When George W. Bush accused John Kerry this week of approaching the world with a pre-Sept. 11 mind-set, it was - to the president's way of thinking - the ultimate put-down. But in many ways that view captures the stark differences separating the two men, not only in how they define themselves, but also in their visions for America's role in the world.
Both candidates have settled on foreign policy as their preferred campaign workhorse for distinguishing themselves from each other. It is Sept. 11, 2001, and the broad issues emanating from that day - national security, terrorism, religious extremism, weapons proliferation, American relations with the world - that provide the line of demarcation.
Mr. Bush, whose sense of mission in the presidency was transformed by that day, not only sees everything in terms of Sept. 11, but considers as dangerous anyone who does not. Senator Kerry sees such a view of the world as promoting a "vision of fear," and espouses a more traditional foreign policy emphasizing multilateral cooperation.
In a sense, campaign 2004 is a battle of George Bush against George Bush - that is, George Bush the absolutist opposing George Bush - the first President Bush - the pragmatist and internationalist.
The fact that both candidates have settled on the same issue as the defining theme of the campaign could simplify decisionmaking for voters, some analysts add. It also makes voters think beyond more traditional bread-and-butter issues.
"This election is about security - how you define it and how you achieve it. It's not one [candidate] saying, 'I'm the healthcare guy,' and the other, 'I'm the jobs or something-else guy,' " says John Hulsman, a foreign-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "They're both saying Iraq and the war on terror is the seminal issue. It forces voters to decide which narrative you believe in."
Indeed, the two "narratives" differ starkly. Bush uses Iraq and the war on terror to define himself as resolute, certain of what is right and wrong, and unchanging when the going gets tough. In contrast, he uses foreign-policy issues to portray Kerry as indecisive, malleable, accommodating of foreign viewpoints, and even dangerous to the extent that he would approach terrorism less as a war and more as a law-enforcement challenge.
Bush's vision is one of a new world of danger, driven home by the events of Sept. 11, the antidote to which is freedom for individuals in the image of American individual freedoms. He sees America leading the world best by sticking to principles and working with movable and ad hoc alliances that fit a situation rather than with static international institutions that constrain the United States.
For his part, Kerry uses Iraq to portray himself as considered and measured, but confident enough to recalibrate policy when experience reveals corrections to be necessary. In contrast, he suggests Bush is rash and stubborn, as well as dangerous in that he has tarnished America's global image and weakened willingness to cooperate with the US. Kerry also uses Bush's shifting rationale for war and his optimistic portrayal of Iraq today to cast doubts on the president's honesty.
As Kerry senior adviser Mike McCurry told The Washington Post recently, "Iraq is a way for Kerry to talk about candor. The candor to acknowledge the things that need to be addressed."
Kerry's world vision is more in line with the post-World War II, internationalist approach followed by presidents before Bush - including Bush's father - where national security is more tightly anchored to collective arrangements and international cooperation.
Iraq, as it turns out, is holding center stage in the campaign not because one candidate's plans for what to do there now are so different from the other's, but because it has become the prism through which both candidates have chosen to deliver a vision for the presidency.
"Iraq is ground zero for the foreign-policy debate, but it's not because there's a marked difference between the two on what they would do there," says Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy expert at Georgetown University in Washington. "It's more that the large issues of why we attacked Iraq, and should we have attacked Iraq, shed a light on very broad and telling differences on such important questions as the standards the two would use to justify the use of force or the importance and treatment of alliances."
Surveys show consistently that the foreign-policy views of American voters are more in line with Kerry's than with Bush's. "On a good number of [foreign-policy issues], John Kerry is much closer to the public stand than is George Bush," says Benjamin Page, a specialist in electoral decisionmaking at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He points to high support for US action within multilateralist frameworks and low support for preemptive military action.
In addition, he says the public "is much less interested in democratizing the world" than the president says he is, while Americans are "much more supportive" than Bush of international treaties like the Kyoto climate-change accords.
That leads Mr. Page to say it's a "puzzle" why American voters aren't more attracted to Kerry's foreign-policy stance. But the puzzle is solved by the evidence that foreign policy for many voters post-Sept. 11 is less specifics and more a leadership issue - where Bush scores well.
Another explanation, Page says, is the way the administration "has been able to manage perceptions very successfully" about its foreign-policy actions.
Of course all is not merely perception: There are some key differences between the candidates for voters to contemplate.
For Bush, the war on terror is above all a matter of battling and reforming nation-states. Thus his "axis of evil" was made up of three so-called rogue states - Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Iran, and North Korea - but did not include Al Qaeda. Kerry, meanwhile, is more focused on terrorist organizations and on international law-enforcement efforts to destroy them.
That difference helps explain Bush's statement, cited by Kerry, that Osama bin Laden no longer worried him as much once he was denied a base of operations in Afghanistan. It also helps explain Kerry's recently stated desire to reduce terrorism to a "nuisance," which Bush assailed as a lack of understanding of the terror threat.
In the area of arms proliferation, both candidates place it at the top of priorities. But Kerry says he would be ready to engage in bilateral discussions with both Iran and North Korea to address their nuclear programs, while Bush says such talks only led to deception by those countries' leaders and thus failed in the past.
At the same time, voters can also consider the current administration's track record on foreign affairs - which has drawn low scores from some surprising corners. For example: Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to the first President Bush, recently lambasted Bush's unilateralism, his Middle East policy, and a "failing venture" in Iraq.
Yet other observers say it is above all Bush's rhetoric that has been out of the American foreign-policy mainstream - while many of his actions suggest a pragmatism that fits the American public.
"There is a difference between Bush's defiant rhetoric and his actions, where we see a recognition of what the US can and can't do," says Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center in Washington. "If he were really such a pro-democracy ideologue, a Trotskyite promoter of world revolution, you would not see him building these constructive relations with China, with Russia, or nurturing ties to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia."
In the end, with Iraq still uppermost among issues in an election deeply marked by Sept. 11, some observers believe the outcome may turn on how closely voters associate Iraq with the war on terror.
"Kerry is raising the nagging questions: By going after Iraq, did we drop the ball on Osama bin Laden? By focusing on Iraq, did we allow Iran and North Korea to become more dangerous?" says Georgetown's Mr. Kupchan. "To which Bush is responding, 'I can walk and chew gum: We removed the threat from Iraq, and at the same time we are dealing with Iran and North Korea.' "
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