel’s ongoing violation of a series of UN Security Council resolutions; Sharon’s refusal to even negotiate for a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinian leadership; Israel’s policy of assassinating suspected terrorists and other Palestinian leaders; Sharon’s proposed annexation of vast stretches of occupied Palestinian territory in order to incorporate illegal Jewish settlements into Israel; and, the Israeli government’s construction of an illegal separation wall deep inside occupied territory (in defiance of a recent near-unanimous ruling by the International Court of Justice, which led Kerry to strongly criticize the UN’s judicial body.)

As a result, the Kerry campaign has opened its door wide to right-wing Zionist groups that share his and Bush’s support for the illegal and repressive occupation policies of the current rightist Israeli government, with Kerry and his top foreign policy advisors meeting regularly with their representatives. By contrast, despite numerous efforts by moderate and liberal pro-Israel groups such as the Tikkun Community, Churches for Middle East Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace, and others to meet with the candidate or his leading staffers, the Kerry campaign has completely shut them out.

The sad reality appears to be that Kerry is not interested in even hearing the perspectives of the large and growing numbers of Israel’s American supporters – both Jewish and non-Jewish – who recognize that not only are Sharon’s policies toward the Palestinians illegal and immoral, they threaten Israel’s long-term security interests as well.

Even leading progressive Zionists like Rabbi Michael Lerner – one of America’s foremost intellectuals – have been systematically denied any access to Kerry or the leadership of the campaign.

By contrast, even the hawkish Bill Clinton was appreciative enough of Lerner’s counsel to have invited him personally to the White House on a number of occasions. The Clintons’ respect for Lerner’s 1996 book The Politics of Meaning and other writings was significant enough to lead the press to refer to the rabbi as President Clinton’s “spiritual advisor.”

(For more than six months, I have personally attempted, through both established channels and back channels, to secure a meeting between a group of anti-Sharon but pro-Israel intellectuals – including myself, Rabbi Lerner, Cornell West (the noted African-American studies professor at Princeton University), and Susannah Herschel (director of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College), among others – with either Senator Kerry or any influential Kerry staffer knowledgeable of foreign affairs. As with similar efforts by progressive Zionists and others, however, my appeals have been consistently ignored.)

In other words, Kerry and his foreign policy team apparently have no desire to even listen to those who may have an alternative perspective to the Democratic nominee’s strident support for the right-wing pro-Likud agenda.

And taking such neoconservative views does not help Kerry’s election chances: Public opinion polls show that the views of the majority of American Jews are far closer to Lerner’s than they are to Sharon’s.

Kerry, unfortunately, appears to be just as unwilling to consider alternative perspectives on Iraq as he does Israel-Palestine.

The Democratic presidential nominee refused to challenge, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Bush Administration’s claims in 2002 and early 2003 that Iraq was such a serious and growing threat to American national security that it required a pre-emptive U.S. invasion to overthrow the Iraqi government and replace it with one more to our liking.

In the lead-up to the October 2002 Congressional vote authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Kerry steadfastly refused to listen to numerous appeals by independent strategic analysts, former UN inspectors, independent arms control experts, former State Department officials, retired military officers, and others who insisted that Iraq was not a threat to the United States and that it was a bad idea to grant President Bush the authority to invade Iraq at whatever time and under whatever conditions he chose.

Kerry was also given documentation from the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as articles from well-respected arms control journals and other sources, demonstrating that Iraq’s nuclear program had been totally eliminated some years earlier and that – as a result of the strict sanctions regime then in place for the previous twelve years – it would have been virtually impossible for Iraq to reconstitute its program any time in the foreseeable future.

(I understand that a number of my analyses on Iraq published by the Foreign Policy in Focus Project in the spring and summer of 2002 were passed on to the senator and his foreign policy staff. In these non-technical briefs, I raised serious questions as to whether Iraq actually still had any remaining functional weapons of mass destruction, ongoing WMD programs, or workable delivery systems that could threaten its neighbors, let alone the United States.)

Despite this, Kerry stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate that October to defend President Bush’s wild assertions of an imminent Iraqi threat, not only claiming categorically that “Iraq has chemical and biological weapons” and that most of their programs were “larger and more advanced than they were before the Gulf War,” but that “all U.S. intelligence experts agree” that Iraq was “attempting to develop nuclear weapons.”

During that summer, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on Iraq’s alleged military threat for which only witnesses who would claim that Iraq was somehow a danger to U.S. national security were invited. Kerry – one of the senior Democrats on the committee – ignored thousands of phone calls and emails encouraging him to use his influence to invite experts who would challenge the neocons’ claims that Iraq had a dangerous and growing stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and sophisticated delivery systems.

