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Eye on the News

Charles Upton Sahm
The Fundamental Choice
What do the candidates see as their duty on terror?
1 September 2004

Last week, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry visited New York and spoke at the Cooper Union from the podium where, in February 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech that thrust him into national prominence and changed the course of history. In that speech Lincoln addressed the fundamental issue of his day, the extension of slavery to newly admitted states, and he methodically made the case that it was antithetical to the wishes of the Founding fathers.

Given the historical setting and the fact that the college is less than two miles from the site of the deadliest foreign attack ever on American soil, one would expect that Senator Kerry would have prepared some special remarks and perhaps make clear his thoughts on the fundamental issue of our day: the terrorist threat posed by radical Islam.

Instead, Senator Kerry delivered a version of his standard stump speech. The speech is stunning for both its caustic tone and for the fact that it never mentions the events of September 11, not once.

Out of 50 paragraphs of the speech titled “The Fundamental Choice” (and prominently displayed on the campaign’s website), Senator Kerry makes only one passing reference to national security, when he offers: “I have spoken often in this campaign about national security about rebuilding and leading strong alliances to find and get the terrorists before they get us. I defended the country as a young man and I will defend it as President. But I also know that we can’t be strong abroad unless we’re strong at home.”

Close variations on the phrase “a stronger America begins at home” appear no less than five times, but the words “al-Qaida” and “the war on terror” are absent from the 2,800-word speech. The only time the word “Iraq” is used is when Kerry accuses President Bush of “misleading the American people, hiding behind front groups, saying anything and doing anything to avoid the real issues that matter like jobs, health care and the war in Iraq.” He says Republicans have “no plans, no positive vision, and no understanding” and then goes on to complain about the negative tone of the Bush campaign.

Abraham Lincoln knew something about scathing political attacks. In his Cooper Union speech he said of southern Democrats: “When you speak of us Republicans, you do so only to denounce us as reptiles, or, at the best, as no better than outlaws.” Probably the most famous line from Lincoln’s speech came at the end when he implored, “Let us have faith that the right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

President Bush’s duty, as he seems to understand it, is to protect America from further harm by doing everything he can to win the war on terror. This duty includes using the might of the United States to make right in the Middle East. He has made it quite clear that he sees our military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq in both moral and strategic terms and that the two are inexorably linked. Most recently he has said: “Freedom is our greatest weapon in the war on terror. . . . A free and peaceful Iraq and a free and peaceful Afghanistan will be powerful examples in a part of the world that is desperate for freedom. Free countries do not export terror. Free countries do not stifle the dreams of their citizens.”

In Afghanistan, the country’s first free elections are scheduled to take place in early October. Skeptics on both the left and right predicted this day would never come. However, 9.9 million Afghans have registered to vote (more than 100 percent of the eligible voting population), including large percentages of women who, under the brutal reign of the Taliban, were prohibited from work, education, medical care, or even leaving their homes without male supervision. Punishment for such crimes included being beaten, raped, and stoned to death.

In Iraq, security woes continue and may well intensify as insurgents, encouraged by foreign agents and religious radicals, make a determined stand against the freedom they fear is coming. Abu Musab Zarqawi, al-Qaida’s chief operative in Iraq, said as much in a letter to Usama bin Ladin intercepted earlier this year. He said of the Iraqi people: “We fight them, and this is difficult because of the gap that will emerge between us and the people of the land. . . . Democracy is coming, and there will be no excuse thereafter. . . . With the deployment of [Iraqi] soldiers and police, the future has become frightening.”

However, real strides have been made in Iraq. Saddam Hussein is in jail awaiting trial for his crimes against the Iraqi people. The torture chambers are closed. The mass graves are being exhumed. Schools, hospitals, and police stations are being opened.

Some people think Senator Kerry bears a slight physical resemblance to Lincoln, but philosophically they are as different as night and day. Lincoln saw freedom as the natural right of all men and often spoke of America as “the last best hope of mankind.” He did so most memorably at Gettysburg when he prayed that the Union would prevail so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” However, Senator Kerry, to the extent that he ever discusses foreign affairs, asserts that the United States should pursue a more “realistic” foreign policy.

What does that realism include—cutting deals with corrupt theocratic dictators? Just keep oil around $30 a barrel, and we’ll look the other way as you oppress your people and send your young men to madrassas where they are taught to wage jihad against the real source of all their misery, the United States and Israel? To a large extent, that had been our policy pre-9/11. It didn’t work. As tempting as it may be to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that September 11 never happened, it did. And evil forces are at work right now planning far worse for us. Isolationism and appeasement are not an option.

After his speech at Cooper Union, Senator Kerry took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty for a photo opportunity with a group of schoolchildren. He said it was his first visit. As those schoolchildren perhaps learned, the statue was a gift from the people of France in honor of America’s cherished ideals of freedom, democracy, and opportunity for all. They saw it as a political statement that would embolden democratic forces in Europe still battling tyranny and oppression. The sculptor Bartholdi named her “Liberty Enlightening the World” and faced her toward the east. He raised the heel of her right foot to show her stretching, in the hope that the light from her torch might reach the continent of Europe and beyond.

Thanks to President Bush’s vision and fortitude—and above all to the brave men and women of our military who continue to give their country the “last full measure of devotion”—Lady Liberty’s light is now reaching all the way to the Middle East and Central Asia, making America safer by dispelling the darkness that has enveloped that region of the world for far too long.

Abraham Lincoln would understand and be proud of what we are doing.

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