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Kerry faces PR fight over foreign policy

WASHINGTON -- If elected president, John F. Kerry would move to increase the US military by 40,000 troops. He would send more soldiers to Iraq if commanders said they were needed. He would stay in Iraq as long as it took to get the job done.

Those are the policies that Kerry's inner circle of foreign policy advisers must work with every Monday at lunchtime when they meet to discuss ways to take the Democratic candidate's ideas to the American public.

Their main goal: ''To show that we can protect America better than George Bush," said Rand Beers, Kerry's chief national security adviser.

In a presidential race dominated by national security issues, Kerry's success may hinge on whether voters are convinced that his ability to forge ties with allies can make America safer than President Bush's more unilateral approach. Lately, the differences between the candidates have sometimes been hard to detect.

But in public opinion surveys, Bush trumps the Massachusetts senator on those issues. A USA Today/ CNN/ Gallup poll released last week indicated that 41 percent of respondents said they thought ''only Bush" would do a good job handling terrorism, while 20 percent said ''only Kerry" would. On the situation in Iraq, 40 percent indicated ''only Bush," while 26 percent indicated Kerry. Those numbers come in one of the most troublesome news cycles for the Bush administration, as the Sept. 11 commission hearings and the rising violence in Iraq have raised questions about Bush's conduct on both issues.

The poll numbers also come as Bush and Kerry have increasingly echoed each other's statements on foreign policy, complicating Kerry's struggle to distinguish himself in voters' minds and maintain the support of antiwar Democrats.

Bush is beginning to adopt measures that Kerry has long advocated: giving the United Nations a far greater role in Iraq, emphasizing the importance of welcoming NATO to Iraq, and beefing up the number of US troops in Iraq.

The president's moves have generated a mixed reaction among Kerry's advisers, some of whom have urged him to take credit for the change.

''It is the greatest form of flattery in a sense, isn't it?" Beers said.

But others see a danger for Kerry in Bush's new pronouncements.

''The nightmare for Kerry is that all of his criticisms become moot, except the woulda-shoulda-coulda criticism about the war," said Walter Russell Mead, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. ''In this sense, voters are going to say to themselves: 'What's the difference? If I vote for Kerry, I will get a war in Iraq and someone who doesn't believe in the war but is going to have to fight it anyway. If I vote for Bush, I get a war in Iraq, fought by somebody who believes in the war.' "

Kerry also has appeared to take on positions more associated with Bush, and in recent weeks has endorsed Bush's foreign policy decisions more than once. When Bush lauded the plan by Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to withdraw from Gaza and keep some settlements in the West Bank, Kerry agreed. He also agreed that Palestinians should not expect to gain the right to return to Israel, and he suggested that Israel has a right to defend itself by killing leaders of the Islamic militant group Hamas. In recent weeks, Kerry also has said that he would act alone, if necessary, to protect America's interests -- a hallmark of Bush's presidency -- and that he would stay in Iraq as long as necessary to bring stability to the country.

''I think they are moving toward a merge," Mead said. ''Most of the people I talk to don't think there's going to be that much difference between them, in substance, because the options are so limited. I think in a second term, the Bush administration would try to get more foreign support, and a Kerry administration would sometimes have to go it alone."

That view will be expressed in next month's issue of Foreign Policy magazine in an article titled ''Meet George W. Kerry."

Kerry's aides balk at this kind of comparison to Bush, which could encourage left-leaning voters to defect to Independent candidate Ralph Nader, who says he would pull troops out of Iraq. But they concede that the sweeping difference between Bush and Kerry is in their tone and worldviews, not their foreign policy goals.

''Much of American foreign policy is bipartisan," Beers said. ''The goals are not always in question; it's the style, it's the way in which we're approaching it."

Kerry's success will depend in part on how well his foreign policy team can get his style across to voters, according to analysts and advisers.

''This is a crucial election, and it is absolutely essential that people understand that there is a choice here," said Madeleine K. Albright, who served as secretary of state under President Clinton and who described herself as ''a friend" of the Kerry campaign.

''I think there is a fundamental difference here in terms of their approach to the world," said Samuel L. Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, who now advises Kerry. ''I think this administration believes you go it alone and you use allies when necessary, and I think John believes that you use allies whenever possible and go it alone when necessary."

Kerry's team has been inundated with foreign policy advisers, so much that one task of the Monday afternoon sessions is to weed through the volunteers. Along with Beers, the team includes longtime Senate aide Nancy Stetson, lawyer and former Kerry aide Jonathan Winer, and Joseph Wilson, the former ambassador who publicly challenged Bush's contentions that Saddam Hussein sought uranium in Africa.

Kerry, who as the son of a diplomat spent some of his childhood at a boarding school in Switzerland, fits the bill of the multilateral candidate. He has served nearly two decades on the Senate foreign relations committee. Unlike Bush and Clinton, former governors who had to be tutored on foreign policy during their campaigns, Kerry has conferred frequently with foreign leaders over the years. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, he conducted a ''listening tour" of the Middle East, meeting with Sharon, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, even Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at his compound in the West Bank.

But Iraq presents a delicate problem for Kerry, who voted for the war but has since vigorously criticized it as waged with too little international support. Another problem, Kerry's advisers concede, is that he will have limited opportunities to change Bush's policies in Iraq if he is elected.

''If he gets to be the president, he inherits the occupation of Iraq at whatever state it might be . . . and all the lousy options that go with it," said Leon Fuerth, former national security adviser for Al Gore.

''The next president of the United States doesn't get to do a thing until after he is inaugurated. The question is: What kind of situation will we be in then? Will it be a situation where it is extremely difficult to hand it off to anybody?"

An option Kerry put forth in a recent op-ed essay in The Washington Post is to place the military in Iraq under NATO, which is commanded by a US general, as a way to share the burden with more foreign troops.

Bush administration officials say they already are exploring ways to expand NATO cooperation in Iraq. NATO has been reluctant without a new UN resolution and has had its hands full in Afghanistan.

''There is no question in my mind that the military operation in Iraq should be a NATO operation, but there is a question at this late stage [whether] it can be done, given the antagonism among key nations in the run-up to the war," said William Perry, former defense secretary under Clinton and a Kerry adviser.

Another idea Kerry put forth was to give far more power to the UN, perhaps allowing UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to take over the role of top US administrator in Iraq now filled by L. Paul Bremer III. Bush already has called on the UN to play a larger role, albeit to a lesser extent, and the UN is hesitant to return to Iraq with a large mission until the security situation improves.

''It's kind of a moot point," a UN official said. ''They are already leaning heavily on Brahimi to help find a formula for the 30th of June [handoff of power]. By the time either Bush is reelected or Kerry is elected, this thing is all going to be played out."

Despite Kerry's multilateralist tendencies, some analysts predict that if he becomes president he probably will have to lead a largely US effort in Iraq and take other unilateral actions -- much as Bush, who promised during his campaign to avoid nation-building, was pushed to do so by world events.

''The world we live in is not going to be terribly different under a Bush presidency and a Kerry presidency," said Ivo H. Daalder, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. ''The United States is the most powerful country in the world, and therefore, the use of American power is going to be indispensable in getting anything done.

''Kerry will find, if he doesn't know it now, that in order to get anything done, whether it is through the UN or through NATO, that the US is going to have to lead . . . using power, using coercion."

Farah Stockman can be reached at 

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