Kerry also lauded American values, saying, "I know the power of our ideals. We need to make America once again a beacon in the world. We need to be looked up to and not just feared." But, because he hadn't defined the enemy by reference to its ideas, his statement about American principles lacked context and force. A beacon is also a very different metaphor than a sword. Biden said the "death struggle between freedom and radical fundamentalism ... breached our shores on September 11." Notice the implication: The war against radical Islam began before September 11--in other corners of the globe. Thus, victory requires the United States to play an active role in conflicts within other societies, particularly Muslim ones. Kerry's statement, by contrast, can be read as a call merely for the United States to live out its ideals at home, secure that the world is watching. Indeed, his speech said nothing about promoting democracy in Iraq or anywhere else.
By defining America's war less expansively, Kerry implicitly asked less of the American people. Speaking about Iraq, he said, "We need a president who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, reduce the cost to American taxpayers, and reduce the risk to American soldiers. That's the right way to get the job done and bring our troops home." But there's a trade-off between "get[ting] the job done" and "bring[ing] our troops home." Kerry could have said we need more foreign troops in Iraq to buttress the existing American ones--and thus achieve the overall number General Eric Shinseki famously said was necessary to secure the country. Instead, he implied that we need foreign troops to replace American ones. The focus wasn't on America and its allies doing more together; it was on America's allies doing more so America can do less.
A few sentences later, Kerry called for adding "forty thousand active-duty troops"--a proposal for which he deserves credit. But he promised that they would be deployed "not in Iraq, but to strengthen American forces that are now overstretched, overextended, and under pressure." America's troops certainly are overstretched. But, given that Iraq has become (whether it should have or not) the war on terrorism's central front, isn't it odd to declare ahead of time that new American troops won't be sent there? Is easing the strain on America's military really more important than making sure Iraq doesn't fall to theocracy or civil war? By calling for a bigger military and a smaller mission, Kerry sounded like George W. Bush in 2000, who tried to win military votes by offering the Armed Forces more money and less to do.
Contrast that with Biden, who said, "When John Kerry is president, our friends and allies will have no excuse to sit on the sidelines." The word "excuse" is significant: Unlike Kerry, Biden didn't lay all the blame for America's estrangement at our door. He implied that the Europeans have failed to fulfill their responsibilities, too. A Kerry administration, he suggested, would change European behavior not only by being more respectful, but also by asking more, not less, of the United States. Biden said Kerry "will inherit a nation and a world that will require him to ask much of us and our allies."
But it's not clear Kerry sees it that way. Nowhere in his speech did he say that America's war will require great public exertion. When Biden evoked September 11, it was to remember that "Americans stood in bloodlines for hours" and to chastise Bush for not channeling that spirit to say, "It's time for all who are able to do something for America." When Kerry evoked September 11, it was simply to remember how "we came together as one." And, while some Democrats have proposed a draft, or at least some kind of mandatory national service, to harness the post-September 11 spirit, Kerry promised merely to "end the backdoor draft of National Guard and reservists."
He also said this: "We shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them down in the United States of America." The implication is that, by rebuilding Iraq, we are robbing the United States; if only we did less overseas, we can have more at home. The firehouse line further suggests the ideological and moral narrowness of the war Kerry intends to fight. After all, if the United States can't afford to fund firehouses in Baghdad, it also can't afford to fund textbooks in Pakistan or Egypt so students there aren't brainwashed in madrassas. Nowhere in Kerry's speech did he say that building security at home means building liberalism abroad--which will require more money and more sacrifice, not less.
At the close of his speech, Kerry asked Americans to imagine "what if" we cure Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. "What if" we provide after-school programs and end discrimination? But he never asked "what if" we help liberate the Middle East--so Muslims can live in freedom and Americans can live in peace. Biden said this generation of Americans "longs to do great things" in the world. But, when it came to the war against radical Islam, Kerry almost implied that great things were not necessary. On Thursday night, he showed the strength to be commander-in-chief. If only he had shown the imagination too.
Peter Beinart is the editor of The New Republic.
By Peter Beinart