The difference between the presidential candidates is not as great as it looksby Jonathan Rauch / November 21, 2004 / Leave a comment
All presidential elections are important, and 2004 is no exception. But epochal? No.
In the first presidential debate, what was striking was not how different the candidates sounded on foreign policy but how alike. George W Bush and John Kerry agreed that the leading problems are the Iraq engagement, North Korean nukes, Iranian nukes, and loose nukes. Their main policy disagreement was on whether to add a bilateral component to current six-party talks with North Korea – a tactical nicety. The only major point of contention was over who will do a better job managing the problems and commitments that the next president, whoever he is, will inherit.
Bush claims that his steadiness and vision can democratise the Islamic world, and that doing so will increase freedom and reduce terrorism. Kerry claims that his credibility and sensitivity will re-engage allies, thereby creating options that are closed to Bush. Both points have elements of truth, but the real-world contrast is not as sharp as the claims suggest.
Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom” is a sound and overdue policy change. Kerry is not as outspoken about it, but he won’t abandon it, if only because the old policy of supporting Arab tyrannies is a self-evident failure. For his part, Bush has pretty much run out of countries to democratise by force, and troops to do it with. Bush sees democratisation in the Arab world as the work of decades, not years, and he is right. So the difference is mainly one of emphasis. Regardless of who is elected, democratisation will remain – as it long has been – a polestar of US foreign policy, and it will also remain slow going.
Kerry might, as he says, prove better at working with others than Bush has been, and that might create some new diplomatic opportunities. But those would be on the margins. Like Bush, Kerry would find himself struggling to manage ongoing crises and hot spots in Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Kashmir, Israel-Palestine, the strait of Taiwan, Sudan, and possibly Russia, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. Neither candidate offers a grand plan for those crises and hot spots, because none exists. The policy, like it or not, will be to muddle through.
Both candidates will prosecute the war on terrorism vigorously: any president would. Which leaves Iraq. Obviously Kerry, whatever he may say, is less committed to that effort than is Bush. If…