DAN K. THOMASSON Bush, Kerry close on foreign policy
What seems clear even in this setting of extreme partisan rhetoric is that there is very little difference between George W. Bush and John F. Kerry when it comes to the nation's response to terrorism and national security. As one observer put it, they are separated by the width of a credit card when it comes to this and other foreign policy issues.
Perhaps for that reason and an admission by Kerry's national security advisers that there is "some lingering recognition" that the president "did reasonably well" in his response to the 9/11 attack, Bush still leads solidly in polls measuring voter comfort when it comes to whom is best able to protect the nation at home and abroad.
It was in an effort to offset this advantage that the Kerry campaign rolled out 12 retired generals and admirals to endorse the Massachusetts senator's candidacy, gloating over the fact that Bill Clinton only had one such prestigious supporter in his campaign.
Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led the military onslaught, adding his voice to those of a brigade of lesser veterans who already have endorsed Kerry, most of them from the Vietnam era. The campaign has taken care to point out that the 12 "flag" officers included nothing as mundane as a mere brigadier or major general. If these had been included, the number would have been much higher.
The "can you top this" approach generally carry's little weight with voters who are more interested in how Kerry would differ in handling Iraq and the global terrorism war than they are in hearing from retired officers. The hope is, however, that their credibility will bolster his claims that he will be every bit as strong in his national security posture as Bush despite the fact he has seemed to vacillate on Iraq, first voting for the resolution authorizing it but not voting for an $87 billion appropriation supporting the invasion and Iraq's reconstruction.
While Kerry has made much of his military record in Vietnam where he was highly decorated during 41/2 months "in country" running a Navy swift boat in combat, his claims have been offset somewhat by his stint as an anti-Vietnam War activist on his return to the United States.
During briefings here, the senator's national security and foreign policy counselors have tried to emphasize that the difference between Kerry and Bush on these issues is not in their ultimate goals of eliminating al Quaeda or in democratizing Iraq but in how to accomplish it, arguing that Kerry would have a far better chance of success in courting world wide support. His criticism of Bush's failure to convince major allies like Germany and France has been a major campaign theme.
At the same time, Kerry is calling for expanding the Army by 40,000 and doubling the number of troops assigned to special operations. He contends this would relieve the pressure on the National Guard and reserves, which have been hard hit by extended service in Iraq and Afghanistan, and can be accomplished without an increase in the defense budget, a dubious claim at best. The campaign also has renewed the contention that the administration badly underestimated the number of troops needed to pacify Iraq. It is Bush's stubborn refusal to concede this point, although supported by a growing number of military experts, that he is most vulnerable. Kerry aides never miss the opportunity to point out that Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki was forced into retirement for contending over Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's objections that it would take as many as 400,000 troops to stabilize Iraq.
Still, when asked about how Kerry would handle the dangers of Iran becoming a nuclear power and the seemingly unsolvable Palestinian situation, the campaign's response is couched with caution that includes an immediate declaration of support for Israel with most of the burden placed on the Palestinian Authority to make peace.
What is clearly apparent is that Kerry has no more answers to the current world situation than Bush. What he is counting on is that public dissolution over Iraq and the prospect of new terror will convince Americans to gamble on a change.
X Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.