The two major American political parties are more like two branches of a single corporate-financed domination group which has far more in common than to distinguish them. It doesn't seem that way to many Americans who cherish the notion of 'democracy' and are quite unaware of how the system actually works. But foreigners know better.
In Debate on Foreign Policy, Wide Gulf or Splitting Hairs?
September 30, 2004
By JAMES BENNET
WASHINGTON, Sept. 29 - It is an axiom of the two
presidential campaigns that their candidates offer a stark
choice about America's role in the world.
On Thursday night, voters will have their best chance yet
to judge that choice when President Bush and Senator John
Kerry meet in their first debate, on foreign policy.
"I don't think we've had as clear-cut a difference between
two presidential candidates on international issues since
1980," said Richard C. Holbrooke, a former United Nations
ambassador and now a top adviser to Mr. Kerry.
There are "clear differences on the biggest priorities
facing the American people, first and foremost on the war
on terrorism," Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman,
said on Wednesday.
Yet, in the view of some politicians and policy analysts,
this race has done little so far to clarify the major
issues of foreign policy. "I was a little more hopeful this
year that we'd get a robust debate on these issues," said
Lee H. Hamilton, the former Democratic representative from
Indiana who served as the vice chairman of the Sept. 11
commission. "It's just appalling, if you look at what is
not being addressed. You confront not just terrorism in the
world, but you confront turmoil, chaos."
One reason the candidates have not discussed a wide range
of issues is that - for all the talk about stark
differences - on many foreign policy subjects, from
relations with China to the conflict between Israelis and
Palestinians, the two differ only slightly, if at all.
Even on Iraq, the candidates' sharpest stated differences
are retrospective, rather than prospective. Mr. Bush
defends the war as central to the struggle against
terrorism; Mr. Kerry criticizes it as a diversion. As they
look ahead, though, neither man is calling for the
immediate departure of American troops; both advocate
accelerating the training of Iraqi forces.
Both want to create similar conditions for an American
withdrawal; Mr. Kerry argues he will find a way to do that
Concerning China, both candidates speak of building a
cooperative relationship while promoting internal reform.
Susan Rice, another Kerry national security adviser, argued
that the candidates had "fundamental differences" on
foreign policy, but said that on the specific question of
China, "the differences are more of nuance than
On Israel and the Palestinians, both candidates support
Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, in building a
barrier against West Bank Palestinians and planning to
evacuate settlers from the Gaza Strip without a peace
Sam Nunn, the former Democratic senator from Georgia who is
co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which focuses
on threats from unconventional weapons, noted that both
candidates had called controlling such weapons the No. 1
foreign policy challenge. "But I don't think there's enough
discussion," he said.
For example, Mr. Nunn asked, could the United States
simultaneously build a strong relationship with Russia to
control such weapons and press the Russians to move ahead
with internal democratic reform? "If there's a conflict
between those two goals," he asked, "which is more
important, and how do you deal with it?"
Both men have proposed plans to restrict more countries
from producing potential fuel for nuclear weapons. Mr.
Kerry has said he would sharply step up a program, which he
argues Mr. Bush has underfinanced, to secure nuclear
stockpiles in Russia.
Senator Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican, said, "I
think both these campaigns have let down this country." He
said that the most important issue to address was how "to
put back together America's standing in the world."
In modern presidential campaigns, candidates tend to pick
foreign policy issues at least as much for what those
issues say about them as for what they might have to say
about the issues. They marshal policy differences as
symbols, as markers of values, judgment or style.
When they debate Iraq, the candidates are clashing over
matters of real moment - over whether, for example, the
insurgency is growing stronger - but also trying to cement
specific images. Call it character versus competence: Mr.
Bush wants to present himself as a leader with the courage
to go it alone, facing a rival who wavers; Mr. Kerry wants
to present himself as wise and prudent, better able to
judge threats and enlist allies against them.
In discussing what he described as major differences
between the two candidates, Mr. Holbrooke argued that "the
core issue is that John Kerry is a real internationalist."
