John Kerry's hypocritical attack on Howard Dean.

John Kerry's hypocritical attack on Howard Dean.

John Kerry's hypocritical attack on Howard Dean.

Politics and policy.
April 29 2003 4:31 PM

Military Malpractice

John Kerry's hypocritical attack on Howard Dean.

Kerry, not always a military man
Kerry, not always a military man

The doctor-soldier war is on.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Vermont Gov. Howard Dean is the only doctor in the 2004 Democratic presidential field. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is the only former soldier. When the candidates debate health care or abortion rights, Dean loves to flash his medical credentials. His posters proclaim, "The doctor is in." On issue after issue, he derides Kerry's waffling. In New Hampshire, he's surged into a virtual dead heat with Kerry.

Now Kerry gets a chance to turn the tables. Time's Karen Tumulty reports that two weeks ago in New Hampshire, Dean "suggested that America should be planning for a time when it is not the world's greatest superpower." Dean's exact words were, "We won't always have the strongest military."

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Oops! That's a political no-no. Doctors understand mortality, but they don't understand that conceding the mortality of American military supremacy is politically verboten. The Kerry campaign pounced on Dean's gaffe, arguing that when it comes to national security, the soldier is in, and the doctor is way, way out. Dean's statement "raises serious questions about his capacity to serve as Commander-in-Chief. No serious candidate for the Presidency has ever before suggested that he would compromise or tolerate an erosion of America's military supremacy," charged Chris Lehane, Kerry's communications director. "A President Kerry, who will bring the perspective of having served on the frontlines … will guarantee that America has the strongest, best trained, most well-quipped military in history."

The political logic of Kerry's attack is obvious. Dean is the only candidate with momentum and excitement, and he's the only big threat to Kerry in New Hampshire. Discredit Dean, win New Hampshire, and nobody else has the gas to pass Kerry.

But does Kerry's attack make sense on the merits? Not unless he's willing to disqualify himself as well.

On May 19, 1994, five years after Tiananmen Square, Kerry spoke on the Senate floor against linking China's Most Favored Nation trade status to its human rights record. To link the two issues was to ignore "the realities of 1994. It ignores China's power and potential, China's role as a regional and international actor, and our need to have a viable relationship with China," said Kerry. "China accounts for 20 percent of the world's population. Its economy is the fastest growing in the world. … China is a country on the march, a country whose power and influence will grow not only in Asia but in the world at large."

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The fastest growing economy in the world? Expanding power in the world at large? Was Kerry tolerating an erosion of America's supremacy?

"China is the strongest military power in Asia," Kerry continued. "We need China's cooperation. We cannot afford to adopt a cold-war kind of policy that merely excludes and pushes China away." Limiting China's MFN status "would make us a bit player in a production of enormous proportions," he warned. "We possess no stick, including MFN, which can force China to embrace internationally recognized human rights and freedoms. We can encourage, we can cajole, we can entreat, we can embarrass the rulers in Beijing but we cannot compel."

Strongest military power? Bit player? Cajole? Entreat? "We possess no stick"?

OK, so that was nine years ago. Has Kerry grown more bullish since then? Not a bit. Outlining his foreign policy views in January, he warned, "In a world growing more, not less interdependent, unilateralism is a formula for isolation and shrinking influence."

Interdependence? Shrinking influence? Are these the words of a defeatist?

Of course not. Kerry wasn't "compromising" or "tolerating" the decline of American power. He was simply describing trends. China has five times our population. Its economy is growing faster than ours. Every empire in the history of the world has eventually lost its supremacy. You don't have to like it. You just have to face facts, or at least prepare for the worst. Good doctors do it all the time.

So do good soldiers. In a USA Today interview on Dean's remark, Lehane said  it's "surprising and eye-opening to see a major candidate for president even ponder the possibility of not having the strongest military in the world." How do you like that? John Kerry's spokesman thinks it's irresponsible for a presidential candidate to "even ponder the possibility" of losing our pre-eminence. That kind of rosy dogmatism may not be good medicine or good soldiering, but it sure is good politics.