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The Case Against Kerry

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Stephen Zunes tracks the history of John Kerry from Vietnam War critic to Iraq war hawk.

Stephen Zunes tracks the history of John Kerry from Vietnam War critic to Iraq war hawk.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

With all the attention on the nomination by President Obama of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, there hasn’t been quite as much discussion about his nomination of John Kerry for secretary of state. I guess that’s partly because he seems rather beloved by the Republicans and is likely to get passed without much issue. But there are issues, according to our next guest, Stephen Zunes.

He now joins us where he’s a professor of politics. And he is also chair of the Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco. He’s also a columnist and senior analyst of Foreign Policy in Focus. I should say he’s actually joining us now from North Carolina, where he’s traveling.

Thanks for joining us, Stephen.


JAY: So everyone’s—generally in the mainstream media seems to like this appointment of John Kerry. But you don’t. Why?

ZUNES: John Kerry, though he—his earlier Senate career included some bold challenges to U.S. foreign policy, particularly regarding Central America, the nuclear arms race, and his support for various dictators around the world, moved sharply to the right in the past decade or so, including support for the invasion of Iraq, support for the more hardline elements in Israel, and a number of policy statements and initiatives which seem to indicate a pretty serious disdain to basic principles of human rights, international law. In addition, a series of statements ranging from his false claims about Iraq’s military potential during the waning days of Saddam Hussein’s reign to his attacks on Amnesty International and other reputable human rights organizations for reporting violations of human rights by U.S. allies have also raised questions about his credibility.

JAY: So just to track his history a little bit, I mean, he made a name for himself ’cause he came back as this decorated war vet and opposed to the war in Vietnam. And if you listen to the rhetoric at that time, he sounds rather progressive in his foreign policy position.


JOHN KERRY, VIETNAM WAR VETERAN: We could come back to this country and we could be quiet, we could hold our silence, we could not tell what went on in Vietnam. But we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not red, not redcoats, but the crimes which we’re committing are what threaten it. And we have to speak out.


JAY: So give us a bit of the arc of what happened to that John Kerry.

ZUNES: Well, it’s hard to say. I mean, some people say he did it for political expediency because he had long desired to run for president. Of course, he did in 2004, receiving the Democratic nomination and losing narrowly to President Bush. But in the post-9/11 era, he tended to take a pretty hardline position. He went around claiming that the United States has a right to invade other countries without international support. He attacked the UN secretary-general, he attacked fellow Democrats, he attacked the Spanish prime minister and others who raised questions about this kind of U.S. unilateralism, his claims, for example, that Iraq—that everybody agreed that Iraq had advanced nuclear weapons program. And, in fact, there were very well publicized, even at that time, divisions among national security analysts, even within the government, about those facts. So he claimed that they had biological and chemical weapons even more advanced than they did prior to the Gulf War of 1991 and the subsequent disarmament that was imposed by the international community.

These things kind of raised serious, you know, questions [unintel.] the extent he would go to supporting a U.S. intervention in various parts of the world.

JAY: And didn’t he go so far as to say that if he—knowing what he knows now, he’d still vote for it?

ZUNES: Yeah. This is the scary part, actually. When he was running for president in 2004, unlike, say, Chuck Hagel and some other people who immediately regretted their vote for the war and backtracked, Kerry doubled down. He said that even if he knew that Iraq did not have these chemical and biological weapons and nuclear weapons programs, he would have supported the invasion anyway, because they might have the potential [inaud.] some day and Iraq was a repressive dictatorship.

But by that criteria, repressive regimes with the potential to make nonconventional weapons, there are at least 30, 40 countries around the world that meet that criteria. And he was essentially saying, we have the right to invade any one of them.

JAY: Now, a lot of people breathed a sigh of relief when Susan Rice didn’t get nominated, because she is known as a, quote, humanitarian imperialist—in other words, she’s known to be very pro-interventionist, using humanitarian framing for the intervention. But is Kerry any different than that?

