The stage is being set for a major debate on foreign policy in the 2004 election, as even the Democratic presidential contenders supporting a war with Iraq are unifying behind a withering critique of President Bush's approach to international relations.
With increasing intensity, the leading Democratic candidates are accusing Bush of weakening U.S. security by unnecessarily alienating allies whose support they argue is critical to combating terrorism and resisting the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Strikingly, these arguments are coming not only from antiwar Democrats, such as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, but also candidates backing an invasion of Iraq: Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.
As Gephardt put it in his recent candidacy announcement: "I stand with this administration's efforts to disarm Saddam Hussein ... [but] we must lead the world instead of merely bullying it."
This challenge to Bush's management of world affairs rejects the dominant Democratic strategy during the 2002 midterm campaign, when most party candidates minimized their foreign policy disagreements with Bush to emphasize their differences on domestic issues. It also provides the Democratic presidential candidates with a way to respond to the antiwar sentiments surging among party activists.
"A lot of Democrats are out there saying, 'Why are these guys going along with everything the president does?' " said a senior advisor to one Democratic contender supporting a war. "This is a way of saying, 'I agree with the president on this, but there is a larger critique.' "
White House aides disputed the substance of the Democratic case, arguing that last weekend's arrest of an Al Qaeda leader, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, demonstrates Bush's success at maintaining international cooperation against terror.
And GOP strategists said that Democrats criticizing Bush over his handling of allies may leave themselves open to charges of endangering U.S. security by deferring too much to others.
But many Democrats expect their argument to remain a centerpiece of the party's message throughout the 2004 campaign. That's partly because they believe Bush's record creates an opportunity but also because they believe they must offer voters a competing vision of how to best protect the nation.
"One of the fundamental lessons we learned from the 2002 campaign season is you can't not talk about the most pressing issue of the moment and be ... competitive," said Dan Gerstein, the communications director for Lieberman. "The reaction you are seeing, not just among the presidential candidates but Democrats in general, is we are not going to allow Bush to go unchallenged on security issues."
In the presidential primary, these arguments may help the pro-war Democratic candidates reach party activists resistant to invading Iraq. The relevance of this case in the general election may depend on how a war in Iraq and its aftermath play out.
"If the war is a smashing success, Bush can say we want to try to be multilateral, but we have to do what we think is right," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, an independent polling group. "But if it doesn't go well, this criticism will be much more salient."
The emerging debate is raising issues of principles rarely discussed seriously in U.S. political campaigns. At its heart is a fundamental question: Does America best safeguard its security and advance its goals in the world by maximizing its freedom for unilateral action, even at the cost of tension with allies, or by stressing multilateral collaboration, even at the price of constraining its actions?
Recent surveys show the country characteristically divided on that choice. While most Americans say they want United Nations sanction for any attack on Iraq, narrow majorities typically say they would back an American attack with other willing nations if the U.N. balks.
Neither Bush nor the Democrats jostling to oppose him take an absolutist position in this debate. No major Democratic contender says the United States should never use force without United Nations approval. And no one in the administration says America should completely disregard the views of allies or abandon international institutions such as NATO or the U.N.
Yet Bush and the leading Democrats have staked out clearly contrasting positions along the continuum from unilateral to multilateral action.
Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said Bush has shown his commitment to international cooperation by organizing more than 90 countries to participate in the war against terrorism and by rallying the U.N. to demand a resumption of arms inspections in Iraq.
Yet from the outset of his presidency, Bush has also displayed his willingness to challenge, and even ignore, world opinion when he believes it conflicts with U.S. interests.
Before the confrontation with Iraq, the administration ruffled feathers in Europe and Asia by renouncing a series of international treaties -- such as the Kyoto agreement on global warming and the 1972 treaty barring the development of missile defense systems.
And for months Bush has made clear that even if the U.N. rejects military action against Iraq, the United States will try to depose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with a coalition of willing nations. "The course of this nation," Bush insisted in his State of the Union address this year, "does not depend on the decisions of others."
In chorus, the top Democratic contenders say such bristling rhetoric -- and the repudiation of so many international agreements -- amounts to what Kerry calls a "belligerent unilateralism" that is making it more difficult to win global cooperation on Iraq, the new nuclear threat posed by North Korea and the challenges of terrorism and weapons proliferation.
The Democrats insist that the best way to improve U.S. security is to work with others in ways that maximize international support for U.S. goals and minimize resentment of its preponderant power.
Edwards succinctly summarizes that argument, telling his audiences: "I say to every American family: Your family is safer in a world where America is looked up to and respected, not in a world where America is hated."
This call for cooperation goes only so far: Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt and Edwards have all indicated that they would support Bush if he decides to invade Iraq without a second U.N. resolution. Only Dean among the top-tier candidates has said he would oppose such a move.
Some Bush advisors believe support for force without U.N. approval undermines the Democratic argument by showing a willingness to act unilaterally on the largest decision the United States faces. "Intellectually speaking, their arguments are hollow," said a senior White House aide.
But this conflict appears certain to steadily resurface in a variety of arenas. For instance, Lieberman has called on Bush to quickly establish international control over a postwar Iraq, while the administration has been weighing that approach against more direct American control.
And while Bush has suggested that toppling Hussein might inspire democratic reforms across the Mideast, Lieberman, Kerry and Edwards argue that change will require new initiatives with allies to expand trade, improve living standards and bolster civil society in the Arab world.