He added that from Mr. Bush's speeches, "you could put him
right up there with Woodrow Wilson," but that there is no
"connection between his speeches and his performance."
White House officials continued to cast the foreign policy
debate primarily as a way for Mr. Bush to make his case
that Mr. Kerry is not a suitable commander in chief.
"We are a nation that is still at war, and it's important
that the president speak with clarity and show resolve,''
Mr. McClellan said. "And that's what this president has
"He will talk about his optimistic vision and his resolve
and his clear strategy for success. And that stands in
stark contrast to Senator Kerry, who has offered pessimism
and uncertainty and defeatism during a time of war."
There are substantive reasons for the candidates to
emphasize their styles in foreign policy, for it is no easy
matter to anticipate what crises will astonish the next
administration. Four years ago, during the three debates
between Vice President Al Gore and Governor Bush,
"terrorism" was mentioned only once - by Mr. Gore.
And even when it comes to approaches, presidents have often
found themselves prompted by circumstances to modify or
reverse a stance they promoted as candidates. "I don't
think our troops ought to be used for what's called
nation-building," Mr. Bush declared in 2000.
James B. Steinberg, the director of foreign policy studies
at the Brookings Institution, argued that the questions of
character and policy were entwined this year to a degree
they had not been since 1972, during the Vietnam War.
"There is a big character issue being debated here," he
said. "But people are also really lining up around two very
different world views, and two very different responses to
Those two worldviews are easily caricatured, with Mr. Bush
mocked by Democrats as a trigger-happy loner and Mr. Kerry
lampooned by Republicans as wanting permission from the
United Nations to protect the United States. Yet behind the
cartoons are unmistakable philosophical differences, with
application across the range of foreign policy. Mr. Bush
has a record of breaking with allies to act in what he
perceives as vital American interest; Mr. Kerry is more
comfortable operating with consensus.
The debate on Thursday is likely to focus on Iraq. Mr.
Bush's advisers have identified what they think is a major
vulnerability in Mr. Kerry's arguments: The Democrat, they
say, is far more interested in talking about plans to
withdraw American troops than in describing how he would
stabilize Iraq and bring democracy to the region. They have
hinted that Mr. Bush will make that a key point. One senior
Bush official called Mr. Kerry's arguments "a slow version
of cut and run."
Mr. Kerry has seized on Mr. Bush's admission of a single
"miscalculation'' in the post-invasion phase in Iraq, and
regularly ticks off other miscalculations that he argues
have cost lives and money. His advisers have discussed how
long a list Mr. Kerry should present in the debate.
Iraq is also likely to serve as a gateway to other issues.
Already Mr. Kerry's claim that Iraq is a diversion has led
him to accuse Mr. Bush of neglecting other matters.
Speaking at Temple University on Friday, he cited
independence from Middle East oil and relations with the
Muslim world among those areas of neglect, and he called
for debt reduction to support social progress in "the most
Mr. Kerry also argued that the Bush administration had
failed to address "the nuclear danger" posed by the
advancing nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea.
Some foreign policy analysts argue that Iran has been an
accidental beneficiary of the two American-led wars of the
last four years, which removed hostile governments in
neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq. The 160,000 American
troops in those two nations are preoccupied, at least for
the moment. Oil prices are at record levels, a boon to
Iran, and Iran's fundamentalist religious leaders have
tightened their hold on power.
"I don't care who wins the election - Bush or Kerry - Iran
will come right to the top of the agenda, right under
Iraq," said Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic
programs at the Nixon Center.
Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry call Iran's nuclear program
unacceptable, and both speak of pursuing diplomacy to choke
it off. Mr. Kerry says he would also pursue sanctions,
though there is little sign that European nations would
join that course.
North Korea's nuclear program is more advanced than Iran's;
the C.I.A. has warned that North Korea may conduct its
first nuclear test before the election. Again, both
candidates call for diplomacy. But while Mr. Bush wants to
continue the "six nation" talks toward North Korea's
disarmament, Mr. Kerry says he would also pursue direct
talks with Pyongyang.
Neither man has said what he would do if diplomacy failed.