Kerry's Iraq views are much like Bush's

Posted in United States | 27-May-04 | Author: Richard Stevenson| Source: The New York Times

Democrats say they have credibility

WASHINGTON When it comes to Iraq, it is getting harder every day to distinguish between President George W. Bush's prescription and that of Senator John Kerry.

They still differ on some details, and Kerry continues to assert that Bush has lost so much credibility around the world that only a new president can rally other nations to provide the necessary assistance, a point he made on Tuesday while campaigning in Oregon.

But as became evident with Bush's latest speech on Iraq on Monday night, which followed a detailed speech Kerry gave on Iraq's future one month ago, the broad outlines of their approaches are more alike than not. That is particularly true as Bush moves toward giving the United Nations more authority, a move long advocated by Kerry.

They both support the June 30 deadline for the beginning of the transition to civilian power. They both say they would support an increase in U.S. troop strength, if necessary. Neither has supported a deadline for removing U.S. troops.

Bush's gradual shift away from what many Democrats have long denounced as his go-it-alone stance is an adjustment to the surge in violence in Iraq, as well as the deterioration of domestic support for the occupation in the wake of the prison abuse scandal.

But there also is clearly a political component at play here, as the White House seeks, while managing its own problems, to create a predicament for Bush's Democratic opponent. Kerry is beginning a series of speeches this week in which he will lay out some of his most detailed foreign policy pronouncements.

The fact that Bush has moved closer to Kerry on some of these questions makes it much more difficult for Kerry to take advantage of what Democrats and Republicans view as the biggest political crisis of Bush's presidency, by emphasizing differences between them. Kerry is left to suggest that while both men have similar ideas about what to do, he has more credibility to do it, given the breakdown in relations between Bush and many world leaders over Iraq.

Bush and Kerry have negotiated the shifting sands of Iraq for more than a year now. Some Democrats said that their candidate would just as soon stand back and not engage Bush on the war, allowing the president to struggle with setbacks, while avoiding making himself a target should Bush attempt to suggest that he is not supporting the troops.

But as Kerry is well aware, there is a growing antiwar segment of the American electorate. And there is likely to be an antiwar candidate on the ballot, in the person of Ralph Nader, the independent candidate who has called for an immediate withdrawal of American forces.

In another sign of the complication Kerry faces, Al Gore, one of the party's severest critics of the war, was set to speak in New York on Wednesday. He was expected to call for the dismissal of top White House officials and assert that Americans had been put at risk at home and abroad by Bush's foreign policy.

"He's caught between what would be politically advantageous, declaring a timetable for getting out, and what he knows is the reality on the ground, which is that we need more troops," said one adviser who Kerry relies on. "And the internal debates have often been between the camps in the campaign who want a clear break from the Bush policy and those who want to portray Bush as largely incompetent in executing what strategy they had."

Kerry's advisers minimized the extent to which Bush's shifts had made him less vulnerable to criticism on Iraq, and disputed the notion that Kerry had not drawn, or could not, draw differences with the president on this issue. And they noted a series of recent polls that show both a drop in support for the occupation of Iraq and concern over whether Bush has a plan to end it, arguing that the issue was more of a problem for Bush than it was for Kerry.

"John Kerry as a Democratic candidate for president has said more about how to fix Iraq than the sitting president, the commander-in-chief, the person who led the nation into this war," said Stephanie Cutter, a senior Kerry adviser.

In a speech last month, Kerry said the goal of the United States should be to bring about "a stable, free Iraq with a representative government, secure in its borders." That position is broadly indistinguishable from that of Bush.

The differences, as they exist, are relatively minor. Kerry has called for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to take a major role in Iraq, freeing up U.S. troops and providing an opening to attract military support from non-NATO nations like India and Pakistan.

Bush has left open the possibility of a larger role for NATO, but has not pressed hard for such a change, and administration officials are skeptical that Europeans have any desire to contribute more assistance than they already have.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Tuesday that Iraq would be discussed at the NATO summit meeting at the end of next month in Turkey, and that 16 of the 26 NATO member nations were already involved in Iraq in some way.

He said that NATO had not ruled out an expanded role in Iraq, but that there was no consensus on what that role would be.

Kerry has also called for the establishment of a UN high commissioner to oversee the political development of Iraq and the rebuilding efforts. Bush has more or less embraced the need for the United Nations to authorize a U.S.-$ led multinational force - a position long pushed by Kerry - but has signaled no support for putting additional direct power in the hands of a UN representative.