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The lion's half roar

By Joseph C. Harsch / January 31, 1980



The best way to measure Senator Edward Kennedy's much advertized political speech of Monday last [Jan. 28] is to think of the consequences had he broken decisively with President Carter on foreign policy.

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That would have been an easy thing to do. Mr. Carter has moved over so far toward the "hawk" side of the foreign policy street that even some senior hawks have found it a little difficult to keep up with him.

The State of the Union address of Jan. 23 contained one passage which sent a chill up and down some spines and caused many citizen on the street to say, "What's going on anyway, are we going to get into a war?"

That passage was where Mr. Carter said that "any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."

Those words can be interpreted in a broad range of ways. They do not mean that the US would necessarily go to war with the Soviet Union if the Soviet Union sent troops across the frontier of Iran. But there is an overtone of precisely that. And it is obvious from just listening to casual conversations that Mr. Carter has aroused a good deal of anxiety among plain people, particularly among those of the younger generation who would have to do most of the fighting if it did come to a war [provided the war lasted long enough].

Whatever all this means to future foreign policy, it had one specific meaning in current US politics. It left an opening for someone to take up a pro-peace or anti-war position off to the left of President Carter. Since just about everyone among both Republicans and Democrats now is on the hawk side of the street, there are potential followers, and probably voters, left leaderless on the dove side. There is an opportunity for someone willing to be unorthodox.

Senator Kennedy did not preempt that empty ground. True, he used some phrases which sounded almost as though he might. He warned against "helter-skelter militarism." He opposed registration for military service, on the ground that it wouldn't make enough difference. He blamed Mr. Carter for the plight of the hostages in Iran. He suggested that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan might have been triggered by Mr. Carter's failure to do anything about the Soviet troops in Cuba. And he said;

"Let us not foreclose every opening to the Soviet Union. This is not the first abuse of Soviet power, nor will it be the last. And it must not become the end of the world."

But when he came to what the US actually should do in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Senator favored unified reaction against the Soviets with NATO and Japanese allies, strengthened US naval and air force presence in the area, and increased military, economic, and political assistance to friendly Middle East countries. Which is precisely what the President is proposing, and beginning to do.

So the great Kennedy speech which was supposed to revive the sagging Kennedy prospects amounts to a real break on domestic policy, where it probably does not matter very much, but not a break over actual, operating foreign policy which, had it occurred, would have been a major political event.

This means that Mr Kennedy, in political trouble after his weak showing in the Iowa caucuses, has sought to repair his fortunes by gathering together many a domestic left of center cause or program but not rounding it out by a clear break on foreign policy. He came out for such usual things as ERA and for more help for urban blacks. More important, he wants gasoline rationing and wage and price controls. But he did not raise the banner of the dove or come out against rearmament.

The speech was based on the assumption that there is political mileage with left-of-center domestic programs, which is probably not the case right now, but little to be gained by a break on foreign policy, where there might be before election day -- depending on what Moscow does next. It would be a succesful political maneuver if one assumes that the George McGovern coalition of 1972 could be rallied and sent to the polls with more effect than in 1972. But that is a proposition of doubtful weight.