AS A PRESIDENTIAL candidate, John Kerry has become something of a lunch-pail populist. He rails against corporate “special interests,” demands expanded health care coverage, and defends middle-class tax cuts. Thanks in part to his murky position on the Iraq war, Kerry favors the safe harbor of domestic issues to the rough shoals of national security and foreign affairs.
That’s ironic. Because Kerry—shaped as he is by Vietnam—has always been, at heart, a foreign policy man. From the day he arrived in Washington, Kerry aimed to be a senator-statesman. He quickly landed spots on the Select Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees, traveled abroad extensively, and spent hundreds of hours studying esoteric foreign troubles. In a way, all of this speaks well of a man so often accused of pandering. Until 2001, after all, few people cared about such hot foreign affairs topics as NATO expansion. As The Boston Globe magazine noted in 1996, “Kerry has devoted much of his career to foreign-policy issues ... that rarely influence voters.”
And yet, as his Iraq agonies have shown, Kerry’s precise views about the world remain cloudy. But one trove of clues may be found in The New War, a book he published to little notice in 1997. Like Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance, Kerry’s book is a wide-ranging, often pedantic tour of impending global catastrophe (complete with grandiose literary references to Yeats, Thoreau, and Shelley). Ordinarily, this unremarkable, out-of-print tome would be quickly forgotten. But Kerry and his supporters are now citing it as evidence of the senator’s prescient vision of the coming war on terrorism. When asked on Fox News last weekend about his anti-terrorism record, Kerry quickly invoked The New War: “[I]n that book,...I wrote about how we needed to strengthen our ability to be able to fight international criminal crime, including terror....I said, four years before New York, it’ll take one megaterrorist event in one of our cities to change life as we know it in America. I think we deserve a president who does see ahead.”
Kerry must be assuming no one will go back and actually read his manifesto, because his description of it is awfully selective. Yes, Kerry briefly considered the possibility of a terrorist catastrophe on American soil. But The New War was almost entirely focused on the threat of global crime—not terrorism. If the future Kerry predicted really had arrived, we’d currently be locked in a vicious cyberwar with CD-pirating Japanese yakuza, Chinese kidney-traders, and Italian mobsters—not hunting Islamic fundamentalists potentially armed with weapons of mass destruction.
It is, of course, true that almost no one predicted a September 11-like attack, and few correctly identified Islamic terrorists as the chief post-cold-war security threat to the United States. But the ways in which The New War missed the mark are nevertheless revealing. They show the extent to which Kerry was influenced by the criminal investigations of his early Senate career, his preference for viewing post-cold-war security more as a matter for law enforcement than the military, and his tendency to describe problems ad nauseam without offering a clear and bold course of action.
PROFILES OF KERRY tend to skip over the freelance investigations he conducted into drug-running and money-laundering in Central America in the 1980s. But they were some of the most interesting and important work of his Senate career. Soon after coming to Washington in 1985, Kerry started to get tips about shady arms-dealers tied to Nicaragua’s Reagan-backed Contra rebels. Kerry opened a probe that led him to Oliver North’s covert operations and ultimately revealed that the CIA had turned a blind eye to drug-trafficking in the region— reinforcing his sense, acquired in Vietnam, that the U.S. foreign policy establishment was often corrupt. (“Our covert agencies have converted themselves to channels for drugs,” Kerry raged in 1987.) Kerry’s probing led him down other paths as well: first to the major drug-trafficking operations of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and then to money-laundering at the now-infamous Bank of Credit and Commerce International. It was these inquiries that formed the basis of The New War, which Kerry called “an attempt to bring together that decade of work into an understandable whole.”
