On Tuesday, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry and President Bush both made important foreign policy statements. It was striking how little the two men differ on the steps they say should be taken to secure the peace in Iraq.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Kerry challenged the Bush administration's handling of the war in Iraq, calling for greater internationalization of the effort. On the same night, in a nationally televised prime-time speech and news conference from the East Room of the White House, Bush spoke of efforts to turn over authority on key matters to the United Nations and NATO.
"The most important thing about Sen. Kerry's op-ed, I thought is how similar it really is to Bush administration policy, and that I say in praise of him," William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, said in an interview Tuesday for my Political Players series on Yahoo News. "He is not willing to cut and run from Iraq... He wants the U.N. to be more involved, but he doesn't say if we can't get the U.N. more involved, we should get out. President Bush is trying to get the U.N. involved, too."
If Bush and Kerry differ little on the major issue of the day, what rationale do voters have for a change?
Kerry has been calling for the administration to turn over civil reconstruction authority to the United Nations. He has even suggested that U.N. representative Lakhdar Brahimi might be a good person to lead the effort. Bush said on Tuesday: "We're working closely with the United Nations envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, and with Iraqis to determine the exact form of the government that will receive sovereignty on June 30th. The United Nations Election Assistance Team, headed by Karina Perelli, is in Iraq developing plans for next January's election."
Kerry also addressed the security of Iraq in his Tuesday op-ed: "We should urge NATO to create a new out-of-area operation for Iraq under the lead of a U.S. commander. This would help us obtain more troops from major powers... The primary responsibility for security must remain with the U.S. military, preferably helped by NATO until we have an Iraqi security force fully prepared to take responsibility."
Bush in his Tuesday speech: "NATO is providing support for the Polish-led, multinational division in Iraq. And 17 of NATO's 26 members are contributing forces to maintain security. Secretary of State Powell and Secretary of [Defense] Rumsfeld and a number of NATO defense and foreign ministers are exploring a more formal role for NATO, such as turning the Polish-led division into a NATO operation and giving NATO specific responsibilities for border control."
Kerry has been a realist about the difficulties of attaining greater international cooperation -- a goal complicated by the most recent security challenges. But he's done little to explain how he would go about overcoming that problem, other than saying that it would be a priority. He has also said the administration should not have banned French, German and other companies from bidding on reconstruction contracts.
Kerry has also been critical of the administration's June 30 deadline, which looks tenuous at best. But he has also said the United States probably needs to stick to the deadline now that it's been set.
Bush's decision to take the United States to war in Iraq and his management of that war could undo his presidency. Polls are showing declining support for his policies. But if Bush is ousted at the end of his term, it will more than likely be because Kerry's accusation of mismanagement rings true to voters than because Kerry has outlined a boldly different platform. Kerry, after all, voted to authorize the war even as many in his party questioned the premises the administration was making to justify the war.
For that reason, Kerry has a problem. Shackled by three decades of public skepticism of Democrats on foreign policy, he fights an uphill battle for hearts and minds at home. Even with criticism of Bush's handling of foreign policy on the rise and greater numbers of voters saying they believe the war in Iraq has made us less safe, Kerry still struggles to poke holes in the president's policies while bolstering his own foreign policy credentials.
The Bush campaign, clearly aware of the president's vulnerability on this issue and eager to retain the upper hand, has set an aggressive tone against Kerry.
On the "Imus in the Morning" radio show last week, Bush campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Devenish laid out the case against Kerry. "Instead of showing the world and the enemies of freedom that America stands firmly behind the effort in Iraq, and is committed to victory, John Kerry has made the political calculation to rail against the War on Terror at every stop on the campaign trail without offering any credible alternative," she said. "John Kerry has no plan for the war on terror, just personal political attacks that he launches against the president and our allies who are standing strong against global terror."
The Kerry camp fired back hard.