Kerry wary of foreign policy specifics

Security: The Democratic presidential hopeful is trying to build an image of strong leadership and contrast with Bush, although he shares many of his rival's goals.

Election 2004 -- The Democratic Convention

July 27, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a campaign where national security looms larger than at any point since the Cold War, Sen. John Kerry has yet to take a high-profile stand that would distinguish him from President Bush on major foreign policy issues.

The Democratic challenger generally shares Bush's goals on Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terrorism and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, while insisting he would pursue each goal more successfully by working with, rather than alienating, other nations.

Kerry has played down differences on how he would approach two of America's main adversaries - Iran and North Korea - as well as on global warming and arms agreements. While faulting Bush for pursuing a unilateral "strategy of war," Kerry won't rule out using force pre-emptively and without allies.

"There are days when I think we need to do something striking. But we don't want to do something striking and stupid," said Nancy Stetson, Kerry's longtime foreign policy adviser in the Senate.

But this election will turn on more than policy positions. As a result, Kerry will be continually portrayed during this week's Democratic convention as a strong leader well-versed in international relations who can keep the nation safe from terrorists and other global threats.

"Kerry may well try to keep his views on Iraq and other foreign policy issues opaque and ambiguous, figuring he stays out of trouble that way while Bush is in trouble up to his eyeballs," said Larry J. Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "Kerry gets the votes of the Bush opponents, but doesn't say anything that could scare undecideds into sticking with the devil they know."

Dangers of sharpness

The caution has exposed Kerry to charges that his foreign policy amounts to repeated flip-flops, "mush" and "platitudes," in the words of Richard Falkenrath, a Bush campaign aide who formerly served on the National Security Council staff, and who raised questions about when and how Kerry would resort to military action.

"He probably has more to lose than to gain by being more sharp-edged," said Stephen Hess, a scholar of the presidency at the Brookings Institution. "He just has to say, `I'll do it better - I'll give you the type of foreign policy in which everyone doesn't hate America and burn the American flag.'"

But Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said, "This is a moment where Kerry has to begin to fill in the blanks. The public has a sense of his biography but does not have a clear sense of what he stands for and how he would differ from Bush."

Kohut noted that in 1952 Dwight D. Eisenhower announced he would "go to Korea" to stop an unpopular conflict, and that Richard Nixon in 1968 boasted that he had a "plan" to end the war in Vietnam. "These things resonate. What's the equivalent for Kerry?"

Even on Iraq, Kerry refuses to make a sharp break with Bush. Both back the goal of a stable, self-governing nation at peace with its neighbors. But Kerry argues that he would succeed where Bush has failed in getting other nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to assume a bigger role, thus easing the burden on U.S. troops.

He would do this, Kerry has said, by giving them a voice in decision-making and letting them compete for reconstruction contracts. The administration's position, he told Tom Brokaw of NBC, has been one of "We're going to make sure we're the ones calling the shots on everything that happens."

Focus on foreign policy

Where Bush was thrust into the role of war president by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, there is little doubt that Kerry would make foreign policy a top priority from day one.

The son of a State Department lawyer who has lived in Europe, fought in Asia, speaks fluent French and studied Spanish and German, Kerry has been enthralled by world affairs all his life.

He cut his teeth as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee by probing secret government exploits and the dark world of drugs and money-laundering.

Kerry led aggressive investigations into the alleged drug connections of suppliers linked to Ronald Reagan's covert Contra war in Central America, worked to expose Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega's ties to Colombian drug lords and co-authored a Senate report on money-laundering, fraud and arms-trafficking by the Bank of Credit and Commerce International.

Rand Beers, foreign policy coordinator for the Kerry campaign, discounted the impact of these investigations on Kerry's current thinking, except to say they show "a very healthy sense of asking questions and wanting to make sure he understands exactly what is going on."

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