WASHINGTON - Finally the Bush and Kerry presidential campaigns have gotten around to talking about Americans' involvement in a foreign war - only it's the wrong war.
With the United States increasingly mired in its occupation of Iraq, the campaigns have focused instead recently on the war in Vietnam, which ended nearly three decades ago, and more specifically on how the 2004 presidential candidates served, or didn't serve, in it.
President Bush has left the Republican assault on Democratic Sen. John Kerry's war record to Vice President Dick Cheney, the Republican National Committee and certain House Republicans, either in speeches, television ads or remarks from the House floor. But obviously the attacks on Mr. Kerry are at the core of a Bush re-election strategy orchestrated from the White House.
There's nothing novel in the basic campaign approach of attempting to define an opponent in a negative light before he has an adequate opportunity to define himself in a positive vein.
But the assault on Mr. Kerry, a thrice wounded (if only slightly) and decorated Vietnam combat veteran, takes the cake for sheer chutzpah. Mr. Bush avoided Vietnam with a special ticket into the Texas Air National Guard, and Mr. Cheney flatly declared he had "other priorities" and copped draft deferments to pursue them.
Mr. Kerry is under fire from the Republicans on issues from the legitimacy of his decorations to his actions in tossing them away as he led other Vietnam veterans on his return from combat in protesting the wisdom of his country's war.
In this, there's a particular irony in that after voting to support Mr. Bush's war resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, Mr. Kerry is once again questioning the wisdom of his government's conduct of another armed conflict.
In both the Vietnam and Iraq wars, Mr. Kerry reluctantly signed on but had second thoughts once he saw the way each was being pursued by his commander in chief.
After fighting in Vietnam and then opposing the war, Mr. Kerry launched an eventually successful political career that took him to the Senate. Now, regarding Iraq, the jury is out on whether his initial support for the war resolution, and his subsequent sharp criticism of the conduct of the conflict, can survive the presidential campaign and, indeed, elect him in November.
The Bush-Cheney campaign, in its questions about Mr. Kerry's Vietnam service and post-combat behavior, is attempting to reinforce its portrait of him as a flip-flopper, too unstable to be trusted with the nation's security.
Mr. Kerry cannot do other than defend himself on his Vietnam service. He understandably has responded by questioning Mr. Bush's service and Mr. Cheney's lack of any military service, if only to rally more support for himself from Vietnam and other war veterans.
But Iraq, not Vietnam, should be the prime topic in this presidential campaign. Mr. Kerry's challenge is to get voters to focus on how Mr. Bush got the United States engaged in a pre-emptive war and on how he has handled the chaotic aftermath; if, indeed, aftermath is the right word for the continuing mayhem that is requiring more flag-draped caskets to be shipped home in demeaning stealth.
Mr. Kerry must do more than he has to convince voters that Mr. Bush, through misrepresentation, miscalculation and a misguided shift in foreign policy, brought on a war that threatens to make America a pariah in the eyes of much of the rest of the world.
Above all, Mr. Kerry must spell out in greater specifics what, if elected, he intends to do to extricate the country from the mess in Iraq in a way that can restore the nation as a respected and cooperative partner of the international community.
Domestic differences, of course, must also be debated in this campaign. But history will judge the political process poorly if, regardless of the winner, the 2004 presidential campaign does not in the end become a clear referendum on the most radical turn in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.