ZUNES: No, not really. And indeed he’s been quite supportive of intervention that doesn’t even remotely resemble humanitarian initiatives. He’s been a big supporter, for example, when—in backing the Bush administration’s defense of Israel’s wars on Lebanon and Gaza. He basically has taken this position that [unintel.] his attacks against Howard Dean for saying that the United States should work more multilaterally with other countries, saying, oh, that’s just an excuse for doing nothing, he would surrender our right of self-defense, and the like. He attacked Spanish Prime Minister, you know, Zapatero as giving in to terrorism when Zapatero said, we are going to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq because the Bush administration refuses to allow the UN to play a stronger role.

I mean, again, this guy is pretty hardcore. In many ways, he has embraced some of the very basic assumptions we normally associate with the right-wing Republican neoconservatives.

JAY: So this tells us a lot about President Obama’s foreign policy outlook, I think, because on the one hand, the reason he always said he opposed the Iraq War is ’cause it was a stupid war, not because he’s against those kinds of interventions. He just saw that that particular war would actually weaken America’s ability to project power. And those are virtually his words. So you see the appointment of Chuck Hagel—he thinks a war with Iran would be stupid, and he wants someone that could help keep the lid on that. On the other hand, he’s not against the use of armed force to project power, and there he has Kerry. So it isn’t actually contradictory, these two appointments.

ZUNES: No. But in certain ways, though, it does—I do see it as something of a betrayal by Obama, in that when he was running for president, he said he promised not just to end the Iraq War, but to end the mindset which led to the Iraq War in the first place. And he was smart enough—or whether it be for, you know, pragmatic reasons or anything else, recognized that the invasion of Iraq and occupation would be a disaster. And, you know, he should be given at least some credit for that understanding. But at the same time, almost every major appointment he has made dealing with foreign policy and national security—Gates in defense; Hillary Clinton, secretary of state; Dennis Blair at DNI; Napolitano at Homeland Security; Biden as vice president; Emanuel as chief of staff—and all these people were among the right-wing minority of Democrats that supported the Iraq War.

Remember, the majority of Democrats on Capitol Hill voted against the authorization. [unintel.] again, virtually every single one of Obama’s appointments to these top positions have been among that right-wing minority.

JAY: I interviewed Susan Rice during the New Hampshire primary in 2008, and I asked her this question directly, and she was essentially his spokesperson on foreign policy during the election campaign, and I asked her if—what is this new mindset? I said, if you’re going to have a new mindset the way he’s promised, doesn’t that mean you have to question the whole underlying assumption that there has to be—the United States has to be a global military power? I said, you know, what do you think about closing down most or all of the foreign military bases? What is the difference in your strategy in Afghanistan? Is it going to be just troop-based or not? And I asked her essentially that question, and she essentially—not essentially—she took off her microphone and walked out of the interview. She said, I don’t have to do this.

ZUNES: Really? It’s interesting. I think in many ways that these appointments, including Kerry, are exemplary of this idea that somehow the United States is above the law and its allies are above the law. In fact, I remember when the International Court of Justice in a unanimous (save for the U.S. judge) opinion that said that Israel, like all other countries, had to abide by the Fourth Geneva Convention and other principles of international humanitarian law in the occupied territories. In 2004, John Kerry sharply criticized the International Court of Justice for its unanimous ruling (save for the U.S. judge) that said that Israel, like all countries, is bound by provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention, specifically that while they can build a separation barrier on their internationally recognized borders, they cannot build this separation wall deep inside occupied territory in this serpentine fashion as part of a land grab to incorporate all these settlements. Well, John Kerry denounced the World Court as being anti-Israel, as not supporting Israel’s right to self-defense, and even said that the World Court should have no jurisdiction whatsoever, that it should simply be a matter of the Israeli courts to decide, and the U.S. should support whatever the Israeli courts say.

But when you think about the implications of this, he’s basically saying that if a country invades and occupies another country, any legal question regarding international humanitarian law or anything else should be determined by the courts of the occupying power. In other words, that combined with his rationalization for the invasion of Iraq, seems to indicate that a wholesale rejection of the United Nations system, 20th-century international law, and embrace a 19th-century notion of right of conquest.

JAY: Alright. Well, I guess this is just the beginning of discussions about John Kerry, ’cause it seems rather sure he’s going to be nominated. Thanks for joining us, Stephen.

ZUNES: My pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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