For the better part of 18 months, John Kerry has bitterly denounced the Bush administration's conduct of international relations, above all in Iraq. Over and over he has pronounced his unsparing indictment: "George Bush has pursued the most arrogant, inept, reckless, and ideological foreign policy in the modern history of this country."
That is remarkably hostile language for a presidential challenger. No major party candidate for the White House in modern times has so thoroughly abandoned the principle that politics stops at the water's edge.
On the other hand, voters clearly benefit when candidates articulate their differences, and make plain what is at stake on Election Day. After 18 months of honing his anti-Bush message, Kerry should be able to outline his alternative foreign policy with crystal clarity. He should have no trouble laying out a comprehensive vision for Iraq and the Middle East and explaining why it is superior to Bush's.
So why doesn't he do so?
On "Meet the Press" this week, NBC's Tim Russert pressed Kerry to spell out just what it is he hopes to accomplish in Iraq, and how his goals differ from Bush's. Among his questions: Do you believe the war in Iraq was a mistake? Do you have a plan to deal with Iraq? If you are elected, will there be 100,000 US troops in Iraq a year from now? Why do you say the UN and NATO should take over when they don't have the troops or the desire to do so?
Here is a representative excerpt from Kerry's replies:
"We need a new president . . . to re-establish credibility with the rest of the world. . . . Here is the bottom line: Number one, you cannot bring other nations to the table through the back door. You cannot have America run the occupation, make all the reconstruction decisions, make the decisions of the kind of government that will emerge, and pretend to bring other nations to the table.
"Now, finally, George Bush is doing what I . . . have recommended. In effect, he's transferred to the UN the decision about what government we'll turn it over to. But he won't transfer to the UN the real authority for determining how the government emerges, how we will do the reconstruction of Iraq. . . .
"If I'm president, I will not only personally go to the UN, I will go to other capitals. . . . I will immediately reach out to other nations in a very different way from this administration. Within weeks of being inaugurated, I will return to the UN and I will literally, formally rejoin the community of nations and turn over a proud new chapter in America's relationship with the world."
No matter how the question is put, Kerry's answers on Iraq always boil down to a single recipe: Shrink the US role in Iraq and defer to the United Nations instead. That's it. That is the sum and substance of his thinking about Iraq. He doesn't relate it to the war on terrorism, to the future of liberty in the Middle East, to America's national interests. He repeatedly declares Bush a failure for not kowtowing to the UN and vows that in a Kerry administration, the UN will be given the commanding role it deserves.
Kerry has been talking this way for months. In his speech on Iraq at the Brookings Institution last fall, for example, he mentioned the UN no fewer than 25 times. ("We need a new Security Council resolution to give the United Nations real authority in the rebuilding of Iraq. . . . This shift of authority from the United States to the United Nations is indispensable.") By contrast, he mentioned terrorism just seven times. He mentioned freedom, democracy, and the Middle East not at all.
There is more of this UN fetish in Kerry's recent Washington Post column on Iraq. "The United Nations, not the United States," he writes, "should be the primary civilian partner in working with Iraqi leaders to hold elections, restore government services, rebuild the economy, and recreate a sense of hope and optimism among the Iraqi people."
When Bush speaks about Iraq, by contrast, it is clear that he has thought the subject through and related it to his larger goals in the world. Agree or disagree with Bush's vision for Iraq, there is no denying he has one. Consider an extract from his recent press conference:
"The defeat of violence and terror in Iraq is vital to the defeat of violence and terror elsewhere, and vital, therefore, to the safety of the American people. Now is the time, and Iraq is the place, in which the enemies of the civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world. We must not waver. . . .
"The consequences of failure in Iraq would be unthinkable. Every friend of America and Iraq would be betrayed to prison and murder as a new tyranny arose. Every enemy of America and the world would celebrate, proclaiming our weakness and decadence, and using that victory to recruit a new generation of killers.
"We will succeed in Iraq. . . . Iraq will be a free, independent country, and America and the Middle East will be safer because of it. . . . We serve the cause of liberty, and that is always . . . a cause worth serving."
The cause of liberty and the defeat of terror vs. the cause of a more powerful UN: In this first presidential election of the post-9/11 world, that is what the choice comes down to.