Kerry’s Missed Opportunities


John Kerry missed many an opportunity to point out Bush foreign policy and homeland security failures during last evening’s debate at the University of Miami. Kerry missed so many that it’s possible to sort them into three kinds of missteps: (1) failure to more fully cite Bush errors; (2) failure to more fully respond to Bush falsehoods and omissions; and (3) failure to exploit openings due to constraints imposed by his own record. Had Kerry devoted more of his very scarce time to the issues below, and less on flighty stories and prepared script recitation, he would have really trounced George W. Bush-hunched, often incoherent, ill at ease, crude, embarrassing, deceptive, evasive, and generally ridiculous-rather than just rough him up a bit.

A Free Ride

Kerry overlooked numerous grave Bush domestic security and international policy failures, serious lapses in presidential judgment and leadership. There was no sweeping critique of the international lawlessness of this administration, its rogue-state behavior. From the Racism and Xenophobia Conference to the small arms control regime, from the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, this President rejected and obstructed reciprocity, multilateral global governance and the rule of law at every turn.

Is it not material that the band of Project for a New American Century zealots around Donald Rumsfeld called for and planned the invasion of Iraq years prior to 9/11? Did the Democratic candidates’ advisors counsel against mouthing the words “Abu Ghraib”? Was it over the top to describe the still unfolding torture scandal as dragging the flag through the mud? Why can’t the public honor through its attention the nearly 1100 servicemen and women killed in Iraq upon their return home? Kerry did not raise the grim prospects predicted for Iraq by the President’s own National Intelligence Estimate. He tried to pull a Karl Rove on George Bush, to attack where the President is strong-“the war on terror”-so as to undermine the strength, but it didn’t fully come off. He might’ve cited Colin Powell’s own report showing that the number and severity of terrorist attacks around the world is increasing not decreasing. The Senator took a one line pot shot at Halliburton but could’ve elaborated on the ravenous frenzy of dozens of no-bid contractors at the trough.

While gently tipping his hat to the main reason for the US invasion-control of Iraq’s oil-Kerry could’ve followed up by calling for a global initiative for a rapid transition away from reliance on fossil fuels and towards conservation and renewables. Not only would he have pointed up the direct connection between the anachronistic Bush-Cheney energy plan and the war, but he would’ve staked out an issue to which he could return in future debates. An issue around which Kerry could credibly promise to create hundreds of thousands of new, good-paying jobs, improve public health, and make the US a leader again in environmental technology. Standing in South Florida, Kerry fails to directly connect hurricanes, the predicted increase in extreme weather due to climate change, and Bush’s refusal to participate in the Kyoto Protocol?

Kerry doesn’t once mention the Bush administration unprecedented relations with science and analysis? This President’s allergy to scientific knowledge is legendary, and has implications for America’s role in the world. No questioning of the administration’s international commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS? Why not explicitly remind viewers that from September 11, 2001 to February 15, 2003, Bush managed to turn near universal solidarity with the US into ten million marching around the world against the pending invasion of Iraq? Would it have been too low a blow to cite Bush’s opposition to formation of and then testimony before the 9/11 Commission? Isn’t the record high and growing US trade deficit a national security issue? Not a peep about reducing the crushing debt burden of many of the poorest countries, breeding grounds for the violence of the deprived and disenfranchised? No mention of the Democratic Platform’s call for building labor and environmental safeguards into trade agreements? Nor of the vicious cycle of poverty, environmental degradation, and violence in the Global South that has urgent implications for international security. Kerry avoided any criticism of the continued US policy of pushing the corporate domination schemes known as CAFTA and the FTAA. At the risk of overloading Kerry’s quiver, dozens of other arrows-from the barring of academic and cultural visitors to the US, to the crippling of international family planning efforts-lay unused.

What Counterpunching?

