Going AWOL on the Future

IN the take-no-prisoners politics of today's presidential campaigns, bio-digging can be very tempting.

It can also be very distracting.

Democratic Party leaders have started a media frenzy about apparent gaps in the National Guard service of a younger George W. Bush. It's an old issue and may never be resolved for his critics. But it serves John Kerry's purpose of highlighting his service in Vietnam, with the implied message that he's more of a trustworthy leader.

Bio-digging has its uses as a character reference, but the Vietnam War was at least seven wars ago for Americans, in two of which a more mature Bush served as commander in chief. The Democrats' real concern is that Kerry might be vulnerable on the "security issue."

Will voters prefer Bush or Kerry in the task of eliminating Al Qaeda and preventing more 9/11s? Bush has a clear and debatable record in the war on terrorism, guided by a forward strategy that includes Middle East reform, preemptive attacks (Afghanistan and Iraq), and spy work.

Democrats would do better if they focused on an alternative vision. Kerry's already said the US must work more with the United Nations, for instance, and talk directly with North Korea on its nuclear threat. But he could say more and be more specific when putting forth statements such as this: "The war on terror is occasionally military, and it will continue to be for a long time ... but it's primarily an intelligence and law-enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world."

And exactly how, with the US military still needed to prevent chaos in Iraq, would Kerry's ideas in this statement work: "We need a new Security Council resolution to give the United Nations authority in the rebuilding process and the development of a new Iraqi constitution and government."

Bush, too, could be more specific. When, for instance, will he decide that his moribund "road map" for Palestinian-Israeli peace isn't working, and try something else? The answer is critical to reshaping the Middle East.

Winning by personal attack is hardly an indicator of future leadership, especially in a time of war. Bush and Kerry can be worthy political adversaries if they stick to articulating and eventually debating their different plans for dealing with terrorism.

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