With U.S. casualties mounting steadily in Iraq, Americans can expect
heated debates in the coming months between President Bush and Democratic
challenger Sen. John Kerry about who is to blame.
But there's likely to be much less discussion over what is to be done.
On Iraq and many other key foreign policy issues -- such as the Israeli-
Palestinian dispute -- what's more notable about the 2004 campaign is how
much the two men appear to agree.
Bush has undercut much of Kerry's criticism on Iraq by turning to the
United Nations for help. Bush, who had long resisted a major role for the
world body, said he will defer to U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on the
selection of the Iraqi government that is to assume nominal power in Baghdad
after June 30.
The move essentially co-opted Kerry's long-standing proposal that the
United Nations be given a key role in administering the occupation and
And beyond U.N. involvement, Kerry has said little about how he would
handle Iraq differently, regardless of how chaotic the situation there may
Kerry, who voted for the 2002 Iraq war authorization resolution, has
suggested sending thousands more troops to Iraq to combat the insurgency and
opposes a pullout of U.S. troops. He has not taken detailed positions on Iraqi
elections or how to pacify radical Sunnis and Shiites.
"If I understand John Kerry correctly, he's criticizing the conduct of
the postwar period, but what he's proposing for the future doesn't strike me
as a significantly different position than Bush," said Eliot Cohen, director
of the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University's School of
Advanced International Studies in Washington.
"In effect, the Kerry position is just, 'We're going to do a more
efficient job of running Iraq than this administration.' "
Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern
affairs in the Clinton and Bush administrations, said Kerry seems less of a
unilateralist than the president.
"Kerry would be more inclined to reach out to other countries," said
Walker, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt who now is president of
the Middle East Institute in Washington.
"But if Iraq blows up, if there continue to be serious attacks on
Americans, disruption within Iraq and the type of violence that is
destabilizing, I can't see Kerry taking advantage of that, because he doesn't
have his own proposals that are markedly different. And the administration can
say it has to do anything to safeguard our troops, and that's a powerful,
Rand Beers, Kerry's chief foreign policy adviser, said in an interview
with The Chronicle: "We're assuming that we're going to inherit a very
difficult situation in Iraq, with no quick answers."
Beers says a key difference between the two men is that while Bush is now
talking about getting international support, he is likely to fail because he
has antagonized Europeans with his unilateral, I'm-the-boss stance.
"Bush is the wrong messenger," Beers said. "We will go to the European
powers at a higher level to get cooperation from NATO. We will get cooperation
to share the burden because we take a different approach than this
But European diplomats say Kerry's request may fall on deaf ears. They
note that NATO is still failing to meet its troop commitments to Afghanistan,
where the alliance has been given overall control of the international
There are differences between the candidates in some foreign policy areas.
On terrorism, Kerry advocates an expansion of the U.S. military by 40,000
troops, including an increase in special operations forces and peacekeeping
training; a major increase in the Nunn-Lugar program for securing nuclear
weapons and technology in the former Soviet Union; and added funds for
firefighters and police to boost emergency preparedness.
The standoff over North Korea's nuclear weapons program offers the
clearest difference between the two. Kerry accuses the administration of
ignoring the communist North's brazen pursuit of advanced weaponry, allowing
Pyongyang to develop a long-range missile capacity that could threaten the
continental United States. He criticizes Bush's insistence on negotiating with
the North only in a multilateral setting and says he would accept North
Korea's demand to engage immediately in direct, bilateral talks.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, there is virtually no
difference between the two candidates. Bush has radically altered traditional
U.S. policy by endorsing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to keep many
Jewish settlements in the West Bank and, in so doing, further freezing
negotiations on the so-called road map toward peace. Kerry quickly backed
Bush's move and edged even closer to Sharon than Bush, endorsing Israel's
subsequent assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.
Asked how Kerry's policy toward Israel and the Palestinians would differ
from Bush's, Beers declined to offer specifics, but said Kerry would appoint a
high-level presidential envoy to put pressure on both sides to restart the
collapsed peace talks.
