Op-Ed

Kerry’s Vision Thing

Michael E. O’Hanlon

How can it be? After a month in which his administration’s policies were pummeled from the September 11 commission hearings to the streets of Fallujah, President George W. Bush has overtaken John Kerry in the latest polls. The swing is significant, totaling almost 10 points and leaving Mr. Bush 4 to 5 points ahead of his presumed opponent.

The Kerry camp’s standard explanation of this swing is that the Bush campaign has been tapping into its deep war chest to fund early attack ads on the Massachusetts Democrat. This argument is partly right. But the Bush campaign’s ads have not had nearly the airtime of Richard Clarke or the war in Iraq, so it is hard to see how they could so affect voters’ thinking unless something else was at work.

In fact, many Americans seem willing to forgive President Bush for not doing everything in his power to stop the September 11, 2001, attacks or properly plan the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Whatever his past mistakes, they tend to see Mr. Bush as committed to enhancing the country’s security today. Indeed, the latest troubles in Iraq seem to be causing Americans to rally around the flag and their wartime president, even as they also wonder if Mr. Bush’s strategy for handling the Iraqi insurgency is as promising as they once believed.

Under these circumstances, Mr. Kerry needs to avoid the temptation simply to criticize the president’s unilateralism, however justified his critique may be. Nor can he realistically spell out a detailed Iraq policy alternative week by week (though his proposed larger standing Army makes eminent sense). Instead, Mr. Kerry must offer a broad foreign policy vision to the American people. He needs to get beyond immediate issues to address the historic challenge of the day—which is, not to mince words, the clash of civilizations between the Islamic and Western worlds.

The United States needs a grand strategy for winning the war on terror. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed last fall, even if we prevail in Iraq and Afghanistan, new terrorists may be created and trained faster than we can suppress them. We need a broader, deeper strategy than we now have.

Thankfully, a few of the right pieces are already in place. They include offensive military and law enforcement operations, crackdowns on terrorist financing, better homeland security efforts, and admonitions to allies in the Islamic world to carry out political reform.

But the Bush administration has left much undone as well. For example, it has not established the reality or the perception of a vigorous and even-handed role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Most of all, however, the United States does not yet have a clear grand strategy for winning the war on terror that would rival George Kennan’s articulation of containment doctrine in 1947. By failing to think of our efforts as an integrated effort, we are overusing some tools of foreign policy while neglecting others.

A large part of the grand strategy must focus on improving our dialogue and diplomacy with the Islamic world. Former President Bill Clinton helped show the way in his speech in Doha, Qatar, in January 2004. He expressed admiration for Islam’s culture and history — and displayed some real knowledge of each. He noted its common theological roots with Christianity and Judaism. He acknowledged and apologized for the West’s tendency to be ignorant of the Islamic world.

Having set the right tone of dialogue and humility, he also challenged Muslims in the audience, directly countering the common misperception in the Islamic world that the U.S. is indifferent to the suffering of Muslim peoples and unwilling to come to their military defense when they are threatened.

Mr. Kerry should give a similar address, and then repeat some of its key themes in his frequent stump speeches. He should also promise to hold a postelection brainstorming conference on relations with the Islamic world, similar to what Bill Clinton convened on the economy in 1992. And once inaugurated, he should make multinational summits with Islamic leaders, scholars, clerics, journalists and opposition politicians at least as frequent and important as U.S.-Soviet summits of the Cold War or G8 meetings today.

Robust grass-roots information efforts are also essential. The Bush administration got some of this right, with creation of Radio Sawa and similar initiatives. But we need to do much more. For example, as suggested in a recent Brookings Saban Center study by Hady Amr, the United States should create USIA-sponsored Internet cafes throughout the cities of the Arab world. It should also follow former CIA Director Robert Gates’ suggestion to do whatever is needed to increase the numbers of Islamic students studying in the United States.

A much more serious push for educational reform in the Islamic world also is imperative. Jawboning countries like Pakistan to clean up their hate-spewing madrassas is not enough; we need to lead a multilateral initiative to provide resources for education in the Islamic world that rivals the president’s HIV/AIDS and Millennium Challenge Account efforts in size and scale. Pakistan, Yemen, Indonesia and other poorer Islamic countries could benefit greatly from more aid for such efforts.

Trade is a critical tool as well. The goal should be to extend the Clinton administration’s U.S.-Jordan free trade model to many other Islamic countries. As much as pumping up GDP, the goal should be to broaden employment opportunities throughout the Muslim world.

Angry, unemployed, bored and hopeless young men are among our greatest worry in addressing the chasm between the West and Islam. For this reason, the recent proposal by Sens. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, to promote enterprise and entrepreneurship in the Islamic world, and similar thinking by Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, merit support in the Congress and the administration.

But the details of this grand strategy proposal matter less, in the end, than its boldness and its spirit and the priority with which an American administration pursues it. The great presidents of history ran and governed on big ideas, and today’s challenges require the same.

In our democracy, it is the natural and necessary role of those seeking to unseat incumbents to spell out such big visions. Mr. Kerry has shown competence and reasonableness in his foreign policy thinking, but he should aim much bigger and higher.