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Will George

Bad News for Kerry

By George F. Will
Thursday, September 9, 2004; Page A27

After two testosterone-charged conventions, try to remember that three years ago there was much talk about the "feminization" of politics. The change since Sept. 11 explains the bind John Kerry is in and why he, more than George W. Bush, is hostage to events.

The idea, current then, that "the end of history" had arrived was partly a response to a sense that mankind's elemental economic problem -- mastering growth -- had been solved. Henceforth the tone of politics, even for conservatives of the "compassionate" stripe, would mimic the "caring professions." Everyone would be kinder and gentler, leaving no child behind.

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History had supposedly lost its motor of violent, ideologically driven conflict. That theory turned on the fact of a broad consensus that modern societies must allocate wealth and opportunity through economic markets and must apportion political power through the markets of multiparty elections.

However, the past three years have been dominated by another fact: A violent, metastasizing minority rejects, root and branch, the idea that modernity is desirable. Islamic radicals taking up the cause of Chechen separatism are the latest dissenters to be heard from.

The atrocity at School No. 1 in Beslan, Russia -- the worst act of terrorism since Sept. 11 -- was one episode in Russia's 150-year struggle with Chechen separatists and involved a political "perfect storm," the convergence of nationalism, ethnicity and religion. This is redundant refutation of what Pat Moynihan called the "liberal expectancy." That is the belief that nationalism, religion and ethnicity would be of steadily diminishing importance because of the inexorable advance of modernity -- education, science, secularism, prosperity.

The Bush administration, although in many ways deeply conservative, shares that expectancy. Hence its hopes for democratization of the Middle East.

James W. Ceaser and Daniel DiSalvo, political scientists at the University of Virginia, writing in the fall issue of the Public Interest, argue that what makes Bush's foreign policy distinctive is its attempt to implement an idea. Bush says that "liberty is the design of nature" and that "freedom is the right and the capacity of all mankind." Ceaser and DiSalvo say that not since Lincoln has the Republicans' leader "so actively sought to ground the party in a politics of natural right."

Kerry is the candidate of the intellectually vain -- of those who, practicing the politics of condescension, consider Bush moronic. But Kerry is unwilling to engage Bush's idea.

Hence he is allowing Bush to have what he wants, a one-issue election. The issue is a conflation of the wars in Iraq and on terrorism in the single subject "security." Kerry is trying, and failing, to pry apart judgments about the two. But even if he succeeds, he continues to deepen the risible incoherence of his still-multiplying positions on Iraq.

In his speech last week to the American Legion convention, Kerry said that in Iraq he, as president, would have done "almost everything differently." The indisputable implication is that if he had been president since 2001, America would be in Iraq.

But when pandering to Iowa's Democratic activists last winter, Kerry placed himself among the "antiwar candidates." More recently he has said that even knowing what we do about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, he would still have voted to authorize force. But on Monday he said Iraq was "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." He has said that "it would be unwise beyond belief" for America "to leave a failed Iraq in its wake" -- and that too few U.S. troops are there. But he has also said that he will bring some of them home -- "where they belong" -- in his first term. Then he said in his first year. Then in his first six months.

The New Republic, which supports him, says his position, which had been "inscrutable," is now "indefensible." He represents a party whose activists detest the war in Iraq, so he dwells on his participation in the Vietnam War, which those activists detested then or have learned to detest through liberalism's catechism. And having made a hash of his thoughts on the most serious subject, his speeches about the outsourcing of jobs appear, grotesquely incongruous, on newspaper pages carrying photographs of the broken bodies from School No. 1.

Almost any good news, about the economy or war, will help Bush. And the most likely bad news, about the war, is apt to hurt Kerry in two ways. It will make his preferred domestic policy issues seem minor and will reinforce Bush's theme that he is the candidate most focused on and muscular about the world's multiplying dangers.

georgewill@washpost.com


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