John Kerry, tough-talking war hero, cut an impressive figure at last week's convention, maybe impressive enough to threaten the Republicans' time-honored dominance of the manliness issue - that is, national security. But you can already hear the Republican reply taking shape: O.K., you've shown us your muscles, but where's the beef? What exactly is your strategy for the war on terrorism?
It's a tricky question. National security challenges rarely lend themselves to the programmatic laundry lists that are tossed at domestic problems, and global terrorism may be the most complex national security challenge ever. That's why the few specifics Mr. Kerry did offer on the terrorism front were underwhelming (he's against closing fire stations, for example). Still, there is a way for Mr. Kerry and John Edwards to frame an antiterrorism strategy that, though not programmatic, would be genuinely illuminating and politically powerful, cutting to the core of President Bush's greatest national security failure. And they may be closer to this formula than they realize, for it fits naturally into the rhetorical framework the Democrats built at their convention.
Mr. Kerry rightly stressed how thoroughly Mr. Bush has lowered the world's opinion of the United States. In elaborating, he said that America can't fight a war on terrorism without allies. That's true, but it doesn't by itself underscore the penchant for complex thought that Mr. Kerry attributed to himself in his acceptance speech. Even Mr. Bush now seems to realize that antagonizing allies is a bad idea. In fact, since the dawn of recorded history, just about everyone has recognized this.
What is new, and uniquely challenging, about the war on terrorism is that hatred of America well beyond the bounds of its alliance now imperils national security. Fervent anti-Americanism among Muslims is the wellspring of terrorism, regardless of whether they live in countries whose governments cooperate with us. Yet this is a part of world opinion Mr. Kerry didn't talk about.
His reticence is understandable. Fretting about Muslim opinion sounds a little like worrying that your enemy may not like you (even though, of course, the Muslims you're worrying about are the ones who haven't signed on with the enemy but may be leaning that way). So when Democrats talk about Muslim hatred, they're just begging to be called wimps by all those right-wing bloggers who have Machiavelli's dictum - better to be feared than loved - tattooed across their chests.
But, however steep the rhetorical challenge posed by the fact that real men don't need love, the Democrats have already gone a ways toward meeting it, and they've done so on the strength of a single word: respect. As anyone who tuned into the convention for more than a few minutes is probably aware, the Democrats want an America that is "respected in the world." And even if Mr. Kerry's concrete elaborations on this theme were about the importance of allies, respect is the perfect entrée to the issue of Muslim hatred - a way to confront Machiavelli's dichotomy without winding up on the girlie-man side of it.
We don't need to be loved in the Muslim world, but we need to be respected. And even real men want respect. After all, strength can command respect. In fact, instilling fear can help instill respect. It's just that fear isn't enough. (This could be the epitaph of Mr. Bush's foreign policy: Apparently fear wasn't enough.)
For a nation to be thoroughly respected, the perception of its strength needs to be matched by a perception of its goodness. It helps to be thought of as just, generous, conscientious, mindful of the opinion of others, even a little humble. In lots of little ways, Mr. Bush has given the world the impression that we're not these things.
Mr. Kerry touched on some of this, noting that global leadership means inspiring more than fear. But he didn't carry the respect theme explicitly into the context of Muslim opinion.
Doing so wouldn't by itself amount to a strategy for the war on terrorism. But it would add a new dimension to the Democrats' emerging critique of the president's foreign policy - and a potent one. The plummeting regard for America in Muslim nations like Indonesia over the last few years is a well-documented fact. If voters can see the link between this and the security of their children - see that for every million Muslims who hate America, one will be willing to fly an airplane into a shopping mall - then President Bush will have a lot of explaining to do. And existing criticisms of his policies will acquire new force. (Given how unpopular the Iraq war was known to be in the Muslim world, wasn't the lack of postwar planning beyond inexcusable?)
The Kerry-Edwards ticket might also profit from the fact that much of this Muslim antipathy seems to be focused on President Bush personally. (His unfavorability ratings in Morocco and Jordan are 90 percent and 96 percent, respectively.) Changing administrations - "rebranding" America - could help give us a fresh start.
Thoroughly addressing the issue of Muslim hatred would pose some risks. Mr. Kerry would have to stress that he's willing to antagonize Muslims - or anyone else - when essential American principles or obligations are involved. And even that assurance wouldn't wholly buffer him from right-wing flak.
But the very difficulty of taking on this issue is part of its virtue. Mr. Kerry's biggest manhood problem has nothing to do with Vietnam or the war on terrorism. Rather, it's the sense that he never attacks an issue unflinchingly - that he waffles on the tough ones, that his only constancy lies in the wordiness of his bromides. Maybe what he needs is to take a sensitive, complicated problem, lay down a core conviction, and stick with it through thick and thin.
By the way, Machiavelli might approve. Though he favored fear over love, he said that being feared and loved is the best situation of all. And failing that, a leader at least "ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred." If George W. Bush is too macho for Machiavelli, then surely John Kerry can make the case that Mr. Bush is too macho for America.
Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny."