that perhaps the most reasonable statement by John Kerry, as reported in yesterday’s remarkable New York Times Magazine piece, is the one that will used to batter him. On the issue of terrorism, Kerry stated that “we have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.” I don’t understand Kerry to be saying that we should give terrorism the same type and limited level of attention we gave it pre-9/11; rather I think he was providing a realistic, though tone-deaf, assessment of what it is possible to achieve in the war on terror. Like Kerry, I don’t expect that we will ever succeed in eliminating terrorism. I doubt whether President Bush believes we will ever do so either; this is probably what he had in mind earlier this year when he expressed skepticism about winning the war on terrorism.
Kerry obviously (and perhaps tellingly) blundered when he compared terrorism to prostitution and illegal gambling, though these are also things that can’t be stamped out completely. A better analogy (though still an impolitic one) would have been traffic fatalities. As it happens, my old Dartmouth roommate and CIA anti-terrorism point man Paul Pillar has used this analogy. Each year many people die as a result of automobile accidents. That will always be the case. Similarly, under the best of circumstances, I expect that people, including some Americans, will die each year as the result of acts of terrorism around the world. If we use the correct approach to combating terrorism, for example bringing about regime change in states that have the potential and the propensity to give terrorists what they need to commit mass terror, it is realistic to think that the number can be kept small. Anything better than that is probably beyond our reach.
What appalled me most about Kerry’s exchanges with the New York Timesman was his statement that September 11 “didn’t change me much at all,” but merely “sort of accelerated, confirmed in me, the urgency of doing the things I thought we needed to be doing.” What things? ”We need to engage more directly and more respectfully with Islam, with the state of Islam, with religious leaders, mullahs, imams, clerics, in a way that proves this is not a clash with the British and the Americans and the old forces they remember from the colonial days. And that’s all about your diplomacy. . . .A new presidency with the right moves, the right language, the right outreach, the right initiatives, can dramatically alter the world’s perception of us very, very quickly.”
In this passage Kerry is simultaneously (a) blaming American colonialism (or the inability to disassociate ourselves from the colonialist past of the British) for the heightened threat posed by terrorism, (b) claiming that we can end that level of threat through language, outreach, and diplomatic initiatives, and (c) admitting that even an event like 9/11 was insufficient to shake this Carteresque mentality. Irony aside, then, it matters little to me which excerpt from the Times piece the Bush campaign selects for use in battering Kerry.
UPDATE: Few batter more effectively than Rudy Giuliani. Here he uses Kerry’s “nuisance” remark to excellent effect.
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