For Kerry, a balancing act on war

Both Bush and Kerry make public gambits this week to reaffirm their stances on Iraq.

As the war in Iraq threatens to turn from a political asset to a liability for President Bush, it's presenting his rival, Sen. John Kerry, with a potential opening - and a host of risks.

Kerry is negotiating a delicate balancing act: Although Americans are growing increasingly unhappy with the president's handling of the situation in Iraq, in times of crisis they also tend to want a sense of national unity. Strident attacks on the president by Kerry could be interpreted as a lack of support for the troops, and could backfire badly.

But with Iraq clearly a central issue in the campaign, Kerry is also facing growing pressure to differentiate himself from Bush on the matter, and to offer up his own solutions.

In some ways, Kerry's position on Iraq has put him more closely in line with Mr. Bush than with some members of his own party: While he has been consistently critical of the way Bush took the country to war - alienating allies and assuming an unnecessary burden in costs - he voted in favor of the war resolution, and argues the US should send more troops, if needed, to win the peace.

By contrast, some Democrats in Congress have been comparing the situation to Vietnam, and calling for the troops to come home.

Yet the Massachusetts senator is working to highlight differences, too, laying out his ideas for internationalizing the Iraq effort this week in speeches and a Washington Post commentary, while ramping up his criticism of the administration for not having a clear strategy for success.

And while he may present a less stark political choice than an antiwar candidate such as Howard Dean would have, supporters argue that Kerry is more closely in line with the majority of voters - agreeing with the goal Bush has set, but differing on the means to reach it.

"[Americans] want the mission to be accomplished, and they're entitled to hear how a challenger like John Kerry would do the job differently and better than this administration," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute. "There's a wide-open window for Senator Kerry to lay out an alternative course to success in Iraq."

To some observers, Iraq is largely Bush's problem - and if the president's ratings on Iraq continue to decline, Kerry will benefit politically, simply by presenting himself as a competent alternative. Indeed, while Kerry needs to show voters where he stands, he doesn't actually need to articulate a detailed plan on the matter.

"It would be good if he could do that," says John Mueller, a political scientist at Ohio State University. "But he benefits [just] from being the non-Bush."

In the wake of Bush's prime-time news conference, Kerry criticized the president for not offering any details on how he planned to bring about success in Iraq. "It's time he offered a specific plan that secures real international involvement, gets the target off the backs of our troops, and starts to share the burden in Iraq," he said in a statement.

But Kerry, too, has faced criticism when it comes to a lack of specifics.

To some extent, both he and Bush are hindered by the fast-moving situation on the ground in Iraq, which could make any plan swiftly overtaken by events.

Still, Kerry has drawn some broad-brush distinctions. The primary difference he has focused on is the need to make Iraq more of an international operation. He says he would make the United Nations a full partner in the political transition in Iraq. He has also suggested getting NATO involved with the security effort.

Critics have cast Kerry as overly willing to defer to the international community.

"Bush wants cooperation with the world, but ultimately no country should have the right to veto what America views as in its essential security interest," says GOP pollster David Winston. "Whereas Kerry seems to be willing to let other countries exercise that veto."

But some of Kerry's positions are already in danger of being partially eclipsed by Bush. In his press conference, the president referred to the UN special envoy in Iraq as having the primary responsibility for figuring out to whom the US would turn over power. He also suggested a "more formal" role for NATO.

At the same time, critics point out that there's no guarantee Bush or Kerry would be able to convince other countries to commit troops or resources to the effort - particularly now that it appears more dangerous than ever - or that it would do much good in terms of stabilizing the region. The UN is not much more popular in Iraq than America, given its long involvement with the sanctions program.

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