Seven Questions: Back to School with Bob Kerrey

As millions of students head back to campuses and classrooms, FP sat down with Bob Kerrey, president of New York’s New School, former U.S. senator, and decorated Navy SEAL, to talk about coming of age in the post-9/11 world, whether American students are falling behind, and what kind of world they will inherit.

FOREIGN POLICY: Youve talked a lot about Vietnams impact on your generation. How will the Iraq war and the war on terror affect the current generation of young people?

Bob Kerrey: First of all, the Vietnam War was not just Vietnam. It was Vietnam, civil rights, black power, womens liberation, counter culture. They flowed together to create a big gulf of misunderstanding and alienation. So it wasnt just Vietnam, it was something bigger. But, yes, [college students today] are growing up at a time when its harder to trust strangers, when innocent things such as somebody leaving a shopping bag next to you becomes a potential threat.

FP: Why hasnt an antiwar movement akin to what materialized on campuses during Vietnam happened over Iraq?

BK: In the Vietnam War, again, you had a number of other fault-line debates going on. It was a great left-right debate. And by left-right, I mean communism versus liberal democracies, and it was a real debate. Bill Clinton said at the 1992 [Democratic National] Convention that we fought the Cold War without firing a shot. Like hell we did. We fired a lot of shots. And Vietnam was a part of that. Iraq is a different kind of conflict. Like it, love it, agree with it, disagree with it, its not a Cold War [kind of] battle. Its just not as likely to galvanize a large audience the way the Vietnam War did.

FP: How will college students affect Novembers election and the U.S. presidential race two years from now?

BK: Theyre likely to have a very large impact as a result of this macaca type of an event [involving Sen. George Allen]. Theyre going to be out with cameras and tape recorders and blogs, and theyll be carrying a larger part of the debate itself. I think it will likely be a relatively small fraction of young people who turn out and vote. [But] in the blogosphere and beyond, there will be something that will be comparable to this remarkable story of George Allenit was, I think, a 20-year-old who [broke that story]. I think youll see a lot more of that.

FP: Have the Internet and the blogosphere made college students more informed when they go to the ballot box?

BK: It is a very rare young person of any generation who has fully formed political views. [Technology] has given them greater access to what is going on, and theyre apt to be more informed as a consequence. But what Im talking about is understanding your authentic self. What do you really believe about abortion or the death penalty? The black-and-white idealism of youth tends to become a little greyer the older you get. So theyre simultaneously more informed, but also unformed.

FP: Is America falling behind in math and science? What about foreign languages?

BK: I think we are not putting enough time, energy, and money into math and sciences. That said, the United States has such a head start, it would be hard to imagine losing that lead. When I see China educating engineers, what I say is: Theyve got to. Over the next 25 years, theyve got to move 600 million people from rural areas to urban areas. If they dont [close] the gap between the educated haves and the uneducated have-nots, then their nation-state will break apart.

I dont know if were falling behind [in foreign languages], but were not doing as much as we should. There are isolated problems with language. The bigger challenge, I think, is that youve got these very small non-nation state actors and weve just discovered in the last five years that they can damn near defeat us in Afghanistan, Iraq, southern Lebanon, and Gaza. Unless we capture or kill Osama bin Laden relatively soon and figure out a way to make Iraq a victory rather than a defeat, I dont care how much math and science and foreign languages weve got, weve got a big problem.

FP: Do you see any circumstances under which the draft could be reinstated?

BK: No. You cant make a case that its going to give you a better armed services. Is the reason were losing the war on terror because we dont have enough people? No. You have to look at Iraq, and I supported the damn thing, and say, Boy thats the wrong way of doing it. Because [terrorists] can make your life miserable for a long, long time if theyve got enough people willing to kill themselves. You cant defeat them with the draft.

FP: When the class of 2010 graduates, will it be living in a world that is more or less dangerous than today?

BK: I would say that its potentially more dangerous, because youve got a [large] group of people on this planet right now that are willing to commit suicide to make their point. In the aggregate, its less dangerous, but with respect to my first observation, it may not feel less dangerous if youre afraid of a shopping bag. If youre out sitting in a cafe and you could get blown up. Weve never had something like that in the United States, but its apt to happen. We havent had a police station get blown up. We havent had a campus be terrorized. But those one-off incidences are very difficult to prevent.