Last week, Matt Stoller emailed me this Washington Monthly piece written by former JFK aide Theodore Sorensen, suggesting it would be a good starting point for assessing what the country ought to do in recovering from the Bush legacy, a principal subject of my current book, A Tragic Legacy. Sorensen was asked by the editors to draft the ideal DNC acceptance speech for the generic 2008 Democratic presidential nominee, with the specific goal of "form[ing] a new vision for America and to reestablish its moral leadership in the world."
As Matt suggested, Sorensen's draft speech does illustrate the challenges the country faces in 2008, but its value lies more in its shortcomings than in what it achieves. Sorensen, like so many modern Democratic politicians, pays impressive lip service to the need to "debate the most serious issues facing the country," and "seek a renewal of unity among all Americans." But, as so many of them -- most -- do, he shies away from challenging the unexamined premises responsible for so much of the disasters over the last six years. Instead, likely due to the fear that doing otherwise is too politically risky, he re-affirms many of the core premises that have led our country so astray.
|The bulk of Sorensen's message -- echoed by much of the Democratic political leadership -- is captured by this proclamation:
We remain essentially a nation under siege. The threat of another terrorist attack upon our homeland has not been reduced by all the new layers of porous bureaucracy that proved their ineptitude in New Orleans; nor by all the needless, mindless curbs on our personal liberties and privacy; nor by expensive new weaponry that is utterly useless in stopping a fanatic willing to blow himself up for his cause.
He then proceeds to build much of his speech around the threat of Islamic terrorism and the reason why the Democratic nominee will be able to protect Americans from it. It is all shrouded in the "Democrats-will-crush-the-terrorists-too" theme that marks the outer limits of mainstream Democratic foreign policy rhetoric.
The United States is not a "nation under siege." That is a ludicrously melodramatic description of the terrorist threat and it is precisely the failure to challenge such fear-mongering sloganeering that has enabled so many of the destructive policies of the last six years. Any political figure who is authentically interested in the type of real debate which Sorensen touts will challenge, not bolster, this misleading premise. More importantly, a genuine debate regarding how to recover from the last six years (soon to be "last eight years") will require a fundamental re-examination of America's role in the world and, most of all, whether we want to continue to maintain imperial dominance. Contrary to conventional Beltway fears, this is plainly a debate which the American public is not only willing, but eager, to engage.
In touting Sorensen as the right person to draft this speech, The Washington Monthly pointed to JKF's 1960 DNC acceptance speech, which Sorensen helped draft. But last week, historian Ted Widmer, in The Boston Globe, examined a far more extraordinary and significant JKF speech, one that Kennedy delivered in 1957 and which "proved himself a serious foreign-policy thinker, and a most viable candidate for the highest office in the land."
The crux of Kennedy's speech was a direct challenge to the core imperialistic premises of American foreign policy, and specifically our belief that war-making could secure America's interests around the world. Delivered at the height of the Cold War, the speech "questioned nearly all of the assumptions of American foreign policy and delved deeply into a hot-button topic that no one wanted to talk about," and the reaction was exactly what one would expect, at least initially:
He was instantly denounced by the White House, the State Department, American allies, and the press. But the speech eventually won him admirers around the world, and brought him that much closer to his party's nomination for president.
Kennedy's speech was so provocative --and so insightful -- because it held up the brutal and futile French occupation of Muslim Algeria as a warning of the limits of U.S. military power and the hubris and immorality of believing that we can or should use our superior military force to dictate the behavior of other countries. I'm quoting Widmer's analysis at length because of its central relevance to our most pressing political challenges today:
Most politicians, then as now, preferred to stick close to safe and popular utterances. Kennedy went straight into the hornet's nest of Arab discontent with the West in a speech that anticipated many of the problems faced today. It rejected the tired "us vs. them" structure of Cold War thinking; it criticized the military option as a clumsy tool of foreign policy, and it suggested that real advocates of "freedom" were just as likely to be opposed to Western intervention as they were to Communist takeovers. . . .
But he continued with a provocative thought -- that "imperialism" was the chief foe of freedom, and that the Western form of imperialism was very nearly as bad as the Soviet version. . . . Many of his attacks on France, in fact, appeared to be attacks on US policy as well. Not only was France suppressing the natural desire of a people to become free, but it was also diverting NATO resources to a distant theater. By providing military hardware and preventing the issue from being fully discussed in the UN, the United States was in effect complicit in France's behavior.
