The American presidential choice


Election campaigns are typically occasions when parties promise they will bring changes, all for the better—except the incumbent party, which claims that its policies are responsible for all the good things that are happening, and that the outside world is to blame for any bad things. By that measure, this year’s American presidential election is far from typical.

Anyone who attended the Democratic Party convention in Boston in July, as I did, could be forgiven for having rubbed their eyes and wondered if they were dreaming. Here was a party, running a candidate at a time of an unpopular war in Iraq, which spent the entire week stressing how tough, resolute and militarily determined it would be if it were allowed to re-enter the White House.

In recent decades, certainly since the Vietnam war (a Democrat war, in origin) ended in defeat in 1975, Democrats have shied away from military matters. When in office, they have deployed military forces, but have not stressed any warlike credentials when running for election. Bill Clinton, indeed, was known as a draft-dodger and courted immediate controversy when he arrived in the White House in 1993 over the issue of homosexuals in the armed forces. In the 1996 election one of the few advantages the Republican Bob Dole had over Mr Clinton was that he had fought in the second world war and had suffered severe injuries in that war. It wasn’t enough to get him elected, however.

This is the post September 11th world, however, so things are very different. John Kerry, like Bob Dole, has a heroic war record to boast of, and he does hope it will give him a big boost with undecided voters on November 2nd. With the memory of 9/11 still strong, and fears of terrorism still vivid, any presidential hopeful has to show voters that he will be a strong leader in the face of such threats.

John Kerry is doing even more than that, however. He is not just saying he will be strong, not just surrounding himself with former generals and Vietnam veterans. He is also saying that his foreign policy will essentially be identical to that of George Bush. He will be a strong supporter of Israel. He does not think the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, is a viable partner in a peace negotiation. He reserves the right to make a pre-emptive military strike if a threat emerges. He will work with other countries if he can, but alone if he must. No one, he says, can have a veto over America’s independence of action abroad. Those are all phrases borrowed from the Bush lexicon.

If you ask his foreign-policy advisors what they would do differently to Mr Bush, as I did in several meetings in Boston, they talk of the incompetence of the Bush team, not of mistaken objectives; and in some cases, notably North Korea, they even accuse it of having been too soft. One advisor who I know well even says he favours the use of pre-emptive military action against North Korea, albeit after diplomatic measures to deal with its nuclear programme have been explored further.

That is not the way it looks overseas. Or, at least, it is not the picture foreigners are hoping to see. Their votes, certainly in Europe and the Arab world, would go strongly for Mr Kerry, not on the basis that he would be the same as Mr Bush but rather that he would be different. They think that unlike George Bush he would not invade other countries, would work with his allies, would respect treaties, and would work with the United Nations, not against it.

Of course, another typical characteristic of election campaigns is that candidates say many contradictory things: they want to appeal to all sides of every argument. Mr Kerry is also saying he would not start wars unless he has to, that he wants to work with his allies, and that he wants to co-operate with the UN. But the question one should ask is, what does this mean? Mr Bush has never said he favoured starting wars unnecessarily, has always said he wants to work with allies, and made a big effort to secure UN approval of his invasion of Iraq.

The real differences between the candidates lie not in the substance of policy.  They lie in style and tone. Mr Bush, thanks to the pressure of September 11th and thanks to the long, acrimonious debate about Iraq, has a terrible reputation overseas as someone who does not care about what other countries think. Mr Kerry, as a new man and as someone more familiar with foreign countries than Mr Bush was in 2000, can offer himself as a more emollient, more trustworthy figure—even if his objectives and many of his ideas are the same as Mr Bush. Just as important, though, is the fact that the outside world is different now to what it was in either 2000 or 2001: the situation facing a new president will be different. So the Kerry proposition is that a new situation requires a new style—even to achieve the same objectives.

That proposition is plausible. After all, two wars have been fought in Central Asia and the Middle East in the past three years: arguably, the main military tasks have already been done. The requirements now for American foreign policy are for it to turn both Afghanistan and Iraq into more stable, democratic states, to use the example of what has been achieved there to influence neighbouring countries to modernise; and to work hard on the very difficult diplomatic tasks of achieving a peace negotiation between Israel and Palestine, and of persuading both Iran and North Korea to relinquish their nuclear-weapons programmes. The recent use of military force in Afghanistan and Iraq may help in that persuasion by showing determination, but the main effort will be diplomatic, with assistance needed from other countries.

So the next phase of American foreign policy is likely to be different from the last three years, albeit with the same objective: of turning the failed and despairing parts of the Muslim world into stabler, ideally democratic environments in which terrorism is less likely to flourish. Mr Kerry is offering continuity of tough policy with a change of style. The already tough Mr Bush has to persuade voters that he will be able to change his style, in order to adapt to the next necessary phase of action overseas.

The choice for American voters on November 2nd will not be an easy one.