Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry has staked much of his campaign on a proposal he hopes will convince voters that he can extricate the United States from Iraq more quickly and at less cost than President Bush.
But Kerry’s plan, which promises to effectively shift much of the Iraq war burden from America to its allies, so far is failing to receive the international support the proposal must have to succeed.
Kerry in recent appearances and interviews has been intensifying his effort to spotlight what he sees as the Bush administration’s mistakes in Iraq -- especially the failure to broaden international involvement -- as a fundamental difference between the two candidates. But Kerry’s proposals depend on changing the minds of foreign leaders who do not want to defy their electorates by sending forces into what many consider to be a U.S.-made mess.
“I understand why John Kerry is making proposals of this kind, but there is a lack of realism in them,” Menzies Campbell, a British lawmaker who is a spokesman on defense issues for the Liberal Democratic Party, said in a typical comment.
Many allied countries may welcome a new team in Washington after years of friction with the Bush administration. But foreign leaders are making it clear they don’t want to add enough of their own troops to allow U.S. forces to scale back to a minority share in Iraq, as Kerry has proposed.
Allies say they are ready to consider further financial aid and other help for the fragile new Iraqi government. But some officials overseas already are fretting about Kerry’s talk of burden-shifting.
“Some Europeans are rather concerned that Mr. Kerry might have expectations for relief [from abroad] that are going to be hard to meet,” said one senior European diplomat in a statement echoed in several capitals.
In an interview with The Times last week, Kerry said that by building up international support, it would be a “reasonable goal” to replace most U.S. troops in Iraq with foreign forces within his first term. There are now about 140,000 U.S. troops stationed there, or 88% of a total international force of about 160,000.
In the last several days, Kerry has begun arguing that he could substantially reduce the number of U.S. troops within the first six months of a Kerry administration. In an interview with National Public Radio on Friday, Kerry said: “I believe that within a year from now, we could significantly reduce American forces in Iraq, and that’s my plan.”
The proposal could be accomplished by increasing the number of foreign troops and boosting the size of the Iraqi security force, Kerry aides say.
Yet some key countries have already ruled out providing troops, and others are badly strained from the deployments they have already made.
The French and German governments have made clear that sending troops is out of the question. British officials have made no such categorical statement, but they have expressed concern that their troops are overstretched.
Although Japan has supplied a 550-member noncombat force as a symbol of its international commitment, analysts there see little chance the nation would agree to send more.
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Andrei Denisov, ruled out a commitment of troops. “We are not going to send anybody there, and that’s all there is to say,” Denisov said.
“From the major European countries, there’s simply not a lot of available troops out there, for both practical and political reasons,” said Christopher Makins, president of the Atlantic Council of the United States, which supports U.S. engagement abroad.
Many allied countries have a limited number of troops suitable for the Iraq mission, and most of those are already deployed on other missions, including in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Africa, Makins said.
Dana Allin of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London said, “I think there’s no question, in general, you’ll find it easier to get cooperation from allies if there is a new [U.S.] administration.” But Allin added that if new troops were to be sent to Iraq “it’s unclear where they would come from.”
Kerry has at times said he would particularly like to bring in troops from Arab countries. But diplomats, including those from Arab nations, say they consider the scenario unlikely. The Iraqi interim government has for months excluded the possibility of any peacekeeping troops coming from immediate neighbors, in part because the Iraqi people would be suspicious of neighbors’ intentions.
The recent collapse of a Saudi proposal to bring in peacekeeping troops from other Arab and Muslim countries also indicates the long odds against the idea.
Senior Iraqi officials told U.S. officials this summer that they opposed the idea of bringing in additional troops from any foreign country.
Campbell, the British lawmaker, added that Kerry “has to overcome the very considerable barrier of the fact that he himself voted for military action in support of President Bush.”
Analysts said, moreover, that if the United States was able to reduce its military by substantial numbers in Iraq, at least one or two major nations -- such as France or Britain -- would have to accept a lead role.
Kerry’s proposal comes at a time when the Bush administration is struggling to convince about 30 countries to keep their troops in Iraq. Late last month, Ukraine announced that it would start negotiations to pull out some of its 1,650 troops in Iraq, the fourth-largest non-U.S. contingent.
Kerry, however, insists that he can gather international support by showing leadership and by giving other countries decision-making authority they have not had before now.
But the Massachusetts senator has repeatedly declined to say how he would find the added support, saying it is unwise to get into the details of diplomacy. “No future president should ever lay this out on the table,” he has said.
A senior foreign policy advisor to Kerry, who asked to remain unidentified, said that campaign officials knew through foreign contacts that other governments would cooperate.
“There are enough indications through enough channels that we wouldn’t be saying it if we didn’t think we could do it,” the advisor said.
A spokesman for the Bush campaign scoffed at the Democrats’ claim to have such support. Steve Schmidt recalled the highly publicized squabble early in the campaign in which Kerry claimed the support of unspecified foreign leaders.
