Sen. John F. Kerry indicated that as president he would play down the promotion of democracy as a leading goal in dealing with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China and Russia, instead focusing on other objectives that he said are more central to the United States' security.
Kerry, in a one-hour interview Friday night, also rejected setting a date for the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Iraq. Although the notion is gaining favor with some Democrats, the party's presumptive presidential nominee said "it is not a good idea just in a vacuum" because the timetable for reducing U.S. troops must be dictated by success in holding elections and establishing security and stability.
In many ways, Kerry laid out a foreign policy agenda that appeared less idealistic about U.S. aims than those of President Bush or even fellow Democrat Bill Clinton. Although Kerry said it is important to sell democracy and "market it" around the world, he demurred when questioned about a number of important countries that suppress human rights and freedoms. He said securing all nuclear materials in Russia, integrating China in the world economy, achieving greater controls over Pakistan's nuclear weapons or winning greater cooperation on terrorist financing in Saudi Arabia trumped human rights concerns in those nations.
"Sometimes we are dealt a set of cards that don't allow us do everything we want to do at once," he said.
During the interview, he eschewed the soaring rhetoric on freedom and democracy that are commonplace in Bush's speeches and news conferences. At one point, he stumbled over the words when he tried to emphasize his interest in promoting American values: "The idea of America is, I think proudly and chauvinistically, the best idea that we've developed in this world."
Of promoting democracy overseas, Kerry said: "How fast you can do that and how rapidly others can embrace it and what can be expected over a period of time varies from place to place." Emphasizing his interest in setting realistic goals, he added: "Beware of the presidential candidate who just sort of says with a big paintbrush we're going to make everything all right overnight."
The interview, conducted at his campaign headquarters in Washington, was part of an 11-day effort by the Kerry campaign to flesh out his foreign policy agenda in preparation for the fall campaign battle. Last Thursday, Kerry outlined what he called his "foreign policy architecture": rebuilding alliances; modernizing the armed forces; deploying diplomacy, intelligence, economic power and American values to overcome threats; and freeing the United States from its dependence on oil from the Middle East.
On Tuesday, he will give a speech outlining proposals on preventing a terrorist attack using nuclear and biological weapons, which include creating a high-level White House coordinator to oversee his plan to secure nuclear material around the world and accelerating efforts to secure such materials in the former Soviet Union. On Thursday, Kerry will present his proposals for restructuring the armed forces.
Bush's campaign ads have sought to portray Kerry as an unreliable leftist who would undermine the war on terrorism. The Massachusetts Democrat has countered with a foreign policy critique that mainly challenges Bush on tactics, not fundamentals. Asked in the interview how his approach would differ from Bush in certain areas, such as Iraq and nuclear proliferation, Kerry often cited more attention to detail or greater urgency -- in other words, competence over ideology.
During this period of campaigning, Kerry has not outlined a new strategy for the most vexing foreign policy issue: the situation in Iraq. He articulated a plan for Iraq several weeks ago that, with minor nuances, is similar to Bush's current approach, though he has argued that Bush has so badly damaged relations with major allies that only a new president can win international support for the U.S. plan in Iraq. (Kerry also argues that Bush has progressively moved toward his position on Iraq.)
Kerry, who has devoted much of his two-decade Senate career to foreign policy issues, was comfortable and confident in answering questions that hopscotched across the globe and various trouble spots. He provided detailed, sometimes complex answers that occasionally drew on his experiences in meeting leaders in the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.
He said he would aim to set clear priorities after deciding what is most important and achievable in dealing with other countries. He also said he would balance those goals so no single objective overwhelmed the administration or left other concerns festering. He accused the Bush administration of having an "Iraq-centric preoccupation" that has left little opportunity to deal with other pressing problems.
"Do you think they know where Latin America is? It is all part of the same problem," Kerry said. "It is the distinction between what is cosmetic and what is real. In the 20 years that I have been here, I have learned to distinguish between the two. This stuff going on is mostly rhetoric."
Kerry also accused the administration of having no plan to deal with North Korea's rush to build its nuclear weapons arsenal. He derided the Bush administration's long effort to set up six-nation talks to resolve the impasse over North Korea's nuclear ambitions as a "fig leaf" designed to cover up its failure to have a coherent policy.