WASHINGTON — Both Presidential candidates George Bush and John Kerry are spending too much time on trivia and too little on issues that ought to be discussed. President Bush is criticizing Senator Kerry's record instead of defending his own, and Kerry is defending his record instead of criticizing Bush's.
Important domestic issues - among them, education, healthcare, trade, fiscal and monetary policy - deserve extensive discussion but are overshadowed by foreign policy. Democrats may think it is better politics to emphasize the domestic, and they may be right; but foreign policy deserves preeminence because of the radical shift that Bush has made in the US approach to the world. He has proclaimed a doctrine of preemptive first strikes, reversing the policy that got the US through the cold war, including the Cuban missile crisis.
Alienating America's most important allies, he has downgraded the United Nations, at the same time deploring the failure of its precursor, the League of Nations. He attributed that failure to the League's lack of credibility and will - yet doesn't acknowledge that something else the League lacked was American support.
A policy of preemption is particularly troublesome when it is carried out by a president who has a record of reputedly twisting facts and intelligence to fit his preconceived ideas. Paul O'Neill, Bush's first secretary of the Treasury, writes that Bush came to office with the intention of making war on Iraq. As justification, Bush said the Iraqi government was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, chemical, radiological, and biological. This opinion had little support in the intelligence community, but Bush took the country to war anyway. No such weapons were found after US troops arrived in Iraq and overthrew the government. Bush still insisted the WMD were there and would be found eventually. He overlooked the possibility that Saddam Hussein had refused to allow international inspections in order to avoid revealing his weakness.
In the eyes of the Bush White House, anybody who complains about this is defending Saddam Hussein. There is no question that he was a brutal, tyrannical ruler. The issue, rather, is going it alone vs. patiently building international support so that the US doesn't have to do everything itself. Bush chose to exaggerate (that is the charitable word) the threat from Iraq so as to make a case for haste in making war.
"Our nation has more than a set of interests," Bush has said. "I believe we have a calling." The war, for him has become a "crusade" (a particularly infelicitous word when dealing with Muslims). His world view has the US leading a free and democratic world. As to what this new world will entail, there are no cost estimates nor timelines.
This campaign would take on historical significance if it provided the setting for a thorough national debate on the issue of interests vs. "calling." American history has a continuing thread of imperialism running through it. The Monroe Doctrine, intended to protect Latin America from further colonization after the departure of Spain, was twisted by Theodore Roosevelt to justify the replacement of Spain by the US. The Mexican War was presented as a fulfillment of America's manifest destiny. The Spanish War was presented as the liberation of Cuba. World War I was to make the world safe for democracy. World War II was to promote freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, "everywhere in the world."
As these goals got nobler, opposition to them diminished, as did the controversy they aroused. It is time to think more about feasibility and less about pie in the sky. Policymaking is an exercise in tradeoffs.
Given America's finite resources, what domestic needs will it have to sacrifice to implant sustainable democratic institutions in Iraq? In Afghanistan? Elsewhere? Can America do this no matter what it gives up?
The public deserves to hear - and to participate in - a thorough debate of these questions. If Bush prevails in light of such a debate, so be it. But the country ought not to come to this point without a clear idea of the implications. The gravest implication would be that the kind of country America is would be irrevocably changed; that America could lose its way of life in the process of defending it.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.