Overall, I thought that John Kerry gave an excellent acceptance speech last night
. He hit the important notes he needed to hit, and most importantly, conveyed a personal impression of who he is as a man. That's important because most Americans see President Bush as a likable guy they could drink a beer with, as opposed to Sen. Kerry, who's a bit off-putting and distant. Alexandra and Vanessa Kerry did a great job of laying the foundation for this effort to humanize Sen. Kerry, and I think the speech succeeded here.
Nonetheless, I was a little disappointed by the speech on the national security issues. The single most important national security issue facing America today is intelligence reform. On this issue, Sen. Kerry played hard to get. He said we need to reform intelligence, and to ensure that intelligence shapes policy -- not the other way around. But there weren't a lot of specifics:
"As president, I will ask the hard questions and demand hard evidence. I will immediately reform the intelligence system so policy is guided by facts, and facts are never distorted by politics. And as president, I will bring back this nation's time-honored tradition: The United States of America never goes to war because we want to, we only go to war because we have to. That is the standard of our nation."
Undoubtedly, this lack of specificity was intentional. Sen. Kerry is likely still looking for the right solution to reform America's intel community. It might be the creation of a Director of National Intelligence; it might be the creation of a domestic intel agency (like Britain's MI5). It might be something else. Still, this was Sen. Kerry's great moment in the spotlight to say something on this issue, and he didn't use the opportunity. So I was a bit disappointed. Hopefully he puts forward some ideas in this area soon, because I think this is one area where the American people both want and need good ideas. What would I do?
I'd get out in front on a few of the main pieces of reform suggested by the 9/11 Commission, e.g. appointing a national intelligence director or beefing up U.S. HUMINT capabilities. If I were Kerry's team, I'd appropriate those issues ASAP and make them a central part of the campaign -- and hammer home the fact that President Bush has not acted on intelligence reform in the nearly 3 years since 9/11. (I don't count the creation of the TTIC at CIA, because that's a relatively minor organizational change.)
In another part of his speech, Sen. Kerry talked about his pledge only wage war when America must; not when America wants to. I think this played well. Sen. Kerry also expressed his intent to give the U.S. military what it needs to succeed in the global war on terrorism, specifically, more troops. Here, I think the swift boat captain may have run aground, according to this transcript from the Washington Post
"Let there be no mistake: I will never hesitate to use force when it is required. Any attack will be met with a swift and a certain response.
"I will never give any nation or any institution a veto over our national security.
"And I will build a stronger military. We will add 40,000 active duty troops, not in Iraq, but to strengthen American forces that are now overstretched, overextended and under pressure.
"We will double our Special Forces to conduct terrorist operations, anti-terrorist operations, and we will provide our troops with the newest weapons and technology to save their lives and win the battle. And we will end the backdoor draft of the National Guard and reservists.
Sen. Kerry fumbled the words when talking about Special Forces and what roles they would play, saying they would "conduct terrorist operations... err... anti-terrorist operations." Clearly, the guy was under stress. But c'mon... that's fundamental. Plus, as a technical matter, anti
-terrorist operations are defensive -- SF units typically conduct counter
-terrorist operations, which are offensive in nature. "Combatting terrorism" is the term of art to refer to both.
Anyway, that's nitpicking. The real issue is this: can we double the size of America's special operations forces while retaining their qualitative edge? I'm not so sure. The reason why our SOF do so well in places like Afghanistan and the Philippines is because of their experience, tough training, tough selection, and rigorous Darwinian ethic. Given the current size of the military, there is a limit to the size of the special forces if we want to retain this elite level of quality. There may be room for expansion, and there may be room for some direct recruiting of soldiers for things like civil affairs and psyops. But I'm not sure that we can boost the ranks of the Green Berets, SEALs and other SF units with the kind of speed and largess that Sen. Kerry suggests. Doing so will require a ramping up of recruiting efforts, retention efforts, and the institutional training base for the production of special operations soldiers. The latter will be the most difficult, because the current training systems (e.g. U.S. Army's Special Forces Qualification Course, or "Q" course) are only capable of a certain throughput. Requiring these systems to produce too many special ops soldiers, too quickly, may do irreparable harm to the quality of special operations forces -- turning them into non-elite forces with special jobs, instead of the elite soldiers and units they are today.
Finally, there were the innumerable mentions of Sen. Kerry's war record, and the extraordinary prominence of veterans at the Democratic National Convention. Truly, this event was the apotheosis of the veteran in American politics
. Historically, military service has played a role in establishing the credentials of politicians and citizens to participate in the political process. While not as extreme as the requirement in Robert Heinlein's famous "Starship Troopers" (you don't get to vote unless you serve in uniform), American voters have historically imposed some requirement for service on their commanders in chief. The exception, of course, was Bill Clinton, who defeated two WWII heroes in order to win the White House in 1992 and 1996. But our nation was not at war then, and it is today. I believe that the character of a candidate's military service remains relevant
to the issue of a president's fitness for leadership. And so while I thought it was important for Sen. Kerry to include this stuff, I think he may have gone a bit overboard.
Comments like these:
"I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty.
* * *
"And in this journey, I am accompanied by an extraordinary band of brothers led by that American hero, a patriot called Max Cleland.
"Our band of brothers...
"Our band of brothers doesn't march together because of who we are as veterans, but because of what we learned as soldiers.
"We fought for this nation because we loved it, and we came back with the deep belief that every day is extra. We may be a little older, we may be a little grayer, but we still know how to fight for our country.
* * *
"I know what kids go through when they are carrying...
"I know what kids go through when they're carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place, and they can't tell friend from foe. I know what they go through when they're out on patrol at night and they don't know what's coming around the next bend. I know what it's like to write letters home telling your family that everything's all right, when you're not sure that that's true.
"As president, I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war. Before you go to battle, you have to be able to look a parent in the eye and truthfully say, "I tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm's way, but we had no choice...
"... we had to protect the American people, fundamental American values against a threat that was real and imminent."
... are good, because they connect Sen. Kerry's youthful military credentials with the way that he will act as an American President. It's not enough that he was a brave, intelligent junior Navy officer -- not every brave and intelligent junior Navy officer is fit to become President. Sen. Kerry had to show that his military service was somehow relevant to the way he would lead this country as President, and that it will make him a better President than the current one. (Kerry never said a word about President Bush's service record, although the implied attacks against it were clear to me.) I think that Sen. Kerry made this point, but maybe pushed it a little too far.
Maybe that's necessary, because of the nature of elective politics and the need to drive home a message over and over again. No one ever criticized President Reagan for overusing the "morning in America" or "city on a hill" themes too much, or for overplaying to American patriotism, and perhaps this is a vein that needs to be tapped deeply in order to work. Certainly, the veteran symbolism will help Sen. Kerry win over "red" state and "blue" state voters who are still uncomfortable with Democrats on issues of national security. But I have this feeling (speaking as a veteran) that there has to be something more in order for Sen. Kerry to win on national security, because sterling veteran credentials alone won't do it.
Anyway, that's my armchair analysis from out here in California. I think it was an exceptionally strong speech, and that it met the expectations for the night. But to win, I think Sen. Kerry will have to take these issues to the next level. More to follow...