- The Washington Times - Monday, November 1, 2004

Foreign policy, typically an afterthought in U.S. election campaigns, will be foremost in many voters’ minds tomorrow as they decide whether President Bush or Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry can best lead the country in a post-September 11 world.

In the first presidential election in more than a generation in which foreign policy and terrorism vie with the economy at the top of the list of voter concerns, the choice between Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry may come down to style, not substance.

Despite bitter and often intensely personal attacks, the incumbent and the challenger broadly agree on a range of prickly international questions, from the need to stay the course in Iraq and support for Israel to a pre-emptive U.S. right to deal with terrorist threats and the danger posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

What is in sharp dispute, however, is which candidate is temperamentally better suited to protect American interests and head off threats above all in the global war on terrorism.

“The outcome of this election will set the direction of the war against terror,” Mr. Bush told supporters in Pennsylvania last week. “And in this war, there is no place for confusion and no substitute for victory.”

Mr. Kerry argues that Mr. Bush’s diplomatic style — assertive, unapologetic about American interests and unashamed of American power — has alienated key allies, damaged America’s image, and, in Iraq, led the country into a disastrous diversion from the real terror threat backed by a sham coalition of “the coerced and the bribed.”

“The president rushed to war, pushed our allies aside,” Mr. Kerry said during the second presidential debate.

“And Iran now is more dangerous, and so is North Korea, with nuclear weapons. He took his eye off the ball, off of Osama bin Laden.”

Foreign-policy debates traditionally play only a minor role in U.S. presidential campaigns compared with the economy and other domestic issues. But the world-altering events of Mr. Bush’s first term — September 11, Afghanistan and Iraq — have rewritten the equation.

A Time magazine poll early last month found that 42 percent of voters listed either the war on terror or Iraq as the most important issue in their presidential decision, compared with 26 percent for the economy and 12 percent for “moral issues” such as homosexual “marriage” and abortion.

Voter worries about security and the international scene have led both campaigns to talk tough.

Mr. Bush has mocked Mr. Kerry’s often strained efforts to explain his position on the war in Iraq, while Kerry partisans insist the Democrat will fight a smarter — and tougher — battle against the terrorists.

“John Kerry has a comprehensive plan to wage a relentless, single-minded war to capture or kill the terrorists, crush their movement and free the world from fear,” said Wendy Sherman, a senior State Department aide under President Clinton and a leading foreign-policy adviser for Mr. Kerry.

“He will destroy the terrorist networks, take strong action to prevent nuclear terrorism, cut off terrorist financing, protect the homeland, deny terror safe havens and new recruits, support democracies in the Arab and Muslim world, and restore alliances to combat terrorists across the globe,” she added.

But foreign-policy analysts still see a major divide between the two candidates flowing out of the September 11 attacks.

For Mr. Bush, who as a candidate in 2000 famously promised to make the country a “humble nation but strong,” the al Qaeda strikes in New York and Washington required a complete overhaul of the rules of diplomacy and U.S. foreign policy.

“After 9/11, we had to recognize that when we saw a threat, we must take it seriously before it comes back to hurt us,” he said in the town hall debate with Mr. Kerry in Missouri last month .

“In the old days, we’d see a threat and we could deal with it if we felt like it or not. But 9/11 changed it all.”

Mr. Kerry’s supporters say the administration’s “us-versus-them” diplomacy, its disdain for traditional alliances and its unwillingness to work through established institutions have left the United States isolated, feared and less safe than before.

“What hasn’t changed is what constitutes legitimate action on the part of a nation-state that violates the sovereignty of another nation-state,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime Senate colleague of Mr. Kerry.

“What hasn’t changed is any consensus on what constitutes a humanitarian crisis, and under what circumstances an individual state, let alone a group of states, has the right to intervene,” Mr. Biden told a recent Council on Foreign Relations forum.

There are some specific policy differences.

