Matthew Hoffman: I might vote Republican for the first time

Kerry's record and attitudes towards using armed force make me hesitate to support him

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Unlike most of the readers of this paper and all of our political commentators, I have a vote in this November's US presidential election - and it is in a swing state, Pennsylvania, the state most visited by George Bush (32 times) as president, other than his home state of Texas. This is a legacy of the first half of my life: Pennsylvania is the state where I was born, and where my relatively neutral attitude to politics was formed.

Unlike most of the readers of this paper and all of our political commentators, I have a vote in this November's US presidential election - and it is in a swing state, Pennsylvania, the state most visited by George Bush (32 times) as president, other than his home state of Texas. This is a legacy of the first half of my life: Pennsylvania is the state where I was born, and where my relatively neutral attitude to politics was formed.

Our state's most famous novelist, John Updike, once wrote an essay about how Pennsylvania held the balance in the mid-19th Century between North and South over the Civil War, betwixt which it is geographically located; our only contribution to the US presidency was James Buchanan, the president before Abraham Lincoln, who devoted himself, ultimately unsuccessfully, to keeping the union together. Pennsylvania presently holds the distinction of including the largest number of undecided voters for this year's election: and I am among them.

The second half of my life has been spent in the UK, which accounts for my dual nationality, and another aspect of my detachment from the passions of domestic American politics. In trying to decide how to cast my American vote, I am primarily concerned with the foreign policy positions of the candidates, and with those domestic issues that impinge on the rest of the world.

On the subject of America's contribution to global warming, one would think that anyone seriously concerned with that issue would be planning to vote for John Kerry; but not long ago I happened to catch his campaign foreign policy adviser, James Rubin, being asked about whether a Kerry presidency would seek to ratify the Kyoto treaty. No, was the surprising answer; that treaty, Rubin said, is now out of date. Is it? In any case, the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, did nothing to get the Senate to ratify the treaty when he had the chance.

Appearances can be deceptive in US politics. No doubt President Kerry would lift George Bush's ban on funding birth control organisations that give abortion advice, but I don't think he would sign-up to the International Criminal Court, radically reduce US carbon emissions or cut-back on the war on terror. No doubt he would politely ask the French and Germans to help out in Iraq, but would they? I doubt that President Chirac and Chancellor Schröder make these sort of decisions on matters of tone.

Anti-ballistic missile defence is another matter that annoys the rest of the world, but Clinton funded that, and I expect Kerry would too. As to putting pressure on Ariel Sharon to remove the settlements in the West Bank, the Kerry campaign rhetoric has been, if anything, more hard-line than the current administration's - as is traditional among Democrats.

Free trade: Clinton was strong on this, but I don't see any reason to believe Kerry would do much more than Bush to oppose the special interests that get in the way. In fact Kerry said in his acceptance speech that he would protect American jobs and encourage free trade! A prime case of what the Republicans in New York called "flip-flop".

George Bush tells us that "Even when we don't agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand." Yes, but a man who says his favourite philosopher is Jesus Christ is just not my kind of guy. My favourite philosopher is the 18th-century Scotsman David Hume, whose witty, radical scepticism could not be at a greater remove from the faith-based certainties of a Texan evangelist. If there is a Hume in this race, it is Kerry, the man who says he is aware of complexities.

In fact, were I to vote for Bush, it would be my first ever vote for a Republican as president. But Kerry's record and attitudes towards using armed force make me hesitate to vote for him. It is difficult for a Sixties Vietnam war opponent, like myself, to vote for a man who actually volunteered to fight there, even if he did later regret it. And particularly now that he is attacking those of us - including, implicitly, Bill Clinton - who had the sense to keep out of that nation's civil war.

Then there is Kerry's Senate vote against the first Gulf War. (He voted for the second one - which I too supported.) I would have thought that a war authorised by the UN Security Council, and even endorsed by the Arab League, should have been an easy call. Just suppose there had been no war in 1991. Saddam would certainly have completed his nuclear programme, which the UN inspectors discovered was within a year of producing bombs; and armed with unlimited oil receipts and an equivalent amount of vainglory, the 20th century Saladin would have been an undoubted danger to the region, and the wider world. Still, Kerry was a Senator from liberal Massachusetts at the time, and maybe he didn't mean it.

It is reported that the American people are bitterly divided over this campaign, so I must be exceptional in my relative indifference to which of the candidates wins the election. The events of September 11 have had a special effect on me: I feel affection towards all Americans these days, Republicans and Democrats. Who will I vote for then? Well, the campaign officially begins this week. Maybe the debates will help.

m.hoffman@independent.co.uk

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