By Cammie Bellamy
With the United States wavering between the possibility of strike and non-intervention in the Syrian Civil War, Secretary of State John Kerry has found himself in the unfamiliar position of being spokesman for a war. A Vietnam veteran with a history of legislative opposition to foreign intervention, Kerry has become the public face of President Barack Obama’s push for military action against Syria. Long before his tenure in the Senate, Kerry was a strong voice for war criticism — a position he cautiously reprised in his failed 2004 bid for president. The shift in Kerry’s current rhetoric with regards to war is likely more a necessity of his job rather than a change of heart. But in dealing with — and campaigning on — issues of war, Kerry has had varying degrees of success in moving public opinion.
Some of Kerry’s first notable public discourse on war came with his 1971 testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations as spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In the speech — remembered as a turning point for American public opinion on Vietnam — Kerry unambiguously attacked the war as a moral atrocity made possible by American disregard for national sovereignty and the process of political evolution in developing nations. But even in his rejection of Vietnam, Kerry did not call into question the validity of war as a political tool, criticizing the Vietnam debacle on specific policy points and emotionally-charged evidence from his time on the battlefield. The speech was so diplomatic in combining anti-war protestor positions with the language of government that President Richard Nixon himself praised the speech in its effectiveness. Though entering political office in the 1980‘s would require an even more moderated approach to speaking about war, Kerry had clearly defined himself as a skeptical voice on the value of foreign intervention
Since engaging with presidential politics in 2004, Kerry’s public discourse on war has evolved. In his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, then-Senator Obama spoke about Kerry’s experience in Vietnam to paint him as a leader who would approach war with informed caution — by no means anti-war, but ostensibly less hawkish than his competitor, George W. Bush. At a time when support for war in the Middle East was on the decline but still greater than national opposition, Obama qualified Kerry’s position: “John Kerry believes that in a dangerous world, war must be an option, but it should never he the first option.” Throughout his address, Obama’s mobilization of war rhetoric focused largely on Kerry’s status of a veteran as is it related to the plight of contemporary soldiers with regards to injury, economic and familial concerns. In endorsing Kerry, Obama condemned the interventionist mentality of the Bush administration while still skirting outright liberal rejection of war. In his own acceptance speech, Kerry too played to the duality of American public opinion of war, saying, “I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war.”
In an article in the Winter 2005 edition of Rhetoric and Public Affairs, media scholar Christian Spielvogel argued that Kerry’s failure to define his war rhetoric outside the parameters already set by the Bush camp cost him the 2004 election. Spielvogel bases his argument in the effectiveness of morality as an electoral game-changer, wherein he defines morality in the political sense as “a frame used to evaluate any issue rather than just a public argument about moral issues.” In Spielvogel’s model, the moral framing of post-9/11 interventions by the Bush camp focused on the struggle between international “good and evil,” where Kerry’s strategy dealt more with criticisms of specific policies and actions of the Bush White House with regards to the war. Kerry’s own inconsistency in opposing the Iraq War, marked by his 2002 vote in support of intervention and public criticism of the war in years following, deflated his policy-based arguments in the face of Bush’s morally absolute framing. When even his own military service was questioned in the infamous “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” campaign, what little moral appeal he had made to the nation on the subject of war was compromised in the ensuing debate over the fairness of the ads. In failing to define the war — and by extension his campaign as an opposition candidate — in moral terms, Kerry lost critical momentum.
Over the course of his political career, Kerry’s effectiveness in weighing in on war has been dependent on the degree to which public opinion on a given war is still malleable. When Kerry spoke on Vietnam in 1971, public opinion on the war was at a tipping point after years of conflict and moral objections over tens of thousands of American casualties. In 2004, with the memory of 9/11 fresh in the minds of Americans — in many ways by the design of Bush campaign aids — Kerry failed to sway a public that, though growing tired of war, still saw the issue as symptomatic of a global moral struggle. If Kerry hopes to sell a hesitant American people on the value of intervention in Syria, his rhetoric needs to depart sharply from that used in the last two military actions against Iraq and Afghanistan — he needs to define a unique moral framing for the issue.
“We know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about.” -John Kerry, speaking in August on intervention in Syria