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Beyond Iraq, Voters Need Debate on U.S. Foreign Policy Future

Beyond the merits of invading Iraq, this presidential election ought to hinge on some larger foreign policy questions. One is, has President Bush bitten off more than the United States can chew in trying to spread democracy throughout the Middle East?

Another is: Is Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) so afflicted by post-Vietnam force-aversion that he’d be unable to use military force to defend U.S. interests? [IMGCAP(1)]

Here are a few more major questions: Can Bush regain sufficient worldwide respect that he can get cooperation from other countries? Will Kerry be so eager to rebuild alliances that he gives foreigners a virtual veto over U.S. policy?

Want more? Will Bush’s second-term foreign-policy team retain a balance — even a fractious one — between “neo-conservative” hawk idealists and pro-diplomacy “realists”? What balance will Kerry strike between pro-human-rights idealism and hard U.S. interests?

How is each candidate going to handle burgeoning crises with North Korea and Iran? As tied down as the United States is in Iraq, could Bush apply the doctrine of “pre-emption” to either of these if he had to? Should he?

After Iraq, could Bush ever convince the world that one or the other menace requires military action? Could Kerry negotiate his way through crises with strength?

How will each deal with the growing power of China, and its pressure on democratic Taiwan? And, should the United States wink — as Bush does now — at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasing authoritarianism in order to sustain cooperation on terrorism and nuclear proliferation?

These forward-looking questions — many of which arose at a symposium last week sponsored by the New America Foundation — have been largely overlooked so far in the rough-and-tumble of the 2004 debate.

At present, Iraq is practically the only focus of foreign-policy exchanges between the candidates, with Democrats charging that Bush deceived Congress and the nation into war by exaggerating the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction.

Bush responds — rightly — that not only the Central Intelligence Agency, but also British and French intelligence, the United Nations and the Clinton administration all assumed that Iraq possessed such weapons.

Bush goes on to assert that, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he dared not risk the possibility that Saddam Hussein might pass WMD to a terrorist group to use against the United States.

Now that it appears that Hussein had no WMD and had no ongoing collaboration with al Qaeda, the question arises: If Bush asserted — or if the CIA told Kerry — that Iran or North Korea was on the verge of posing a nuclear menace, would anyone believe it?

As British journalist Martin Walker said at the NAF symposium, “One of the real tragedies of America’s Iraq adventure is that I don’t see much political will to take on the Iran. It looks to me as though we will leave it to the Israelis,” who previously destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.

Walker was one of several participants who charged that Bush was exceeding America’s capabilities by trying to spread democracy through the Middle East, especially given the difficulty of achieving stability in post-war Iraq and anti-U.S. feeling in the Mideast.

“We are the dominant power in the world, but even we have limitations,” said Dimitri Simes, director of the Nixon Center. “We can’t impose democracy even if our purposes are benign. Hegemony never looks benign to others.

Americans generally don’t consider our country a “hegemon” (world-dominant power) or “imperialistic,” but several foreign journalists and U.S. participants said that U.S. might and Bush’s seeming disdain for the views of other countries had raised anti-Americanism to record levels.

Journalists from France, Germany and Brazil made it clear that if foreigners had a vote for who should be “leader of the free world,” Kerry would win hands-down.

Kerry, of course, is making U.S. “respect in the world” a major campaign issue, asserting that rebuilding U.S. alliances would be one of his top priorities as president.

Scheduling problems left the NAF conference without a staunch Bush defender, who might have pointed out that Bush has tried, unsuccessfully, to get NATO help in Iraq.

Such a participant might also have raised questions about what price foreigners — France, especially — might demand of Kerry for better relations. A Brazilian journalist did point out that Kerry might well adopt more protectionist trade policies than Bush, confounding his efforts to rebuild alliances.

The major question about Kerry that I have — and it wasn’t mentioned at the conference — concerns his willingness to use major military force.

In 1991, Kerry voted against authorizing Bush’s father to use force after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which menaced the entire oil-rich region. Kerry argued then, much as he does now, that “there is a rush to war. I do not know why,” and he charged that President George H.W. Bush lacked sufficient domestic and international support. Now he applauds Bush’s father’s coalition-building.

Meantime, Bush will certainly not say who will lead his second-term foreign policy team, but he ought to be asked whether someone will be around to take Secretary of State Colin Powell’s place in challenging the hawkish influence of Vice President Cheney.

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