Does It All Come Down to Trust?

In general the political system in the US is pretty resilient. It's survived sex scandals, assassinations, election chicanery, and dishonesty by winners and losers alike. Its goal was not fairness originally, so it's not surprising that it doesn't operate fairly now. But it does survive, and it has shown some improvement over the years.

It even has some admirable qualities for those of us not privileged to sit in the smoke-filled rooms. For one thing, in a good year it's highly entertaining, as Stephen Robinson says in The Telegraph:

British politics have become so dreary and Parliament so debased that it is extraordinary that people on this side of the Atlantic still cluck in disapproval at the way Americans choose their presidents. For the price of making a single Hollywood blockbuster, the US presidential elections offer a year's worth of human drama, with some serious political debate thrown in.

Discussing the differences in the investigations into pre-war intelligence taking place on both sides of the Atlantic, he notes:

In Britain, we have had one narrow, inconclusive public inquiry about the reasons for the suicide of a single government scientist, and we are promised another closed investigation into the workings of our security service. That is the British way of resolving these matters, and my guess is that Britain's participation in the Iraq war will never really be cast as an electoral issue, despite widespread public misgivings about the mission.

So from his side of the pond, our elections are more open:

This is the joy of the drawn-out American presidential election: the candidates have to play with the cards they have dealt themselves over the years.

Surely this, as far as it goes, is something to be treasured.

Of course, it leads to dirt, especially from a party low enough to question the patriotism of people like Max Cleland, the former Senator who lost three limbs in Vietnam, then lost his most recent re-election bid to a Republican whose ads placed Cleland's face between those of Osama and Saddam. But this kind of thing, which has recently even provoked a show of emotion from (gasp) Al Gore, is to be expected:

If this coming election is ugly, it is because these are serious questions, and it is fundamentally American that they are now being debated in public.

Turning from the abstract to the particular, I continue to struggle with my conscience over whether I can vote for John Kerry. It's not the mud from Matt Drudge that bothers me, it's the recorded votes on things like Iraq and NAFTA. True, Kerry was right on the first Gulf War (he voted against it).

He also has a real and detailed knowledge of the workings of the so-called “Secret Government”. As Conal Walsh says in The Guardian:

Kerry first came to Britain's attention as the senator who accused the Bank of England of turning a blind eye to fraud at BCCI.

...

That was back in 1992, and it's not something the Bank needs to be reminded of. But Kerry is probably one of the few people in the world who know the vast and complex BCCI affair inside out. He is one of the Old Lady's sharpest critics and, come New Year, he could also be the world's most powerful man.

The “Old Lady” being the Bank of England, which if I'm not mistaken is one of the key players in Lyndon Larouche's conspiracy fantasies. (I note that Larouche, who does not seem to be on the ballot in most places, has collected more money for the 2004 Presidential campaign—nearly $9.5 million—than my favorite candidate, Dennis Kucinich—about $6.2 million—who is on nearly every ballot.)

Thus arises a typically worrying suggestion about Kerry:

Some commentators suggest Kerry 'went easy' at the time on Clark Clifford, a prominent Democrat and former US Defence Secretary with ties to BCCI. On the other hand, one of the (unheeded) recommendations he made in his report---that US authorities actively pursue evidence that BCCI was being used to fund an incipient Pakistani nuclear programme---now seems prescient, given recent revelations about Pakistan's role in nuclear proliferation.

Kerry plans to make a crackdown on banking secrecy and tougher regulation a key component of his campaigning rhetoric. For the Bank of England, that could yet mean an unwanted role in America's presidential race.

This whole thing makes me ambivalent to the point of craziness. I think it's great that one of the candidates has made a serious study of BCCI, and of the guns-for-drugs trading going through the Mena, Arkansas, airport during the governorship of Bill Clinton and the vice-presidency of George H. W. Bush. But I can't help feeling that, as a member of Skull and Bones and a true New England patrician, Kerry might allow the group self-preservation instincts to override his conscience. (At least I do believe he has one.)

Jonathan Schell, writing in The Nation, talks about the biggest problem Kerry faces right now, which is his vote to authorize war in Iraq whenever Bush decided it was necessary:

Kerry himself asserts that his vote to enable the war was a vote of conscience. What the rest of us can see, however, is that ever since his vote he has trapped himself in a morass---a little quagmire in its own right---of self-contradictory, equivocating, evasive, incomplete, unconvincing explanations of his stand.

Basically Kerry has held the same position the whole time, but it's a position that never made any sense:

Kerry's entire argument against the Administration therefore is not that it waged a mistaken war but that it waged a necessary war in the wrong way.

This sort of equivocation stands in stark contrast to Kerry's wonderful speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 23, 1971, from which Schell quotes.

Missing in all these responses and others Kerry has given is the answer to a simple, fair, necessary question---the one Kerry answered so memorably in regard to the Vietnam War: Was the war in Iraq a mistake? Disarming Saddam had been Kerry's only reason for going to war. If Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, then wasn't the war a mistake, and wasn't a vote to authorize it a mistake, and hadn't he made that mistake? And wouldn't American soldiers (now totaling more than 500) as well as Iraqis (in their uncounted thousands) be once again dying for a mistake?

Gathering these insights and producing a big picture that omits no facts is not an easy task. There are moments in Kerry's career that give even a cynic reason to hope, but they are followed by equivocations and evasions. Perhaps this is smart politics; Kerry gives some people the impression that he understands their issues, and other people the impression that he'll do nothing about those issues, and in the end no one's completely happy and no one's completely dismissive. But it's precisely this calculated approach that makes Kerry seem to be exactly how Dean describes him, a wholly owned subsidiary of the DLC (= Republican) wing of the Democratic Party.

So does it all come down to whether you trust Kerry or not? Suppose he turns out to be the classic Skull and Bones, pro-covert-action liberal hawk that he often appears to be. That wouldn't be much better than Bush, in that the US would still be invading whatever country had money in its pocket that the bully could steal. But at least it would be cheaper, because a President Kerry would have the UN involved and other countries would help pay the tab. And he probably wouldn't warp the economy to the extent that Bush has. In other words, he'd accomplish many of the goals of the part of the country Bush represents without so much upset, a result I'd consider highly sub-optimal.

Suppose, on the other hand, that the side of him that “know[s] the vast and complex BCCI affair inside out” comes to the fore once he's elected. Suppose his initials (his middle name is Forbes) turn out to be more than coincidental, and he actually tries to make some serious changes. What's the expected life span of such a President? My guess is that it would approximate that of a lieutenant during the war in Vietnam (the details of which Google is not returning, but it was months, not years).

I wonder, I read, I hope, I despair. Hey, it could be worse; members of your family could be abducted on their way home.

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