Foreign Policy Divide Is Slim for Bush, Kerry

Times Staff Writer

Despite all their sparring over the war in Iraq, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry have one thing in common when it comes to foreign policy: Neither wants to draw attention to how much they actually agree.

The two candidates disagree strongly over Bush’s decision to invade Iraq last year. But they agree it’s vital to rebuild Iraq and train Iraqi troops to secure the country. Both promise to support U.S. forces in the field and bring them home as soon as possible. And as a long-term strategy, both pledge to work with allies, reduce America’s depen- dence on Mideast oil and foster the spread of democracy in that volatile region.

“They might not be in the same ZIP Code, but they’re in the same area code,” said James Lindsay, director of policy for the Council on Foreign Relations.

What really divides Bush and Kerry in the foreign policy arena is not the question of goals, but means -- not what they plan to achieve, but how they plan to achieve it. And that comes from the very different ways in which they view the world, a contrast that will underlie their answers in tonight’s first presidential debate of 2004, which deals with foreign policy.


“This is a race between two men, both of whom are internationalists, both of whom believe the United States should be engaged overseas,” Lindsay said. “What divides them is how the U.S. should engage the world.”

For Bush and most of his closest advisors, the coin of the international realm is military might, which scholars often call “hard power.” For Kerry and most Democrats, the United States’ power consists both of hard and “soft” power -- not only military, but also economic and political influence, often exercised through diplomacy, trade and international organizations.

In essence, the central question is: Is it better for the United States to be liked or feared?

Bush and his administration have generally shown more of a preference to be feared than liked. In his stump speech, the president underscores his “resolve” to defend America “whatever it takes.” While he praises those countries that are serving with the United States in Iraq, one of his biggest applause lines emphasizes a go-it-alone approach: “One thing I’ll never do is I’ll never turn over our country’s national security decisions to leaders of other countries.”


Kerry comes down more on the side of being liked than feared -- or as he puts it, “respected.” Kerry argues that before Bush became president, the United States had many tools available to exert its influence around the world, including the respect of allies. Now, he says, Bush has created a situation where the United States has only one weapon in its arsenal: military power.

As president, Kerry and his advisors say he would put more emphasis on alliances than Bush has, primarily the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but also the United Nations. They would also be more willing to engage potential enemies -- like North Korea and Iran -- through diplomacy and international organizations, and would intensify efforts to find a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kerry argues that alliances and good relations with other countries make America stronger, not weaker.

“America must always be the world’s paramount military power. But we can magnify our power through alliances,” Kerry said in a foreign policy speech in May. “We simply can’t go it alone -- or rely on a coalition of the few.”


Both Bush and Kerry reserve the right to attack an enemy preemptively and unilaterally -- as has every president. But Kerry presents that option as a last resort, while Bush has made it central to his security strategy.

“The Bush administration seems to have been eager to make a public doctrine of the preemptive use of force, perhaps because they thought it would be a deterrent,” said Melvyn Leffler, a professor of diplomatic history at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the nonpartisan U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

Bush accuses Kerry of having shifted his position on use of force over the three decades he has been in public life. But analysts note that like most Democrats, Kerry went through a slow, post-Vietnam evolution in his thinking about military interventions. Stung by the failures of Vietnam, Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s reflexively opposed the use of American military power around the world. But the success of the Persian Gulf War, followed by the engagements in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, convinced Kerry and many others that U.S. military power could be used effectively.

“Unlike the far left, Kerry understands the necessity of using force. But unlike the Bush Republicans, he understands the limits of military power, which are on display in Iraq,” said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank.


Many conservative scholars agree, but for different reasons. Niall Ferguson, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a history professor at Harvard, argues that the United States is an empire that fails to understand its imperialist motives, and therefore intervenes in places like Iraq, thinking that military prowess is all that’s needed.

“The trouble with an empire in denial is that it tends to make two mistakes when it chooses to intervene in the affairs of lesser states,” Ferguson writes in the current issue of the Hoover Digest. “The first may be to allocate insufficient resources to the nonmilitary aspects of the project. The second, and the more serious, is to attempt economic and political transformation in an unrealistically short time frame.”

One irony, experts said, is that there are now more differences among Republicans over how and when to use military force than there are between Republicans and Democrats.

“You see much more difference within the Bush administration than you do between the parties,” says Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.


Bush’s State Department is more traditionally Republican, or “realist” -- pragmatic about alliances and cautious about military and political intervention, Nye said. The Defense Department, and some officials in the White House, are more “idealist,” willing to use military power to promote American values around the world.

Bush has espoused both views at various times. In the 2000 election, he denounced “nation-building,” saying America must have a “humble” foreign policy. But these days, in his campaign speeches, he tends to emphasize the more idealistic -- critics say “messianic” -- approach to foreign policy.

“I believe in the transformational power of liberty,” Bush said during a campaign stop Monday. “I believe the wisest use of American strength is to advance freedom.”

While Bush speaks in idealist terms about Iraq and the Middle East, his policies in other regions are far more traditionally “realist.”


With both Iran and North Korea, Leffler said, the administration so far has considered military confrontation with nascent nuclear powers too dangerous.

Because the candidates’ overall foreign policy goals are so similar, they spend far more campaign time trading slogans than arguing policy.

“That’s typical in the United States,” Marshall said. “In foreign policy, you have great national interests at stake, and they aren’t subject to extreme partisan interpretations.”

Bush’s response is to simplify Kerry’s positions to enhance charges that the challenger “flip-flops.” Kerry is caught in a rhetorical trap: He wants to criticize the president’s current policies in Iraq, but he has to be careful not to suggest that he wants them to fail or that he disrespects the troops who are carrying them out. The result is that he has trouble explaining exactly what he would have done differently had he been president.


Looking forward to either a first Kerry administration or a second Bush administration, perhaps the most profound difference between the two leaders would be how they define and prioritize different aspects of the “war on terror.”

For Bush, the Sept. 11 attacks lowered the bar on the United States’ tolerance of threat from the rest of the world. As a result, he considered a potential threat that Saddam Hussein might acquire nuclear weapons enough to make Iraq a target, and dubbed it the “central front” in the war on terrorism.

For Kerry, the “war on terror” focuses on the terrorists who planned and executed the Sept. 11 attacks and their networks. He does not include other potential threats -- such as that from Hussein’s Iraq or nuclear programs already underway in North Korea and Iran.

Defining the “war on terror” differently could lead to different policies in a number of regions. For instance, in Bush’s view, Palestinian suicide bombers are “terrorists,” so Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat needs to be shoved aside before real peace talks can take place.


In Kerry’s view, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians fuels Muslim anger at the United States and raises the danger of new attacks. As a result, Kerry says that if he won the election, he would immediately name a high-level Middle East envoy to reinvigorate efforts to settle the conflict.

That example illustrates how Kerry’s and Bush’s differences in style can lead to very different policies in practice, even if the two men agree on many national security goals.

“George Bush believes we are seen by others as virtuous and that for that reason, America should lead. And if we lead, others will follow,” Lindsay said. “John Kerry believes that America is powerful but not omnipotent, and accomplishing much of what America needs requires the cooperation of others. And if America leads badly, others won’t follow.”