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.
Kerry said he would immediately begin bilateral negotiations with North Korea -- a goal the Pyongyang government has long sought. But, perhaps in a nod to the sensitivities of the Japanese, the South Koreans and the Chinese, he said he would not abandon the six-nation talks.
"I would keep them both going," Kerry said. "I would do the six-party [talks], but I would engage in bilateral discussions."
The Bush administration has argued that bilateral talks would reward North Korea for its behavior, and has contended that it is necessary to include the other nations to ensure a regional solution. Kerry declined to say what he would offer North Korea as inducements to give up its weapons but said he would be willing to discuss a broad agenda that includes reducing troop levels on the Korean peninsula, replacing the armistice that ended the Korean War and even reunifying North and South Korea.
Kerry said Bush has made a serious mistake by not talking directly with Pyongyang. Of the North Korean leader, he said his advisers -- such as former defense secretary William J. Perry and former national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger -- told him that when they were in the Clinton administration "they had no illusion that Kim Jong Il was probably cheating over here and [creating] trouble over there, but they were getting the process of a dialogue to get a verification structure."
"You are better off engaged in that effort than disengaged," Kerry said.
Kerry was more cautious on whether he would allow talks with Iran, which has not had relations with the United States since the 1979 revolution. "It is one of the ironies of the Middle East," he said. "You look at Egypt and Saudi Arabia and you have governments who like us and people who don't. In the case of Iran, you have a government who doesn't and people who do."
But Kerry said he would need to know what the United States could expect if it began talks with the Islamic republic, sandwiched between the two countries recently invaded by the United States -- Afghanistan and Iraq. He said he is "prepared carefully to explore the possibilities of what direct engagement might provide. But I'm not just going to engage in it for nothing."
Kerry has regularly attacked Saudi Arabia on the campaign trail as an unreliable partner in the fight against terrorism. He suggested he would punish the Saudis if they did not cooperate more fully on money laundering and the tracking of terrorist financing.
"We cannot be hamstrung on Saudi oil," he said. "I don't believe we have a free voice in the Middle East as long as we are dependent on the oil card. That is exactly what gets played. I think there has been this sweetheart arrangement that has deprived us of that ability."
On Egypt, Kerry said that he would not tie foreign aid to greater openness and reform. "I would first want to link it to the warmth of the relationship with Israel and the effort to secure general stability in Middle East," he said. "You have to put your priorities first."
Kerry said that China, tightly ruled by the Communist Party, could be the "principal partner" in his anti-proliferation effort and that it is essential to build a partnership that recognizes "the unbelievable economic power and clout" the nation will acquire in the coming years. "China is moving" on democracy on its own accord, he said, asserting that although the central government is focused on party control, "the contest of different ideas at local levels is quite vibrant."
Kerry said Pakistan is a "critical relationship," and he said he would not immediately pressure President Pervez Musharraf to loosen the reins of power.
"Is he a strongman to a degree? Did he promise elections that have not occurred and all the rest? Yeah," Kerry said. "I don't see that as the first thing that is going to happen in our priority of making America safer. It is a long-term goal. It is a goal that I will keep on the table. But it is not the first thing that has to happen."
Instead, Kerry said, the first priority is keeping nuclear weapons from radical Islamists in Pakistan, with the secondary objective of crushing al Qaeda through better intelligence sharing with Pakistani security services.
Kerry evinced little concern about the possibility that Islamic parties could sweep elections in Middle Eastern nations if open elections were permitted. He said he would not try to thwart the results if it appeared Islamic parties might win.
"The last time I looked, except for Florida, an election is an election," Kerry said.