Despite Kerry’s current spin that his book was a premonition of September 11-style terrorism, The New War reveals a man concerned mainly about crime, not warfare. Kerry even argues that “[t]he damage done by international crime is rarely as specific and dramatic as that of a terrorist attack, but in fact it is greater.” Hence, the book’s ominous central theme: that “powerful new criminal enterprises threaten the stability of whole nations and challenge our standards of civilization.” For just under 200 pages, Kerry describes how chaos in post-Soviet Russia, market expansion in China, drug wars in Central America, and other forces were breeding new super-criminal groups—the most fearsome being the Italian and Russian mafias, the mob-like yakuza, the Columbian drug cartels, and the felonious Chinese “triads.” These groups, Kerry wrote, were growing ever-more skilled at buying off government leaders, smuggling drugs, running arms, and committing high-tech fraud and theft.
Unlike some conservatives at the time, who sought to pump up China as a new cold-war-style rival, Kerry didn’t single out other nations as rising foes. He astutely realized that any “new war” would likely be waged by nonstate actors unconstrained by international borders. Yet he failed to acknowledge even the possibility that those threats could be military. That view showed in the positions Kerry took in the mid-’90s, questioning the size of America’s defense and intelligence budgets—positions that may also stem from his innate suspicion of the covert military and CIA operatives best-suited to fight terrorists (the sort of people Kerry exposed in his Central American investigations and who committed some heinous acts in Vietnam).
Kerry probably kicks himself for it today, but in 1997 he apparently didn’t have much to say about Islamic fundamentalism. The name Osama bin Laden does not appear in The New War, even though, by the time Kerry wrote his book, bin Laden had become a notorious figure (as evidenced by an August 1996 New York Times front-pager identifying bin Laden as a frightening anti-American terrorist with ties to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing). To be sure, few people were paying as much attention to bin Laden in the ‘90s as they should have been. And other experts were warning at the time that, as Kerry quotes former CIA director James Woolsey saying, “international organized crime ... [has] become a matter of national security.”
BUT, RATHER THAN write off his bad predictions, Kerry now exaggerates his book’s foresight. On Fox News, he boasted of having dedicated a chapter to “The Globalization of Terror” and of predicting that “one mega-terrorist event in any of the great cities of the world [will] change the world in a single day.” Indeed, he did. Kerry also, to his credit, accurately identified the danger posed by “loose nukes” in the former Soviet Union and all but predicted that “the Big One”—a terrorist nuke in a major city—is inevitable.
But, after issuing such dire warnings, The New War never offers anything like a proportional response. Kerry offers plenty of lofty talk about sacrifice and hardship—“The nations of the earth that stand for the rule of civilized law must be willing to make sacrifices if that law is to endure”—but his prescriptions tend to be bromides for international cooperation, like his call for “an entirely new, multilateral code of behavior" consisting of “nothing less than a full and deliberate commitment by every legitimate government to making the rule of civilized law the dominant force on the planet.” Other ideas are either vague or small-bore: investments in new law enforcement technologies, closer regulation of international finance, the addition of 1,000 FBI agents overseas, and a new “global law enforcement” agreement that would allow countries to better cooperate.
What’s missing are substantive specifics. There is no call for more funding for global nonproliferation initiatives, such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, begun in 1991 and aimed at securing the loose nukes that worried him, or for cracking down on proliferator governments.Kerry has little to say about the role of U.S. intelligence agencies. Nor does he once consider whether “the new war” might require some new role for the U.S. military. Perhaps worst of all is the odd note on which he closes—a call for repairing America’s domestic health through after-school programs, health care for all, and early-childhood intervention. Those programs, Kerry writes, “will enable us to make peace in our own country and contribute to it elsewhere.” After reading that Manhattan is likely to be nuked someday, a reader can be forgiven for expecting more.
It’s unfair to castigate Kerry for not predicting the future. But it’s not unfair to look at his past work for clues into his present worldview, particularly given how mushy it has seemed over the past couple of years. And you can bet that, should Kerry be the Democratic nominee this fall, the Bush team will pummel him for waffling about what role force must play in defending the United States. Indeed, Republicans are already hammering his efforts to cut intelligence spending in the ‘90s. Unfortunately, The New War may give them even more ammunition.
This article appeared in the February 9, 2004 issue of the magazine.