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Jewish World Review Oct. 9, 2002 / 3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Michael Kelly

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JFK v. Teddy: The battle of the Kennedys | "In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility. I welcome it. . . . The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it -- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."

-- President John F. Kennedy,

inaugural address, Jan. 20, 1961

"We did not ask for this present challenge, but we accept it. Like other generations of Americans, we will meet the responsibility of defending human liberty against violence and aggression. By our resolve, we will give strength to others. By our courage, we will give hope to others. And by our actions, we will secure the peace and lead the world to a better day."

-- President George W. Bush, Oct. 7, 2002

"The question of whether our country should attack Iraq is playing out in the context of a more fundamental debate about how, when and where in the years ahead our country will use its unsurpassed military might. . . . The administration's doctrine is a call for 21st-century imperialism that no other nation can or should accept."

-- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Oct. 7, 2002

As a matter of practical politics, the national debate on war with Iraq ended, with quite the little whimper, on Sunday when Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who increasingly appears like a man who needs a long rest in a quiet room with the shades drawn, announced that, on second thought, the president could have his darned old war resolution.

What is left standing, as Sen. Kennedy has argued in speeches and statements over the past week, is a much larger, much more fundamental debate.

Does the Bush Doctrine of "preemptive war" -- Kennedy calls it "preventive war" -- as laid out in the new national security strategy on Sept. 20 and as exemplified in practice by the case for war against Iraq -- constitute a new imperialism? Does it represent, as Kennedy argues, an extreme departure from American practice and American values?

In this, Kennedy takes Bush seriously, and he is right to do so. In Bush's national security strategy and in a remarkable series of speeches going back to his State of the Union address this year, the president has explicitly argued for nothing less than a re-imagining of the American role in the world. Or perhaps re-imagining is not the word; it is more like a reawakening, and of a philosophy Sen. Kennedy knows well. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush clearly sees the American role in the world in terms akin to those President Kennedy expressed in 1961: "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to ensure the survival and the success of liberty."

I think Sen. Kennedy is not precisely right in his nomenclature. What his brother aspired to, and what President Bush aspires to now, is not exactly imperialism. It is something more like armed evangelism. Unlike the European powers, the United States has never sought to own the world. In its peculiarly American fashion, it has sought to make the world behave better -- indeed be better. It is only in this context that the Bush Doctrine (like the Kennedy Doctrine) can be at all understood.

Sen. Kennedy says the Bush Doctrine embraces a radical and un-American idea of war: "preventive war" -- war against regimes that do not directly and imminently threaten the United States. No; such wars are as American as smart bombs, and they always have an aspect of armed evangelism to them. In modern times, this evangelism has focused not on the need for "Christianizing" and civilizing the heathen populations (President McKinley's justification for taking the Philippines), but on the defense of what President Kennedy called "the freedom of men." Most recently, evangelism for the freedom of men impelled America to what can fairly be called "preventive wars," or armed interventions, in the Persian Gulf, in Haiti, in Bosnia and in Kosovo. Actually, only the Persian Gulf War rises even to the justification of preventive war. The others -- all launched by a Democratic administration with the support of liberal Democrats -- enjoyed no justification under the logic of imminent threat. They were primarily about nothing but the freedom of men.

So, "preventive wars" are not new, and neither is the American impulse to better the world by air power. But we have not had a president embrace this impulse so largely and clearly, and as a matter of grand doctrine, since Sen. Kennedy's brother called a generation to arms. We should have had more of a serious discussion then, and the senator is right to join the president in one now.

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