Christian A. Johnson Distinguished Teaching Professor of History
"I think several things come immediately to mind and it is not because I'm a historian. It is just so salient that I think we all are pretty much aware of this. One is that in most elections where there is a major war we stand behind the president and most presidents are re-elected when they are leading a country in a war. Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term. But I think that we have something here that is much more akin to a Vietnam in 1968, where we have the president who seems to be pulling us into a conflict no one had fully understood in a region people didn't understand. For causes that are beyond the large labelsin that case stopping communism, and in this case, you know, deterring the use of weapons of mass destruction. When we look at it on a more concrete level, nobody fully understands why we are going into Iraq. And now they see references to Vietnam.
[In this election] there is a chance at least to reorient our foreign policy in a fundamental way. Questions of unilateralism versus multilateralism. Questions of whether preemptive rights should be a priority as opposed to an absolute last resort. Questions about the limits of American power. And in some way relearning lessons that we thought we had learned, that I thought we had learned, in the late 1960s but I guess every generation has to learn those lessons and so in that sense you see some clear historical parallels.
One of the things that Clinton did, in effect if not explicitly, was to redefine security in economic terms in this day and age in the aftermath of the Cold War. That we should view security not necessarily in terms of military spending but in the terms of the long-term economic health of the country. How are we going to get a handle on the deficit? How are we going to develop the infrastructure of the country? Are we going to adequately train people? Are we going to ensure sufficient jobs?
Those are aspects of security that were not emphasized during the Cold War. Now we have a chance to realize that there are some long-term responsibilities to not ruin our economic health.
I think getting a grip on containing the deficit was a symbol in the last administration, and it was a very important thing to do and it took a lot of work. And it is not clear to me that Clinton fully did that but he at least made an important start in that process.
Now we have essentially reverted to an earlier approach, that national security involves the build-up and deployment of unlimited military power, without regard to traditional allies and at any economic expense. Indeed, you have dramatic tax cuts at the same time as our expenditures are soaring. And so in some ways I think this election might provide us a chance to relearn the lessons of the immediate post-Cold War era.
We seemed to be on a different tack in the early '90s when we seemed to have understood that long-term economic health can be a priority, not simply for itself but for promoting our security as a nation. And we got away from that in the past few years. Can we get back to it? It is not clear to me how well that issue will be crystallized during the campaign. . . .
So I think that we see some important historical parallels and see that this election is about much more than personalities. And we have some really sharp ideological differences. It will be interesting to see if those ideological differences come to the fore or if it's personalities, which so often eclipse the ideology. Do we simply choose on the basis of do we like Bush? Do we like Kerry? I think the burden will be on Kerry to crystallize these differences."