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Kerry Will Have to Convince Voters He’s as Tough as President Bush on Foreign Affairs - 2004-03-01

i>In Focus…foreign policy and the race for the White House. The 2004 presidential campaign is taking place against a backdrop of the continuing war against terrorism, with ongoing battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Political analysts say foreign policy will play a central role in this presidential campaign. VOA’s Serena Parker reports on the role of U.S. foreign policy in national elections and the issues likely to be raised in this year’s campaign.

A recent event sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington posed the question: how important will foreign policy be in the 2004 race for the Presidency? Very important says Jeff Greenfield, who is senior political analyst for America’s Cable News Network, or CNN. He says Americans are concerned about threats to their security, both military and economic. The way that America reacts to such perceived threats can be broken down into two basic camps: isolationist or interventionist. Jeff Greenfield says both trends have been repeated throughout American history.

“I think there are two strains in American thought about the rest of the world that keep showing up,” he says. “One of them is that we really don’t want much to do with the rest of the world. We were formed in opposition to Europe. We were deeply suspicious about all things European: big cities, corrupt nobility, religious wars. And we’ve got two oceans (that separate us from most of the world.) The other strain is that America is a beacon to the world and we have a responsibility to show the rest of the world what freedom and liberty is all about.”

During the Cold War, the majority of Americans wanted their president to take a tough stand toward Communism. Mark Halperin, Political Director at the American Broadcasting Company, or ABC, says the political party most Americans felt was best suited to handle the challenge at that time was the Republican Party.

“The reality is: it’s a real issue,” he says. “It’s one of the qualifications of the presidency, one of the responsibilities of the presidency, that during the Cold War I believe Republicans had as their biggest advantage in politics. And I think it is again an incredible advantage for this party because the parties [today] are not on equal footing for a variety of historical and cultural reasons on national security. I think the question is: Is it an automatic advantage that George Bush has and will take into this election?”

Mark Halperin says Republicans again have an advantage over the Democrats because the September 11th terrorist attacks on New York and Washington created a new sort of Cold War atmosphere in American politics. He says that during the campaign, President Bush needs to remind voters of his performance in the wake of the September 11th attacks.

Mr. Halperin advises Mr. Bush to say something like: “I wake up every morning concerned about this. I understand how to deal with this. I’m surrounded by good men and a few good women, who understand this problem. And the other party cannot be trusted to do this because they have no record of dealing with it.” He adds that, “As much as possible, President Bush has to create the conditions that existed during the Cold War, where the Commander-in-Chief was the person who kept your children safe at night. And that if you didn’t pick the right person, you were putting your family at risk.”

On the other hand, Mark Halperin says the Democratic nominee will have to work to undo the incumbent Republican President’s advantage -- a difficult challenge at best. He points out the last Democratic President, Bill Clinton, was able to win because the Cold War had ended and Americans were more concerned with domestic issues like jobs and education.

Bill Clinton did another thing that helped him win against the first President Bush, says CNN’s senior political analyst Jeff Greenfield. Mr. Clinton was tougher on a number of foreign policy issues than the incumbent. In fact, a number of conservative Republicans backed Mr. Clinton against the Republican president because of his tough stance on human rights violations in Bosnia and China. Mr. Greenfield says if Massachusetts Senator John Kerry wants to beat George W. Bush, he might want to consider this.

“If Kerry looked at the history,” he says, “you might think that he would want to get busy sooner rather than later at looking at the foreign policy record of the president and describing it in a way that says, ‘Look, I know there are bad guys out there that mean the United States ill. They mean to kill as many of us [Americans] as possible. And the number one job of the president is to keep this country as safe as possible and here is what the president has not done about that.’”

Senator Kerry, who so far has won all but two nominating contests and appears to be the eventual Democratic nominee, has not indicated that he plans to run his campaign that way. In fact, his voting record in the U.S. Senate is already under fire from the White House for not being strong enough on national defense.

Clifford May, President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based policy institute, says Senator Kerry’s votes during the Cold War, the first Gulf War and before and after September 11th, can be used against him to show that he is weak on national security. However, Clifford May concedes that the Senator’s military combat service in Vietnam works in his favor.

“John Kerry wore a uniform. John Kerry was in Vietnam. That may suggest to people that he knows how to be tough and that he’s no stranger to military matters,” he says. “To me that’s not enough. I want to look at his voting record in Congress, which I don’t think is good on these issues. But it depends on how well voters get to know him. I think it does help that he wore a uniform and that he won medals.”

John Kerry’s military service will be especially valuable this year as U.S. troops remain deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s the continuing presence of American forces in Iraq and the rationale behind the military intervention there that is raising a lot of questions this election year. Political analysts are quick to point out that Americans traditionally don’t want U.S. soldiers involved in armed conflicts. And if they are sent, they want them to go in quickly and get out. With mounting American and Iraqi casualties, Clifford May says that what happens in Iraq between now and when American voters go to the polls will be critical.

“I think Americans want to see that the president is on the right path, that progress is being made, that he has a strategy that is likely to lead to success,” he says. “I think if they see that, even if there are losses, even if it’s a hard road, then they’ll support him. If they feel that it’s a mess and that it’s falling into chaos, then they are going to be open to those who say there’s a better way.”

The debate over the U.S. military intervention in Iraq is shaping the Democratic Party’s nominating process and will likely play a major role in the 2004 campaign with the Republican Party defending the president’s decision to invade Iraq and the Democratic Party attacking it.

Analyst Clifford May says the military action in Iraq and Afghanistan reflects something more significant in American politics: a historic shift in how the two parties see nation building. He notes prior to the September 11th attacks, most Democrats were for nation building and now most are against it, or at best ambivalent toward it because they think it’s too difficult to accomplish.

According to Clifford May, most Republicans, led by George W. Bush, now view nation building in a more positive light: “The neo-conservative view sort of harkens back to (John F.) Kennedy and (Harry) Truman and Woodrow Wilson saying, ‘No, we can’t just do that. We also have to leave the place a better society than when we found it. Because if we leave it a swamp, it’ll breed alligators and mosquitoes that will bite us. So it’s in our interest to stay there and help.’”

This neo-conservative view has been criticized by many in the United States and around the world. Political analysts say that the U.S. led effort to rebuild the shattered nations of Iraq and Afghanistan and the success or failure of those missions will play a central role in the 2004 battle for the White House.