WASHINGTON – Hoping to win territory from President Bush, the Democratic candidates are vowing to make foreign policy a centerpiece of their campaigns and put the president on the defensive before the November election.
Howard Dean was the first to hammer Bush on his decision to go to war. John Kerry and Wesley Clark tout their credentials as war veterans while they stump around the country. Back in Washington, their surrogates on Capitol Hill are also stepping up criticism of the intelligence used to justify war, the failures of diplomacy that have alienated America's allies and the prosecution of the war in Iraq.
With the war on terrorism, a candidate perceived as weak on foreign policy would have little chance, say some experts.
"There is a new world we are looking at, and it’s a world where a Democratic candidate, particularly, has to have credibility in national security," said Robert Boorstin, senior vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress (search).
That said, Kerry, the current front-runner, and chief rival John Edwards have hard questions to answer, said Robert Kagan, senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (search) and author of the recent book "Of Paradise and Power."
"The Democratic Party has a problem in that the most likely nominees voted against the $87 billion. I can understand voting against the war and voting against the $87 billion or for the war and for the $87 billion, but I can't understand voting for the war and against the $87 billion," Kagan said.
In a debate last month, Edwards tried to explain his October vote against the supplemental bill to pay for the operations of troops and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he was trying to send a signal of his displeasure with Bush's policies.
"I thought it would be a mistake for me to say to the president, 'What you're doing is right, I support it, go forward. Here's your blank check, come back next year and ask for more money.' There are two of us on this stage, Senator Kerry and myself, who both voted against it. And I know that both of us felt we needed to say loud and clear to President Bush that what he was doing was wrong and we thought he needed to change course," Edwards said.
In a rhetorical pre-emptive strike, Bush attempted to set the tone for the election year debate in his State of the Union address.
"America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our country," Bush said, in a remark that also tried to tamp down criticism of his decision to press ahead without support from some U.S. allies.
"The White House has posed a very difficult dilemma, saying 'go ahead and disagree,'" Boorstin said of Bush's statement. "And if they do, [Republicans will be] able to say 'the Democrats will put your security in the hands of the French bureaucrats.'"
Although unilateralism is a frequent charge made by Democrats against the president, it is unclear how well that argument will be received by voters.
"The question I have is whether there is anyone who could have brought France and Germany on board? I wish John Kerry or Howard Dean or John Edwards the best of luck if they are going to be president and deal with the security problems they are going to have to deal with and bring everyone else along," said Kagan.
Attacks on the president may resonate with Democratic primary voters, but to unseat Bush in the general election, the Democratic candidate will have to focus on the positive elements of his foreign policy vision, experts say.
"They're pretty good on the critique side. They're pretty lousy on the vision side," said Ivo Daalder, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution (search), who has advised several of the Democratic candidates.
Daalder said the only vision Democrats have portrayed so far is one of fear.
"No Democratic candidate running for the office is going to make it to the White House without putting forward a coherent plan about what to do with Iraq," he said.
"I don’t think it's enough for the Democrats to complain and whine about Bush's foreign policy. I think they have to put forward a concrete foreign policy agenda. If you just criticize these folks, if you just go the liar and the cheat route, you're going to lose and you're going to lose big time," Boorstin added.
He cited the 2002 midterm elections, when the Democrats did not present a clear alternative to the national security policies of the Bush administration and the GOP, and ended up losing ground in Congress.
"My really strong advice on running on a foreign policy plank is run on the foreign policy you can actually imagine the country running on. It isn’t enough just to find the thing that the current administration is doing wrong," Kagan said.
However, as a wartime president whose leadership after Sept. 11 is widely recognized, Bush will have plenty of ammunition of his own. During a recent trip to New Hampshire, Bush said he is looking forward to debating the Iraq war with whoever is the Democratic nominee.
Kagan said despite all the focus on foreign policy, voters are more concerned with domestic issues like health care and the economy than the state of trans-Atlantic relationships.
"I don’t think your average voter cares very much if the Europeans are happy with us," Kagan said.
The focus on national security is a double-edged sword, said Boorstin. With voters focused on domestic issues, the White House's expensive foreign policy could be a sore spot.