The result, Kennedy argued, was a rapidly rising anger in the Islamic world at the hypocrisy of Western nations that claim to admire freedom but interfere when other peoples try to claim it for themselves. By ignoring this anger, and indeed perpetuating it, the United States was losing its standing "in the eyes of the free world."
He loathed the idea of dismissing as terrorists or Communists those who were fighting for their sovereignty, and added that "most political revolutions -- including our own -- have been buoyed by outside aid in men, weapons and ideas" . . .
Some felt that Kennedy had weakened NATO by criticizing France; others were worried that he had broken the taboo against partisan criticism of US foreign policy. Adlai Stevenson, the erstwhile Democratic candidate for president, criticized the speech, and Truman's Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, dismissed it as a juvenile's "impatient snapping of the fingers." Acheson felt that a French retreat from Algeria would lead to "chaos" -- not the last time that argument would be used. The speech was widely covered, and brought more mail to Kennedy's office than any Senate speech he ever gave. . .
Many politicians hate to change course, for fear they will appear inconsistent. But change is growth, and the courage to think anew, as Lincoln once put it, will never go out of fashion. Having finished "Profiles in Courage," Kennedy lived up to the spirit of his book by sailing against the prevailing winds of 1957. His real candidacy may have begun at precisely that moment.
Another Massachusetts native, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote, "A chief event of life is the day in which we have encountered a mind that startled us." For many Americans, that day came 50 years ago.
That is the type of political leadership and willingness to challenge and defy prevailing orthodoxies that is required if we are truly to reverse course and begin recovering from what Sorensen calls "eight years of misrule, a dark and difficult period in which our national honor and pride have been bruised and battered." Political leaders who continue to affirm the central premises that have governed our country's actions in the world over the last six years -- beginning with the notion that we are "a nation under siege" -- will achieve nothing other than status-quo caretaking.
The profound shift in public opinion during the Bush presidency conclusively reveals that Americans have once again discovered the limits of our military power and the grave costs of attempting to rule the world through imperial dominance. Polls continuously show a marked increase in opposition among Americans to military adventurism. At the height of the Israeli-Hezbollah war last August, a Washington Post poll found that an overwhelming majority (59-38%) would oppose the use of U.S. troops even as part of a U.N. peacekeeping force. And this bulging anti-imperial sentiment is growing despite the lack of any real political leader making the case that America's role in the world must be fundamentally re-examined, and despite the concerted efforts of U.S. militarists and assorted neocons to render these issues off-limits on a bipartisan basis. Americans have reached these conclusions on their own.
In addition to all the other warranted criticisms of our conduct in the world over the last six years, the course we have embarked upon is completely unsustainable. By all accounts, we lack sufficient numbers of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, two wars we are arguably losing, even as we threaten new conflicts. Our military spending, generally and on those wars, is so exorbitant that we are buried by debt, dependent upon China for our economic survival. And at least thus far, every major (viable) presidential candidate believes that we ought to expand our military spending -- already greater than the total spending of all other countries combined -- further still. And each tacitly assumes that we have "vital interests" in the Middle East, encompassing Iran, which require our military domination of that region. An expanded military is a virtual guarantee of greater military commitments.
One of the least under-appreciated political facts is just how much distance there is between our contemporary behavior in the world and the behavior envisionsed by the country's Founders. They were so afraid of a militarized society that they barred Congress from appropriating money for an army "for a longer term than two years." George Washington's Farewell Address urgently warns of the dangers of virtually everything we have become in the world. A society devoted to endless warfare, or even just military domination of the world, not only inevitably destroys its standing in the world, but also corrupts its own national values and degrades liberty at home.
That is the story of the last six years, and that is the debate America needs desperately to have. Imperial overstrech does not begin to describe our predicament. A real leader, truly devoted to reversing the disasters of the Bush presidency, will challenge these orthodoxies shaping America's foreign policy and our still-increasing commitment to militarization, not with platitudes but with substantive arguments and authentic, fundamental policy changes.
UPDATE: The wrong link to the Kennedy speech was originally included in this post. Thanks to reader DG, the correct link has now been substituted. The speech can be found here.