Kerry’s set offensive pieces were superior to his defense against predictable Bush lies and distortions. So, for example, he scored when berating the President for failing to secure the country’s ports, chemical plants, and air cargo. And the Democrat was reasonably clear about the dire condition of Afghanistan since its “liberation.” But how could Kerry permit Bush to repeat “wrong time, wrong place, wrong war” over and again without direct challenge? The Senator’s repeated intonation of the President’s failure to “win the peace” in Iraq was an underwhelming response at best. Kerry missed the chance to point up the Bush administration’s curious lack of interest in the details of A.Q. Khan’s worldwide nuclear materials smuggling operation, the single greatest private proliferation network of all time. Kerry did well to cite the hypocrisy of building new nuclear weapons backstage while scaring people about “mullahs” with nukes out front. But he whiffed completely when it came to countering Bush’s characterization of the International Criminal Court. Had the US been a party to the ICC, the torture memo writers in the Pentagon and the White House might’ve been less inclined to diss the “quaint” provisions of the Geneva Convention.

Unable to call Bush a liar, Kerry cautiously chipped away at what’s left of the President’s credibility. Why not remind us of the still unsettled Valerie Plaim affair, since he raised the bogus Niger uranium connection? If too risky to remind viewers that the 9/11 attacks took place on Bush’s watch, why not mention the pertinent Presidential Daily Briefs? Following Bush’s remarkable, repeated use of the term “hard work” to describe homeland security failures, Kerry might’ve reminded us that the President initially opposed the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security. Why didn’t Kerry reassure viewers that, yes, the President’s was dodging questions during the debate, as Jim Lehrer seemed unwilling or unable to? Here was Kerry’s best chance to date to shame Bush for tolerating the “we’ll be attacked again if you vote for Kerry” game played by Dick Cheney and Dennis Hastert, and he didn’t take it.

If Only Kerry Weren’t Kerry

Imagine if Kerry hadn’t quickly fallen in step with Bush’s sudden, dangerous shift in US policy towards Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestine. How can Kerry square his position on the apartheid Wall, one he shares with the President, with the 14-1 ruling against its construction on Palestinian land by the World Court? So much for restoring respect for international law, and the country’s international reputation. Imagine if Kerry really had had a consistent policy on Iraq, if he could admit the war was a mistake. The Senator probably did as good a job of finessing the “Saddam was a grave threat, but not so bad that we had to rush to war” problem as could be done under the circumstances. Such are the dangers of playing the hawk. What if Kerry hadn’t sanctioned the extraordinary Bush coup in Haiti that ousted and exiled President Aristide? What if Kerry’s position on Venezuela differed from the outrageous intervention of the Bush team? Direct US participation in yet another Latin American coup and destabilization campaign!? How does this match up with greater use of the United Nations, an international organization founded on respect for national sovereignty?

Consider the “safeguarding the Homeland” possibilities had Kerry not voted for the PATRIOT Act. He might’ve mentioned that John Ashcroft’s Justice Department failed to secure the lasting conviction on terrorism charges of even a single person among the 5,000 detained since 9/11. But he couldn’t. What if Kerry wasn’t calling for 40,000 new soldiers to clean up Bush’s mess, but was instead laying out a vision for a world beyond war, injustice, and pillage. Kerry might’ve outlined a US foreign policy that truly worked for peace, for arms control and disarmament, for a ban on the arms trade, for ecological sustainability, for freedom from avoidable hunger and preventable disease. But he couldn’t. He couldn’t because his presidency will work to shore up the American Empire. There was no vision of a just world economy that transcended the rigged game and unfair rules of WTO, IMF and World Bank. Instead, we have pre-debate criticism of Bush’s withdrawal of US forces from Germany and South Korea that decades ago outlived their usefulness and overstayed their welcome. All Kerry’s talk about rebuilding alliances thoroughly shredded by the President was pitched as the best means to better share the burden of global hegemony. He could do no better than promise a less militant, less reckless and less arrogant version of the American Empire bequeathed him by George W. Bush.

STEVE BREYMAN directs the Graduate Program in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He can be reached at:


Steve Breyman was a William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Clinton State Department, and serves as an advisor to Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination. Reach him at