Foreign Policy Team Takes Center Stage
World Events Help Change Focus of Kerry Campaign
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 30, 2004; Page A08
James P. Rubin has appeared on more than 60 national and foreign television shows over the past few weeks to outline Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry's positions on foreign policy issues, from Iraq to North Korea, terrorism to weapons proliferation.
But don't try to find Rubin, who was a State Department spokesman in the Clinton administration, at Kerry headquarters. The telephone operators say he doesn't work there. And even if they did have his name, they would be hard pressed to locate him in the noisy construction zone where the campaign is racing to carve out offices for Rubin and other recent arrivals to Kerry's foreign policy staff.
With Iraq and other world hot spots emerging as pivotal election issues, the Kerry campaign is going through serious growth spurts -- and growing pains.
"Over the past month, we've been taking a ma-and-pa grocery store and making it into Wal-Mart," conceded Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, national security adviser in the Clinton administration, who recently joined the campaign. "The challenge is the equivalent of building an airplane as you fly it."
Indeed, no aspect of the campaign has been more transformed. Rand Beers, a counterterrorism specialist who quit the Bush National Security Council in March 2003, remembers working from home after agreeing to head the Kerry campaign foreign policy staff -- of one -- less than two months later. Back then, he often communicated to the campaign through e-mail. By August, he and two young aides had an office, of sorts, in a Capitol Hill basement apartment with one window.
"We were truly the foreign policy team in the sense of being foreign from the campaign," Beers recalled.
The apartment reminded him of the Robert Redford movie "Three Days of the Condor" because "it was a secret location separate from the campaign and we felt that way for a long time. Foreign policy was not regarded as important."
Since Kerry wrapped up the presidential nomination in March, however, many of the Democratic Party all-stars have signed on and are injecting new energy. Now in the midst of an 11-day blitz on foreign policy, Kerry is also being advised by former secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright, former U.N. ambassadors Richard C. Holbrooke and Bill Richardson, former defense secretary William J. Perry, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, former NATO commander Gen. Wesley K. Clark, and Sen. Joseph R. Biden (Del.), ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Rubin likened it to a government-in-exile since most served in the Clinton administration -- a stark contrast to the previous two Democratic presidents, who faced building staffs and formulating positions after long periods of the party being out of power.
Kerry's staff jokingly calls the inner circle the Pooh-bahs, from the 1885 Gilbert and Sullivan opera "The Mikado." The word originally meant "Lord-High-Everything-Else" and has come to signify a person of great influence or high position.
The Pooh-bahs are increasingly visible in taking on the Vulcans, the more serious name given George W. Bush's foreign policy team during the 2000 campaign. The term "Vulcans" came from a statue in Condoleezza Rice's home town of Birmingham, which captured the strength and determination they sought to portray. The Vulcans included Rice, Paul D. Wolfowitz, Richard N. Perle, Richard L. Armitage, Robert D. Blackwill, Stephen J. Hadley and others -- most best known later for crafting Iraq policy.
Although some Kerry staff aides cringe at their nickname, Holbrooke jested upon hearing that he is called a Pooh-bah, "It's the highest rank I've ever held, and I hope by the end of the campaign to be promoted to pasha."
The Pooh-bahs' strategy is a division of labor; they play the bad cop to Kerry's good cop.
"Kerry needs to present himself to the public as a person who can take over the job of commander in chief by explaining what he would do and how he'd do it," said a senior Kerry adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But it's still wise to have a drumbeat of criticism for the mistakes made in Iraq, so we have this offense attacking [Bush] through surrogates while Kerry uses his time presenting his own views."
The adviser added: "You'll hear us use the words 'incompetence' and 'mismanagement' in describing Bush's policies, but you won't hear those words from Kerry -- yet."
Unlike the Bush or Clinton campaigns, however, Kerry uses his foreign policy staff less for tutorials and positioning on foreign policy than as sounding boards to refine details, according to aides.
As a Vietnam veteran and as a senator from Massachusetts, Kerry has been involved with the full range of foreign policy issues for decades. In conference calls during the day with an array of advisers or in one-on-one calls late at night, Kerry often uses his expanding team as sounding boards to provide feedback on his ideas.
"He is his own best foreign policy adviser," Berger said. "He feels very secure in what he knows and doesn't feel compelled to show everyone how smart he is."
For now, the Kerry campaign's primary foreign policy focus is on four issues: Iraq, the Middle East, terrorism and nonproliferation. To prepare a broader agenda, aides say the campaign will soon invite hundreds of foreign policy experts and academics to join about 20 teams to develop ideas and papers on countries, regions or transnational issues.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company