Mr. Kerry favors direct talks with North Korea’s Stalinist leadership to resolve the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang. On this issue, it is Mr. Bush who is the multilateralist, arguing that Mr. Kerry’s approach would undermine ongoing six-nation regional talks hosted by China.

On Iran, Mr. Kerry has said he is open to a deal with Tehran to supply nuclear fuel for the country’s energy needs if Iran abandons efforts to develop its nuclear programs. Mr. Bush has let a trio of European powers take the lead in talks with Iran, but has struck a hard line against any deals on Iran’s nuclear programs.

Mr. Kerry has promised a more aggressive — critics say protectionist — stance on trade and labor deals, unnerving a number of Asian countries that export heavily to the United States.

The Democrat also vows to scale back the Bush administration’s ambitious plans for a missile-defense shield and a new generation of so-called “bunker-busting” nuclear bombs, saying they undermine U.S. credibility in pushing other states on weapons-proliferation questions.

Despite his unilateralist reputation, Mr. Bush can point to a number of foreign-policy successes, many employing the patient, multilateral diplomacy that his critics say he disdains.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice recently noted that U.S. relations with Cold War adversaries China and Russia are perhaps as warm and productive as they have ever been. Despite major differences on Iraq, Russian President Vladimir Putin has all but endorsed Mr. Bush for re-election, saying his defeat would be a victory for terrorists around the world.

Mr. Bush has also forged strong ties with two other major Asian powers, Japan and India, both of which privately express alarm at Mr. Kerry’s economic policies.

The United States and Britain negotiated a deal with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to dismantle Tripoli’s nuclear programs. Critics say Libya had been seeking a deal for years, but Mr. Gadhafi began negotiating in earnest only as the bombs were falling on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in March 2003.

U.S. pressure after September 11 brought a fundamental strategic realignment in Pakistan and across Central Asia, as regimes lined up to meet Mr. Bush’s demands to cooperate in the war on terror.

Mr. Bush’s Proliferation Security Initiative, begun in mid-2003 with 10 European and Asian allies, has brought new coordination to international efforts to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Bush proposed a massive increase in spending for AIDS treatment in Africa and has pushed a fundamental rewriting of U.S. foreign-aid programs to reward poor countries with sound economic policies and strong legal systems.

But the divisive debate leading up to the war in Iraq and the postwar violence and instability have provided an opening for Mr. Kerry and the Democrats. Mr. Kerry has aggressively challenged Mr. Bush on security and foreign policy — issues that traditionally have been Republican strengths.

Through its rhetoric and abrupt rejection of international treaties, the Bush administration has alienated allies in Europe, Latin America and across the Arab and Muslim world, the Kerry camp charges.

“At every turn, before the war, in its immediate aftermath and today, this administration has treated potential allies with disdain,” Mr. Kerry said in a speech in Iowa last week. “As president, I will treat our allies with respect.”

A senior European diplomat with long experience in Washington said Mr. Bush is broadly unpopular across both Western and Eastern Europe. The diplomat, speaking on background, said remarks such as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s “Old Europe/New Europe” distinction were seen by many as an effort to undermine the cohesiveness of the European Union.

“If Bush is elected with the same agenda as the past four years, I can see big problems,” the diplomat said. “The Europeans, frankly, are scared.”

Even some supporters of the war to oust Saddam say the administration’s handling of diplomacy and the postwar period has undermined the goals of Mr. Bush and his foreign-policy team.

Marshall Wittmann, a former adviser to Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and now a senior fellow at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, argued that “the manner in which this administration has conducted this war has been devastating to future efforts to employ force to defend American interests and values.”

“The Bush administration has handed isolationists on the right and the left a major victory,” he added.

The president insists he can work with Europe, but makes no apologies for rejecting favored European pacts such as the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and the International Criminal Court.

“I don’t think you want a president who tries to become popular and does the wrong thing,” Mr. Bush said in the second debate with Mr. Kerry. “You don’t want to join the International Criminal Court just because it’s popular in certain capitals in Europe.”

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