Karl Rove has taken charge of American foreign policy. The Bush administration's Iraq policy swerved onto a new course at the end of last week, cutting the legs from under John Kerry. Only the French government, in its reaction to the Bush administration proposal for an international conference on Iraq, seemed to have Rove's measure.
Certainly Kerry's entourage seems lost. Kerry's first comprehensive attack on Bush administration foreign policy criticized the president's sunny optimism about Iraq.
Kerry promised an international conference to rally international support, new foreign troop commitments to Iraq, and 40,000 newly recruited US soldiers to fight the insurrection and stabilize the country.
He said his administration would plan to have American forces started home by next summer and said all US forces could expect to be out of Iraq by the end of his first term, four years from now.
Karl Rove then took charge. Colin Powell conceded on Sunday that "it's getting worse" in Iraq. The overall US commander in Iraq said to expect much violence before January and flawed elections. Donald Rumsfeld said that elections might have to be held in only part of Iraq. He added that US troops don't have to wait for a totally pacified Iraq before starting home.
President Bush then called for an international conference, probably next month -- just before the US vote. It would drum up support for the United States and check outside interference in Iraq. Iran, Syria, and Jordan would be invited, as well as Iraqi dissidents and the leading democratic governments.
Thus, on the eve of the first presidential debate, the candidates' real or implied proposals were:
By the president: support for an international conference including dissidents and European allies; some US troops soon on their way home; acknowledgement of difficulties but a promise that with "sovereignty" already handed over to an interim government and a new government to be elected in January, the Iraqis soon can look after themselves.
By Kerry: an international conference sometime next year; Europeans and others to take over from US troops (a fantasy, as nearly everyone recognizes); new efforts to internationalize the reconstruction effort and to train Iraqi security forces; US troops starting home next summer; and all troops possibly back by the end of Kerry's first term, in 2009.
Even taking for granted that most of what both sides promise is phony, which promises would you vote for?
The answer to Rove came not from the Kerry campaign but the French Foreign Ministry. It said an international conference is a splendid idea. But the agenda should include the withdrawal of US and other troops. Iraqi opposition groups as well as dissidents should be invited, as well as other governments in the region.
The Kerry camp could not say the same thing because John Kerry is committed to fundamentally the same goal as George Bush, which is a permanent US strategic presence in Iraq.
Most of the Muslim world is ferociously opposed to this idea. The international community is generally skeptical of it. The American electorate senses that there has to be something better than stubborn persistence in a Bush administration war that is manifestly failing.
But since Kerry until now has had nothing really different to offer, his campaign has gone nowhere on the Iraq issue. He is a victim of the conventional wisdom and the conventional political cowardice. The American policy community -- the people in the policy institutes, think-tanks, and university institutions accustomed to man the US government in successive administrations, and most of the press as well -- share an identical vision of America's role in the world.
They believe, in one or another form, in the notion that as America is the world's most powerful nation, its duty (and privilege) is to order and police the world.
Kerry's own electoral website declares that if elected he will "strengthen weak states and secure and rebuild failed states around the world." George Bush is already committed to democratic reconstruction of the whole "Greater Middle East."
That sort of unbridled ambition to solve the world's problems and more is the conventional wisdom, and the conventional hypocrisy as well. You might think Bush or Kerry would be content if they could get out of Iraq without setting ablaze the rest of the Middle East.
The conventional cowardice is that neither will assume responsibility for resolving the most poisonous and dangerous conflict affecting the global situation of the United States, which still may be within American power to solve: the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Even to carry out the commitment already made by the US government to the so-called "road map," which requires antiterrorism actions by the Palestinian authorities and a nearly total Israeli withdrawal from the Palestinian territories, would mean a frontal clash with the Sharon government in Israel.
Neither candidate has the courage for that. Bush finds it easier to "modernize" Islamic civilization. Kerry will rescue the failed states. The war in Iraq will go on.
© 2004 The Boston Globe