Friday, October 01, 2004

The Global Test

John Kerry: But if and when you do it, Jim, you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.

In the debate last night, President Bush pursued his campaign's primary strategy of portraying his opponent as a flip-flopper. On the evening's central topic of Iraq, the charge was not difficult to establish.

In his toughest question to Senator Kerry, the moderator Jim Lehrer reminded him of his 1971 congressional testimony in which he famously asked a rhetorical question: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Lehrer pointedly asked whether the Iraq war was a mistake. Kerry quickly responded "No," but then neglected to explain how he could reconcile this response with his new "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time" position.

Kerry was intent, of course, to deny that he had been inconsistent on Iraq: "I've had one position, one consistent position, that Saddam Hussein was a threat." The line had been carefully crafted: he later uttered it again, verbatim. His defense of his own consistency reached record levels of risibility when he made a categorically absolute declaration: "I've never wavered in my life." There is irony in repeated and sweeping avowals of one's own consistency. A central result of mathematical logic, proven by Kurt Gödel, establishes that a sure way to guarantee the inconsistency of a rich deductive logical system of propositions is to have that system assert its own consistency!

That Kerry has been conspicuously inconsistent on the question of Iraq raises the question of whether the man has any core beliefs or whether he is simply afraid to share them. The debate provided reason to accept the second alternative.

In response to an excellent question by Jim Lehrer regarding America's right of preemptive action against terror, a question that this space had openly hoped would be put to Kerry at the debate, Kerry responded: "But if and when you do it, Jim, you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons."

Bush took the opportunity to seize on Kerry's response, and made a rare but effective counter-punch:
"I'm not exactly sure what you mean, 'passes the global test,' you take preemptive action if you pass a global test. My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people, that you act in order to make this country secure."

Kerry showed himself to be deeply skeptical of Bush's certain faith that America has the high moral ground. Kerry complained: "We're telling other people, 'You can't have nuclear weapons,' but we're pursuing a new nuclear weapon that we might even contemplate using." It apparently does not dawn on Kerry that America can be trusted to do what is right and to accomplish good in the world, but that North Korea and Iran cannot be similarly trusted. That possibility does not even rise to the level of being acknowledged by Kerry. Why not? The doubts expressed in his closing worry that certainty can "get you into trouble" suggests that he adopts the moral skepticism, if not cynicism, characteristic of the civilization-weary sophisticates on the left and of those who regard moral certainty as naive at best and dangerous at worst.

How then is a U.S. President to lead in a world in which jihadists drive passenger jets into buildings and carry out gruesome beheadings? Kerry's plan: have a summit, share our reasons, listen to the objections of the other side. In the post-modern world of Kerry, what passes for moral objectivity is no more than the notion of truth propounded by philosopher Richard Rorty: what others "will let us get away with" in a conversation. The global test is consensus and Kerry's plan to reach it is this: just talk.

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|| headland, 12:51 PM

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