The competing foreign policy agendas of President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) will take center stage in the presidential campaign over the next two weeks, as Bush prepares for a June 30 transfer of limited authority in Iraq and his Democratic challenger delivers a series of speeches designed to show that he has an alternative vision for dealing with terrorist threats around the world.
Over the next two weeks, Americans will mark the opening of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, celebrate Memorial Day and commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Those events will provide the backdrop for what Kerry advisers see as his best opportunity to sketch out a competing course with the president. He will devote the next 11 days to national security issues.
But on the central question of the day, the future of Iraq, Kerry may have less to say than some voters expect. Aides said that none of Kerry's speeches, the first of which he will deliver Thursday here in Seattle, will deal directly with Iraq. Instead, he will seek to provide a broader vision of how he sees the U.S. role in the world and reassure voters that he can step into the role of commander-in-chief during a period of war.
Kerry advisers said his views on Iraq are well documented, the most recent coming in a speech last month in Fulton, Mo. Critics say that Bush's recent initiatives, particularly his outreach to the United Nations to put together a new government in Iraq, have narrowed the differences between the two men and that Kerry will have an increasingly difficult time explaining what he would do differently in the future.
Like Bush, Kerry does not favor setting a date for withdrawing U.S. forces and supports raising troop levels there if necessary. Kerry advisers said Wednesday that Bush has moved in Kerry's direction but that he should have done so earlier.
"We can't act like the debate started today," said communications director Stephanie Cutter. "It started two years ago. For Bush now to be adopting these steps is problematic because he's ignored our allies for two years and lost respect and credibility for the United States. So these are going to be harder to achieve, and the delay has come at great cost."
With Bush scheduled to speak at the National World War II Memorial opening and then go abroad for D-Day ceremonies, Kerry will counter with three speeches. Thursday's will focus on the principles of a Kerry foreign policy. On Tuesday, he will turn to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and on June 3, he will outline his views on the shape of the military in the future.
Aides said Kerry on Thursday will draw sharp distinctions with the president by highlighting his support of stronger alliances with U.S. allies, greater respect for other nations and their leaders, transforming the military and increasing spending to defend the homeland and reward veterans. The speech will serve as framework for Kerry's worldview on the nature of current threats and combating terrorism offensively and defensively.
A top adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said the 11-day campaign is designed to clear a big hurdle: convincing voters Kerry has superior ideas for protecting the United States here and abroad and winning the war on terrorism. In the early days of the campaign, this has sometimes proved a more difficult task for Kerry. Several polls show Bush is still viewed as a stronger leader in the war on terrorism, which is troubling to some Kerry advisers.
But Kerry will not offer new plans for ending the conflict in Iraq, which could complicate his efforts to distinguish himself in this key area. Kerry advisers said they see no reason to respond to Bush's Monday night speech in which he outlined his objectives for Iraq. "Our view is there was nothing new in that," said a Kerry foreign policy adviser, "so our view is there is nothing to contrast."
Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, national security adviser in the Clinton administration and an outside adviser to the campaign, said Kerry is under no obligation to speak in detail about Iraq during the next few weeks, because he has laid out his views in speeches.
"If anything, what you see is the Bush administration without a compass gradually drifting toward positions that Senator Kerry has taken well over a year ago," Berger said.
Bush officials take sharp exception to the idea they have somehow embraced Kerry's Iraq policy. Said one senior official Wednesday, "It's process, not substance, that John Kerry's been attacking us on."
Foreign policy experts on the left and the right said that, on Iraq, the principal focus will remain on Bush. "Kerry can let the administration stew in their own juices, and he can just essentially say incompetence has led them to this point," said Gary J. Schmitt of the Project for a New American Century, a conservative think tank. "I don't think the public really would even pay attention if he had an eight-point plan for fixing things."
Ivo Daalder, on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton years, said Kerry "can legitimately claim this is a time of extraordinary change and delicacy in Iraq and in international diplomacy and that he is not going to become a pawn in that game."
Kerry's cautious approach has allowed antiwar Democrats such as former vice president Al Gore and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to step in and set the tone for many in the party. It has also provided Ralph Nader room to establish himself as the antiwar candidate in the presidential race.
Kerry's foreign policy offensive begins at a time when he is out of step with a majority of rank-and-file Democrats over Iraq. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll, 53 percent of Democrats surveyed said the United States should withdraw its forces rather than stay and risk further casualties. But Democratic foreign policy specialists said Kerry has no choice but to reaffirm his position in opposition to some of that sentiment, lest he risk appearing political by shifting his views in the face of shifting poll numbers.
Instead, Kerry wants to outline a much broader foreign policy in the next two weeks and emphasize the United States' historical reliance on working with other nations, especially during World War II. He will surround himself with veterans, first responders, National Guardsmen and parents whose children died in Iraq. And he will talk about his war service in Vietnam and patriotism, the new campaign's symbolic centerpiece.
Balz reported from Washington.