“He won’t name the foreign leaders,” Schmidt said. “He won’t disclose the conversations.”
Kerry has proposed two other measures he has said would help draw support -- convening an international conference on Iraq and naming through international consultations a “high commissioner,” with U.N. backing, to give other countries more say.
Several diplomats said allies would probably welcome signals of new interest in consultation. But they said that, with sovereignty now assumed by an interim Iraqi government, there was no longer a demand for an international authority that could give the occupation a legitimacy that was missing under U.S. military control.
“Nine months or a year ago, this could have made a difference,” said the senior European diplomat. “Now, it’s too late.”
At this point, he said, many of the allies think it would be better to concentrate on providing help directly to the new Iraqi government to improve its chances of creating a stable democracy.
Makins, of the Atlantic Council, said he thought the Kerry proposal for a conference and joint leadership would have limited value in drawing allies into a new partnership.
“I don’t think it would be a deal maker, as far as European participation,” he said. “I think major governments are looking for ways to build up the Iraqi government and constitutional process.”
Another Kerry proposal is to rebuild relationships with foreign governments by permitting them to bid for U.S. reconstruction contracts. Under Bush, companies from countries that didn’t take part in the Iraq war coalition were excluded from bidding for prime contracts.
But now, the administration has announced it will allow all comers to bid for a new tranche of contracts in September. Yet some of the European countries that were excluded from the earlier rounds have said for months that their industries never clamored for permission to seek such contracts.
Leaders from allied countries emphasized that they would be ready to reconsider financial aid and other assistance to Iraq under either a Kerry or Bush administration. Some said that they already had stepped up financial assistance to Iraq, even as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance agreed to Iraqi requests to begin training local security forces.
As they assess Kerry’s proposal, foreign leaders also are trying to decipher where he stands philosophically on Iraq. Similar questions have followed Kerry in his campaign at home.
Kerry, even when he supported the congressional resolution in October 2002 that authorized the war, has been consistent in pressing for more international backing for U.S. policies toward Iraq and reconstruction efforts there.
“The international community’s support will be critical because we will not be able to rebuild Iraq single-handedly,” Kerry said in an October 2002 Senate speech in which he outlined steps he thought Bush should take. “We will lack the credibility and the expertise and the capacity.”
In an address at UCLA in late February, 16 months later, Kerry said, “It is time to return to the United Nations and return America to the community of nations and share both authority and responsibility in Iraq.”
Addressing the Democratic National Convention on July 29, Kerry echoed the same themes. “I know what we have to do in Iraq,” he told delegates. “We need a president who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, reduce the cost to American taxpayers and reduce the risk to American soldiers.”
But while he has criticized the Bush administration’s competence, he has not challenged the fundamentals of its policy, nor the path it is following toward Iraq’s own upcoming elections.
Still, polls suggest that many Europeans and Asians would prefer a new administration. A recent survey found 77% of Germans prefer Kerry, to 10% for Bush; another found that 13% of Russians “like” Bush as a politician, while 60% dislike him.
There is a widespread public expectation in Europe -- despite what U.S. polls show -- that Bush will be ousted in November because of the troubled course of the Iraq war, analysts said.
But many European diplomats say they are coming to the conclusion that Bush and Kerry are close on key international issues and that there would be substantial continuity between the administrations.
Kerry, like Bush, insists that U.S. troops should not be tried before the International Criminal Court, the multinational tribunal that has been a contentious subject between Europe and the United States. The U.S. has not ratified creation of the court.
On another issue that divides the United States and Europe, Kerry has signaled that he would track the Bush administration on dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although he has said he would more aggressively seek a solution.
One German newspaper, the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, suggested Europeans were in for a rude awakening if Kerry becomes president. Under the headline “The Big Kerry Illusion,” the newspaper said Kerry would diverge from Bush, but any hope that he would more fully embrace the “global village” was “wishful thinking that will get a cold shower.”
By contrast, there is a widespread belief in Russia that a Kerry win would launch a new era of U.S.-European goodwill -- a prospect Russian leaders view with alarm.
The Russian government is happy with tensions between Bush and Europe, which gives Moscow an opening to build its own relations with European governments and distracts world attention from its own difficulties, analysts said.
“The Kremlin feels very comfortable with the notion that Bush is playing the enfant terrible in the world arena, because of his Middle East policy, and thus he keeps distracting the world from, for example, problems in Russia,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, general director of the National Strategy Council, a think tank considered close to Russian security services. “The Kremlin is not at all interested in the Democrats’ victory in the presidential polls.”
Times staff writers Bruce Wallace in Tokyo, Jeffrey Fleishman in Berlin, Kim Murphy in Moscow, Janet Stobart in London, Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris, Michael Finnegan in St. Louis and Maggie Farley in New York contributed to this report.