Facing dwindling differences between President Bush's policy proposals for Iraq and his own, Sen. John Kerry is increasingly striving to draw distinctions along a broader - and more fundamental - foreign-policy theme: statesmanship.
In a series of speeches outlining his ideas for a new national security framework, Senator Kerry is accusing the Bush administration of undermining "the legacy of generations of American leadership," weakening US security by alienating allies, and relying on force over diplomacy.
The emphasis comes as Mr. Bush begins a swing of patriotic-themed events, from the dedication of the World War II Memorial to the anniversary of D-Day. It represents an effort to cast Kerry as a credible commander - one who recognizes a need to adapt to new threats, but also appreciates models of leadership and statesmanship that strengthened the US in other eras.
Significantly, it may also allow Kerry to frame the Iraq debate along the lines of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, when he said, "I will go to Korea," or Richard Nixon's implicit claim in 1968 that he could fix the mess in Vietnam. Rather than differentiating himself from Bush on specifics when it comes to Iraq, Kerry is focusing on differences in worldview, experience, and personal style - and arguing that those differences would make him more likely to achieve success there and in the conduct of US foreign policy in general.
Kerry's goals in Iraq are "the same goals the Bush administration has," says Jonathan Winer, Kerry's former legal counsel and a foreign policy adviser. "It's how you achieve the goals that would be very different." Specifically, "John Kerry would be less authoritarian than the Bush administration," Winer says. "And that might have substantial benefits."
To some observers, differences in style and approach can only go so far. Indeed, in a recent issue of Foreign Policy magazine the editors posited that a Kerry administration's foreign policy would probably wind up emulating Bush's, since presidents typically find themselves "at the mercy of uncontrollable global forces that render their personal views and campaign promises largely irrelevant."
When dealing with a problem like Iraq, "It's possible that some change in personalities could help at the margins," says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University. "But ... there are some underlying realities." For example, Kerry's call to get NATO more involved in Iraq - an effort Bush is now pursuing - may not be feasible, given the relatively small fraction of NATO troops available for foreign duty. Similarly, France and Germany have made it "crystal clear that they just ain't interested in sending troops," Professor Lieber adds, a stance that's unlikely to change.
Moreover, Kerry and Bush share some key similarities when it comes to their overall approach to foreign policy. Both have clearly asserted that the US does not need a green light from other nations to use force. And while Bush has moved toward Kerry's call for internationalizing the effort in Iraq, Kerry has moved closer to Bush's original wariness of the United Nations, proposing a "high commissioner" to Iraq who could bypass UN bureaucracy.
Still, many analysts argue that the overall approach and tone Kerry would bring to US foreign policy would represent a striking contrast with Bush - and could lead to some substantially different results.
"Bush is part of the realist, realpolitik school of foreign policy, that first and foremost showcases America's force," says historian Douglas Brinkley. "Kerry is part of what they used to call the moralist or multilateral school of foreign affairs."
Often, realpolitik is the best approach, Mr. Brinkley adds: During the cold war, for example, both Kennedy and Reagan took tougher stands against the Soviet Union, that ultimately proved successful. "But it is not the best approach when you are trying to get countries to spend billions of dollars in building up a new democratic society."
Kerry's multilateral worldview can be traced to his background: The son of a diplomat, he went to boarding school in Switzerland, and spent time in cities like Paris and Bonn. In the US, his familiarity with European culture has been seen almost as a disadvantage - Republicans have joked that he "looks French," and mocked him in an Austin Powers-style spoof as an "international man of mystery."
But as the US burden in Iraq grows, Americans may increasingly see an advantage in a president who is comfortable negotiating with - and might have more of an opening among - foreign leaders.
Kerry supporters argue that many European nations actually want to get back on good terms with the US, but feel they can't negotiate with Bush because the political cost at home would be too high.
"I think we'd see a pretty palpable clearing of the air [under a Kerry presidency]," says Ted Widmer, a former National Security Council speechwriter and a professor at Washington College. "And I think there could be some quick steps taken that would build on that."
But to critics, Kerry's willingness to work through multilateral institutions is an outdated approach, as the US faces new, fast-growing threats like terrorism. "Diplomacy by nature is slow and laborious," says Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation. "The nature of the [terrorist] threat is so much more instantaneous - it requires more aggressive ... action."
In some ways, friends and advisors admit, Kerry's approach to diplomacy would probably be less chummy than predecessors such as former President Clinton, who was known for his charisma - or even than Bush, who has made a hallmark of bringing foreign leaders to his ranch (and bestowing nicknames on them). "John is not a towel-snapper," says Winer.
But they say he's also not likely to be taken in by leaders with agendas - bringing a healthy skepticism to his dealings dating back to days as a prosecutor and times he headed Senate investigations.
"John has seen too much double-dealing and people with agendas to accept at face value what he's presented with," says John Mattes, a former aide who worked with Kerry on several Senate investigations.