Sunday, January 04, 2004

How John Kerry would impact the Middle East
Landon K. Thorne

Of all the Democrats campaigning for the American presidency, John Kerry benefits most from former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s capture. This writer is not unbiased. John Kerry was my brother-in-law, his daughters are my nieces and he is a dear and loyal friend.

Kerry, an early Democrat frontrunner, watched his campaign flounder. He missed the impact of the internet as a tool to jumpstart campaign funding and grass roots support. His campaign became embroiled in a debilitating schism between a hired management team and a group of loyal insiders (including his family). Furthermore, his sophistication and erudition often sounded like unclear double-speak regarding US foreign policy, and particularly the American presence in Iraq. By contrast, rival candidate Howard Dean’s campaign charged into the lead by building an early internet groundswell, and Dean’s succinct (albeit polarizing) anti-war “get out of Iraq now” rhetoric resonated as straightforward. Kerry’s recent campaign reorganization and the capture of Saddam have created a new ballgame.

The images of Saddam had enormous impact on Iraqis and the international community. More significantly, with regard to the US presidential campaign, many Americans now sense an intuitive affirmation that success in Iraq (whatever that might be) is achievable if everyone rolls up their sleeves and gets the job done. Such a mindset may well form a powerful consensus that, combined with a steadily improving economy, will easily earn President George W. Bush a second term. For Democrats, however, the stunning transformation resulting from Saddam’s capture has put Dean on the run. His now seemingly naive Iraq policy will not connect with anyone but the shrillest of naysayers.

How, then, does Kerry position himself as the candidate whom Democrats will send into the fray against Bush? As Kerry sees it, he needs to build a broad national image of stature, patriotism, loyal opposition and professional capability. In a word, he must become the leader of his party while “connecting” with the electorate at a human level. His nearly two decades of service in the US Senate make him one of America’s most experienced political leaders. However, he is not well known or understood outside of the northeastern US.

In private settings, Kerry is hilarious, warm, jocular and fun. He is fiercely loyal to his friends. He rides motorcycles, flies airplanes and enjoys good food and wine. His image problem arises from his tendency to switch into “power mode” when the cameras and microphones show up.

The political road to the nomination will continue to be difficult, and Kerry still has an uphill fight. He must build credibility in the American south and heartland by pushing his experience and wisdom past the simplistic bombast of Dean and the Midwestern, centrist savvy of Congressman Richard Gephardt. Kerry is, nevertheless, a canny politician who more than once has pulled victory rabbits out of political hats. He sees real opportunity in the days ahead.
Domestic issues aside, Kerry’s candidacy has important implications for the future of the Middle East. Win or lose the nomination or the general election this time around, Kerry’s long-term perspective will remain presidential. As a mid-term Senator, or as president, one of his key areas of focus will be durable US policy in the Middle East. Kerry is an internationalist: multilingual, the son of a foreign service officer, a frequent traveler, he views himself as a culturally sensitive, experienced statesman capable of marching across the world stage.

Kerry is no stranger to opening doors and building new platforms of communication and collaboration. During the Clinton administration, he led the delegations that opened proactive diplomatic relations with America’s former enemies in Vietnam. He understands that foreign policy is a complex amalgam of national security, global trade, world finance, crime interdiction, human rights and the fostering of commercially viable democracies that are cast within the cultural fabric of regions and peoples.

In the case of Iraq, Kerry voted to authorize the use of force based on a seemingly credible weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threat, but he voted against the supplemental bill for sustaining the rebuilding of Iraq. Kerry is committed to finishing the job in Iraq but disagrees with fundamental elements of Bush administration policy. He believes funding Iraq’s reconstruction should be significantly offset by rescinding the Bush “feel good” consumer tax cut.

Kerry also believes the coalition must be broadened and a meaningful role given to the UN for civilian administration. He was an early advocate of reengaging key excluded colleague nations, an issue that the Bush administration somewhat pre-empted by recently dispatching the former US secretary of state, James Baker, to European and Asian countries to discuss their forgiving Iraq’s debt. Strategically, Kerry recommends that the Iraqi security forces be given better training, equipment and on-the-job mentoring. Regardless of politics, Kerry will support responsible foreign policy that builds durable relationships based on fairness, reason and trust.

Kerry’s membership in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its International Operations and Terrorism subcommittee is his contribution to the global “war on terrorism.” He knows the struggle is not just about Iraq; it is a battle on a worldwide front that involves much more than military intervention and that certainly must not be cast as a war against Islam or Arabs. It is, simply, a war against those who, for the sake of their niche militancy, would disrupt the well-being and commerce of local innocents and the global fabric at large. Fighting terrorism demands a collegial, non-duplicitous, cohesive effort by a coalition committed to denying terrorists access to banking, conventional arms, WMD and safe harbor for training, planning and executing attacks. This requires statecraft, integrity, fairness and open-mindedness. The war on terror will thus need enlightened leadership that looks far beyond mere politics.

Kerry also understands that American policy in the Middle East must consistently and steadfastly move to a lasting and harmonious resolution of Palestinian self-determination. He also believes that Arabs must reconcile themselves to the United States’ close ties with Israel. Concurrently, he knows that the US must use its unique relationship with Israel to foster meaningful rapprochement with its Arab neighbors. The nations of the region must learn to think of themselves as interdependent parts of a regional security fabric. Rogues of any kind are dangerous to the common good, and every country must sincerely cooperate to rid the region of irresponsible violence.

John Kerry has everything it takes to be an important leader. However, he must find a voice (both literally and figuratively) that will resonate with Americans. In the general election, the incumbent administration may have more control of the core issues important to the national electorate. However, the intra-party campaign in which the Democrats chose their candidate provides a critically important inflection point for Kerry to lead the loyal opposition. Do not count him out. He is the man for the job.

Landon K. Thorne is an American businessman and retired Marine Corps colonel with extensive experience in the Middle East, Southwest Asia and Africa. He wrote this commentary, based on his intimate knowledge of John Kerry’s presidential campaign, for THE DAILY STAR


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