Kerry has had equal difficulty differentiating himself from the incumbent
on the politically ticklish issue of Cuba.
In past years, Kerry has often criticized the 41-year-old U.S. economic
sanctions on Fidel Castro's communist government. But during this year's
campaign, Kerry has emphasized his support of the embargo and taken a hard
line against Castro.
Last month in south Florida -- a crucial electoral state with a major
Cuban population -- Kerry said he had voted in favor of the 1996 Helms-
Burton bill that tightened sanctions. The claim boom- eranged when Republican
officials pointed out that Kerry actually had voted against the bill. Kerry
was forced to backtrack, saying he had voted for the original Senate bill but
voted against the final version because it added a provision called Title III
that lets Americans sue people or companies who control properties confiscated
from Americans in the early 1960s. Both President Bill Clinton and President
Bush opted to waive enforcement of Title III.
Elsewhere in the southern hemisphere, Kerry has tried to outflank Bush
from the right by loosing a broadside against Venezuela's leftist president,
Hugo Chavez. He accused Chavez of "allowing Venezuela to become a haven for
narco-terrorists" and supporting leftist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia --
charges that some U.S. officials and most independent analysts have said are
Little change would be likely in the war on drugs in a Kerry
administration, because Bush has essentially adopted the Clinton
administration's Plan Colombia, a program of military and economic aid to the
Andean nations to fight drug trafficking and leftist guerrillas. Under the
plan, about 400 U.S. military advisers and special forces troops, along with
hundreds of employees of U.S. private military firms, are stationed in
In addition to all the similarities, there's an additional reason why
Kerry might not want to make foreign policy his chief line of attack. Despite
the unfavorable developments in Iraq and the uncomfortable revelations about
the administration's behavior prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Bush's positions seem
to remain popular with Americans.
Polls released last week showed that slightly more than half of Americans
feel it was worth going to war in Iraq, a proportion little changed since
early April. About 4 in 10 believe sending in troops was a mistake,
essentially unchanged from October.
The best news for Bush came in a Washington Post-ABC poll. By 52 percent
to 41 percent, people said they trust Bush more than Kerry to handle Iraq, and
by 58 percent to 37 percent, Americans prefer Bush over Kerry to run the fight
Walker, the Clinton administration's Near Eastern affairs official, said
Bush is riding high "because the opposition doesn't look like it's got its act
together yet. Most people think, 'Don't change horses in midstream.'
"If Kerry doesn't define himself more, get away from this nonsense of
just relying on his war record and start to set forth clear policies -- on
Iraq, the Palestinian issue, the war on terrorism -- there's a case to be
made, but I don't see him making it yet."
Cohen, at Johns Hopkins, doubts that any significant differences during
the election would survive the realities of power.
"When I look at the kinds of people who are advising Kerry, assuming
Kerry runs his foreign policy from center and right of the Democratic Party,
it would be very compatible with the Bush administration," he said.
"There's always more consensus on macro foreign policy issues than either
party is willing to admit," Cohen said. "Between administrations, it looks
like we're zigging and zagging more than we really do."
Kerry's caution, however, may provide an opportunity for independent
candidate Ralph Nader, who last week pledged to withdraw all U.S. troops from
Iraq within six months. Nader has received as high as 6 percent support in
national polls, causing many Democrats to fear a repeat of his spoiler role in
the 2000 race, in which he appeared to deny Al Gore the margin of victory in
Florida and New Hampshire -- and thus the entire election.
Phyllis Bennis, an analyst at the liberal Institute for Policy Studies in
Washington, said many anti-war voters who supported Howard Dean or Dennis
Kucinich in the Democratic primaries are likely to flirt with Nader but come
back to Kerry.
"Kerry represents a more traditional internationalist who is certainly
interested in maintaining U.S. power in the world but is not prepared to use
the kind of ruthless military attack that has come to characterize Bush's
drive toward empire," Bennis said.
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle