Engagement Is a Constant In Kerry's Foreign Policy
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2004; Page A01
When President Bill Clinton referred to the United States as "the indispensable nation" during his second inaugural address in 1997, and then as other U.S. officials picked up the term, Sen. John F. Kerry recoiled. He turned to his longtime foreign policy aide Nancy Stetson to ask, "Why are we adopting such an arrogant, obnoxious tone?"
Kerry, now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has repeatedly slammed President Bush for what he calls a "go-it-alone" foreign policy. The line of attack comes naturally. Throughout his nearly 20 years in the Senate, the Massachusetts Democrat has expressed a deep commitment to negotiation and international institutions as a way to advance U.S. interests, according to interviews with the candidate and his aides and a review of his speeches, floor statements and votes.
Over the years, Kerry has pushed engagement with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the communists in Vietnam and the mullahs who run Iran. He faulted President George H.W. Bush for assembling a Persian Gulf War coalition that amounted to a "pax Americana," and has criticized the incumbent president for bungling the war in Iraq by failing to enlist the United Nations and key allies in the enterprise.
Kerry's father, a longtime State Department diplomat, taught him "the benefit of learning how to look at other countries and their problems and their hopes and challenges through their eyes, to a certain degree, at least in trying to understand them," Kerry said. "We don't always do that that well. We often tend to see other people in the context of our history, our own hopes, our own aspirations."
With foreign policy and national security rapidly becoming a central issue in the first presidential campaign since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush campaign already has identified Kerry's willingness to work with other nations as an opportunity with which to sow doubt among voters. One of the Bush campaign's first televised ads charged that Kerry "wanted to delay defending America until the United Nations approved" -- suggesting he espouses a sort of mushy-headed multilateralism that would weaken the ability of the United States to respond to threats. Vice President Cheney last week attacked Kerry's views as dangerous, declaring that the race offers the starkest choice in presidential candidates in 20 years.
Kerry, who has been a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since the day he joined the Senate, has more experience in foreign policy than any challenger to the incumbent party since former vice president Richard Nixon in 1969, and Kerry has left a rich paper trail of positions and speeches on some of the most pressing foreign policy questions.
Kerry, however, never headed the committee and generally focused on somewhat eclectic issues, such a pressing for normalizing relations with Vietnam or cracking down on globally organized crime. Kerry's aides cannot recall whether he ever sketched out a broad foreign policy vision before he sought the presidency. Indeed, many of Kerry's speeches during his Senate years were lengthy and subtle, reflecting an understanding of complex issues but also a tendency to sketch so many shades of gray that the reasoning for his position became opaque.
"I don't think it's easy for anybody, and certainly it hasn't been easy for him to craft a completely coherent foreign policy when the world is changing so fast. So he's very difficult to pigeonhole whether he's a hawk or a dove," Thomas J. Vallely, a Harvard administrator and longtime friend who speaks with Kerry often about foreign policy, wrote in an e-mail. "He sort of has a Tip O'Neill approach: Politics is the business of addition, and you need to have more friends than enemies."
Robert Kagan, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he senses that Kerry in recent years has been refashioning his foreign-policy persona, making it appear tougher, in preparation for a run for the presidency. "The question, setting aside the campaign, is: Where is John Kerry's heart?" said Kagan, who has advocated a muscular U.S. approach to world affairs. "My sense is his heart is in the anti-Vietnam, '70s-'80s left."
Kagan added, though, that "even American multilateralists are not multilateralist by a European perspective." If Kerry wins the presidency and faces the range of foreign policy issues bedeviling the Bush administration, he said that "the difference may be more stylistic than fundamental."
Throughout his career, Kerry generally had been rated among the left-of-center members of the Democratic caucus on foreign policy issues, according to organizations such as the National Journal that rank lawmakers based on key votes. Kerry displayed skepticism about costly weapons systems, such as the B-2 bomber and President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (though he supported a 1999 bill to deploy a national missile defense). He supported measures promoting human rights in China and questioned U.S. support for the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s. At the same time, he also embraced free trade pacts, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But it is difficult to draw a complete picture from a few floor votes -- or even hundreds of votes -- because so many reflect the political agenda of the party in power.
Kerry earned some of his most conservative ratings from the National Journal on foreign policy in the two years -- 1993 and 1994 -- during which the Democrats held both the White House and the Senate during his tenure. "He's a Democrat, not a Republican," said Jonathan Winer, a former longtime aide. The vote often "reflects somebody making a point, and a senator's position is reactive, not proactive. The senator often has to choose between two unappetizing positions."
Kerry is a frequent visitor to the international conferences in Davos, Switzerland, where he mingles with foreign leaders and chews over the policy problems of the day. "He eats that stuff up," Stetson said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Kerry, Ambassador Pete Peterson and Lt. Col. John Kelly, right, inspect the remains of seven servicemen returned by Vietnam in 1998, after Kerry helped normalize relations.
(Richard Vogel -- AP)