SEN. JOHN F. KERRY'S 11-day mini-campaign on the theme of national security appears unlikely to produce sensational headlines or seize the country's attention -- which is, on balance, to his credit. At a moment when the crisis in Iraq dominates the national discussion, Mr. Kerry is resisting the temptation to distinguish himself from President Bush with bold but irresponsible proposals to abandon the mission, even though that course is favored by many in his party. Nor has he adopted the near-hysterical rhetoric of former vice president Al Gore, who has taken to describing Iraq as the greatest strategic catastrophe in American history and calling U.S. handling of foreign detainees an "American gulag."
Instead, Mr. Kerry is in the process of setting out what looks like a sober and substantial alternative to Mr. Bush's foreign policy, one that correctly identifies the incumbent's greatest failings while accepting the basic imperatives of the war that was forced on the country on Sept. 11, 2001. In his opening speech on the subject Thursday, Mr. Kerry reiterated one of the central tenets of Mr. Bush's policy: Lawless states and terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction present "the single greatest threat to our security." He said that if an attack on the United States with unconventional weapons "appears imminent . . . I will do whatever is necessary to stop it" and "never cede our security to anyone" -- formulations that take him close to Mr. Bush's preemption doctrine.
Yet Mr. Kerry focused much attention on the president's foremost weakness, his mismanagement of U.S. alliances. The Bush administration, he charged, "bullied when they should have persuaded. They have gone it alone when they should have assembled a team." Not only is the truth of that critique glaringly evident in Iraq and elsewhere, but Mr. Kerry is also right to suggest that repairing and reversing the damage probably will require a new president. Though Mr. Bush has belatedly changed course in response to his serial failures in Iraq, there is no evidence that he would pursue a more multilateral foreign policy if reelected.
Mr. Kerry's promise to "launch and lead a new era of alliances for the post 9/11 world" nevertheless does not add up to a strategy by itself. Tensions between the United States and countries such as France, Germany and South Korea predate George W. Bush and will not disappear if he leaves office; leaders in those nations have their own ambitions to challenge or contain American power. Strong alliances require a common strategic vision -- and the vision offered so far by Mr. Kerry is relatively narrow. His Thursday speech focused on combating threats and on reducing dependence on Middle East oil; this week he will set out policies to block the spread of nuclear weapons. But he has had little to say about the good the United States should seek to accomplish in the world. In an interview Friday, the candidate stressed that he has set out the "architecture" of his foreign policy and will talk more about goals and values in coming weeks. Thus far he has spoken more about protecting American companies and workers from foreign competition -- something that hardly promotes alliances -- than about fostering democracy in the Middle East or helping poor nations develop.
The emerging Kerry platform suggests that ultimately he would adopt many of the same goals as Mr. Bush. In his latest speech he rightly warned of the terrible consequences of failure in Iraq and, like Mr. Bush, embraced elections and the training of Iraqi security forces as the best way forward. His proposal for a U.N. high commissioner represents a slight upgrade on the deference already given by the White House to U.N. representative Lakhdar Brahimi; his call for a NATO-led military mission already has been aggressively pursued by the Bush administration, with poor results. There are, in fact, few responsible alternatives to the administration's course. Mr. Kerry's argument is that he has a better chance of making it work. It's not a bold offer to voters -- but it's probably the right one.