It appears, then, that Senator Kerry, no less than President Bush, simply did not want dissenting views to be heard.

Similarly, scores of copies of my September 30 cover story in The Nation magazine “The Case against War with Iraq” were sent to Kerry’s office. A number of copies were personally placed in the hands of his foreign policy staff and even the senator himself. In that article, I predicted that “a US invasion could leave American forces effectively alone attempting to enforce a peace amid the chaos of a post-Saddam Iraq,” and that the United States could find itself stuck in a “bloody counterinsurgency war” against “ongoing guerrilla action by Saddam Hussein’s supporters” as well as by various Sunni and Shiite factions.

Still, just two weeks later, Kerry voted in favor of a resolution granting unprecedented war-making authority to a fraudulently-elected, right-wing, semi-literate, religious fundamentalist president in order for him to lead a U.S. takeover of that oil-rich country.

Despite the denials of his supporters, Kerry either knew or refused ample opportunity to learn that Iraq no longer had any weapons of mass destruction, ongoing WMD programs, or delivery systems that seriously threatened other countries.

Similarly, Kerry either knew or refused ample opportunity to learn that a U.S. invasion of Iraq – particularly under the leadership of the Bush Administration – would likely lead U.S. forces into the heart of just the kind of violent chaotic mess they are now in.

Kerry appears to have not learned from his mistakes. One would think that after people like me, former chief UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter, and so many others tried to warn the senator and his staff that the Bush Administration’s case for war was incredibly misleading and the results of a U.S. invasion of Iraq would be disastrous we might now be welcomed by Kerry’s team to advise them on how to avoid making such tragic mistakes in the future.

We continue to be completely shut out, however.

Similarly, one would think that Senator Kerry – after noting the total absence of the WMDs, WMD programs and delivery systems that he and the White House insisted Iraq possessed in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion – might be more skeptical of claims by these same neoconservatives within the Bush Administration of alleged strategic threats by Middle Eastern adversaries.

Such an assumption would, unfortunately, be wrong as well:

For example, this past fall, Kerry was one of the Senate co-sponsors of the neoconservative-backed Syria Accountability Act. Among the formal findings in Kerry’s bill justifying its imposition of sanctions and implicit military threats against Syria were alarmist and grossly exaggerated estimates of Syria’s alleged military prowess made by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton. These two leading Bush Administration officials made similarly alarmist and inaccurate estimates about Iraq’s alleged military threat in the lead-up to the war, which had been shown to have been inaccurate well before the final version of Kerry’s anti-Syria bill was introduced. Yet, by deciding to leave these claims in the text of the legislation, Kerry appears to continue to trust the analyses of these neo-conservative ideologues more than he does those of independent non-partisan strategic analysts.

As a result, his pledge during his nomination acceptance speech in Boston this July that he would “ask hard questions and demand hard evidence” on alleged security threats should probably not be trusted.

Similarly, as these examples illustrate, one must be skeptical of claims that Kerry will be more likely to listen to those with more moderate to progressive foreign policy views or even those who just raise skeptical questions about alleged outside threats.

In short, not only does the Democratic presidential nominee share President Bush’s penchant for unilateralism, the undermining of international legal institutions, the support of occupation armies, and the imposition of military solutions to complex political problems, Kerry appears to be decidedly reluctant to even consider reasoned and credible analyses that might challenge militaristic ideological assumptions that the way to defend America’s security interests is through the support of invasion, occupation and repression.

The way to respond to this rather pessimistic analysis, however, is rather straightforward:

We must force John Kerry to listen to other perspectives.

One way to do this would be for millions of Democrats who oppose Kerry’s refusal to hear challenges to right-wing wing foreign policy views to threaten to vote for independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader, Libertarian Party nominee Michael Badnarik, or the nominee of some small leftist party. The risks of losing enough such voters to give Bush a plurality and therefore all the electors in some key states might force Kerry to widen the base of foreign policy advisors and soften his hardline views.

The dangers of such a strategy, however, are obvious.

A second and perhaps more appropriate way would be to support Kerry’s election, but should he be elected in November immediately demand that he appoint to his foreign policy transition team, as well as to key positions in the State Department and the National Security Council, a more diverse group than just those who share his militaristic views regarding the Middle East, human rights, international law, and America’s role in the world. He must also know that any failure to do so will not only result in protests at least as large as those which have challenged the current administration, but an awareness that people of conscience throughout the county will not support his re-election in 2008 unless and until he changes these policies.

Those of us who support human rights and international law and who oppose reckless unilateral military intervention overseas cannot reasonably expect that Kerry will always take positions with which we agree. However, we do have a right to demand that he at least provide people like us the opportunity to share our perspectives and take them into consideration.