In the early days of the general-election campaign, Democrat John F. Kerry has mounted a strong effort to erode President Bush's advantage on national security. But on the defining issue of war in Iraq, his shots have appeared oblique at best.
The war received relatively short shrift at last week's Democratic National Convention -- Kerry devoted only six sentences to Iraq policy in his 45-minute acceptance speech -- and on the stump he seldom discusses his plans for bringing the U.S. occupation to a close and stabilizing the country.
Kerry has strongly criticized the Bush administration's competence in handling the war, principally its failure to enlist other nations to its cause in Iraq. But he has not questioned the basic tenets of the policy, nor has he outlined a course of action substantially different from the one Bush is pursuing to shore up the interim government and prepare for national elections. While he has said he would substantially cut troop strength in Iraq by the end of his first term, he has not provided details on how.
And when Kerry does raise questions about Bush's Iraq policies, they seem to be suggestive, not pointed. Surrounding the nominee on stage in Boston were his former Swift boat crewmates in Vietnam, the subtext being that Kerry knew all about the horrors of war -- unlike Bush, who served stateside in the National Guard -- and is better capable to extricate the United States from that troubled nation.
"I defended this country as a young man," Kerry told the convention, "and I will defend it as president."
Kerry's careful approach on Iraq is born from something of necessity. As senator, after all, he voted to give Bush authorization to conduct the war. But Kerry campaign officials also say the candidate has chosen not to address Iraq in detail at this point because of their desire to introduce the Massachusetts senator to the American public, over a range of domestic and international themes. Polls have suggested voters do not know Kerry well.
"The acceptance speech was clearly intended to be thematic," said Richard C. Holbrooke, a senior foreign policy adviser to Kerry. "It was not just about Iraq."
Holbrooke and other Kerry advisers point out that Kerry has spoken about Iraq in detail before and will do so again. In a July 4 op-ed article in The Washington Post, for instance, Kerry said he would bring in allies to share more of the burden by giving them access to reconstruction contracts and helping to repair Iraq's oil industry, if they forgave Iraq's debt and helped pay reconstruction costs. He also called for a conference with Iraq's neighbors and a potential deployment of NATO forces in Iraq.
Indeed, his advisers say, it is Bush who has followed Kerry's calls for more international support and a United Nations imprimatur for U.S. policies in Iraq. "Kerry's been the consistent one, and Bush is the one who has changed his position," Holbrooke said.
Bush and his surrogates are working hard to use Iraq to frame Kerry as a flip-flopper, seizing repeatedly on his opposition last year to an $87 billion spending measure to support the troops and provide reconstruction money for Iraq -- a Senate vote cast in the midst of the Democratic presidential primary contests when antiwar candidate Howard Dean was riding high.
Kerry has said he voted against the measure because it was not funded -- he supported the request if tax cuts for the wealthy were trimmed to pay for it -- but one of his closest advisers, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), has told other Democrats that he begged Kerry not to vote against the $87 billion.
Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt said Kerry's inability to "talk straight about that vote on Iraq" will haunt him. "He voted for the war and voted against funding for Iraq," Holt said. "As long as you look at John Kerry through a gauzy haze of images and rhetoric, they have a chance. You have to look at his record."
In Bush's revamped stump speech Friday, he drew particular glee in focusing on the vote over the $87 billion. "He tried to explain his vote by saying: I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it. End quote," Bush said to laughter. "He's got a different explanation now. One time he said he was proud he voted against the funding, then he said that the whole thing was a complicated matter." Bush then added: "There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat!"
There is some precedent for Kerry's approach on Iraq. In 1968, Republican challenger Richard M. Nixon took virtually the same tack as Kerry when he accepted the GOP nomination. Despite mass protests against the Vietnam War, Nixon only briefly touched on the conflict in his speech, criticizing the Democrats for incompetence in conducting the war, pledging to bring it to an "honorable end," and calling on allies to bear more of "the burden of defending peace and freedom around this world." Nixon, who had been Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president, also said he had experience in ending wars, pointing to the conclusion of the Korean War during the Eisenhower administration.