What We Learned from the US Presidential Debate

What We Learned from the US Presidential Debate


The first debate of this year’s presidential campaign was about foreign policy–which candidate could best protect America in a dangerous world–. Overall, George W Bush and his Democratic challenger, John F Kerry, did not raise many new arguments. And in substance the two men share almost the exact same views on most major foreign policy issues, even if they differ in style. Nevertheless, the debate did offer some interesting details about how the candidates believe America should pursue its goals in the world.


Most political commentators agree that Kerry had a successful first debate and Bush had a bad one. Each candidate claimed to be the leader who would make America safer. And although many believe Bush won on substance, polls show that Kerry prevailed on style.

While style may be key in the campaign of public perception, what substantive alternatives did Kerry propose to the policies he criticised?

Both candidates called nuclear proliferation the greatest threat to American security. The two agreed that the threat of unconventional weapons in the hands of rogue actors would be the biggest challenge facing either of them as president, and both said that Saddam Hussein had seemed to pose such a threat.

Even on the heated issue of Iraq, the sharpest stated differences between the two candidates were retrospective, rather than prospective. Bush and Kerry both agreed that the US could not precipitately pull out of Iraq. And although Kerry claimed that invading Iraq was a ‘colossal error of judgment’, he also said that ‘now that we’re there… we have to succeed. We can’t leave a failed Iraq’.

Moreover, on both military tactics and grand strategy, Kerry proposed ideas that in some cases are more hawkish than those of Bush. For example, Kerry called for the use of tougher tactics to counter the Iraqi insurgency. ‘What I want to do is change the dynamics on the ground’, Kerry said. ‘And you have to do that by beginning to not back off… and send the wrong message to terrorists. You’ve got to show you’re serious’. And when the debate moderator asked him for his position on the concept of pre-emptive war, Kerry said that he would ‘never give a veto to any country over our security’, and he pledged to ‘hunt down and kill the terrorists wherever they are. No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to pre-empt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America’, Kerry said.


What is Kerry’s Plan for Iraq?
Iraq dominated the first debate and the US presidential election will probably be won or lost over that issue. The main points of disagreement between Bush and Kerry lie in whether the invasion of Iraq has advanced US security or weakened it, and more crucially on the pace of post-war stability and reconstruction.

Bush is vulnerable to Kerry’s attacks on the failure to have a coherent plan for the peace in Iraq after the swift military victory there. But are any of Kerry’s criticisms of Bush’s policies valid? And is Kerry’s plan for Iraq in any way more astute?

During the debate, Kerry said: ‘I have a four-point plan to win in Iraq; he doesn’t’. But Kerry’s plan –convening an international summit to win greater outside support, accelerating the training of Iraqi forces, focusing reconstruction aid on high-profile projects that create jobs and taking steps to ensure that elections are held in January– is exactly the same strategy already being pursued by the Bush Administration.

Bush believes Iraq is fundamental to the war on terror and the future of America’s security. ‘Iraq is a central part of the war on terror. That’s why Zarqawi and his people are trying to fight us. Their hope is that we grow weary and we leave. The biggest disaster that could happen is that we not succeed in Iraq’, Bush said.

Kerry, on the other hand, tried to de-link the war in Iraq from the war on terror. Kerry said that Bush dangerously diverted troops from Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to Saddam in Iraq. ‘Iraq is not even the centre of the focus of the war on terror. The centre is Afghanistan’, Kerry said. ‘I would not take my eye off of the goal, Osama bin Laden’, Kerry added.

While Kerry’s assertion may have been true before the fall of the Taliban in 2001, there are now several fronts to the war on terror, including places as far away as the Philippines. And although bin Laden remains considerably more popular than Bush in most of the Arab world, the evolution of al-Qaeda has significantly diminished bin Laden’s centrality to the operations of the increasingly diffuse terror networks he has inspired. Because the nature of al-Qaeda demands a generational commitment to Jihad, the war on terror will continue long after bin Laden is history.

During the debate, Kerry reiterated his now familiar assertion that he will persuade US allies to alleviate America’s burden in Iraq. ‘We must make Iraq the world’s responsibility’, Kerry said. But he did not explain how he would secure international help, beyond calling an international conference –and by not being Bush–.

But the Bush Administration has, in fact, already organized such a conference. It will be held in Cairo in late November, with the foreign ministers of the G8 countries –including anti-war countries such as France, Germany and Russia–. China, the countries of the Arab League, Turkey and Iran have been invited to attend. If it goes ahead, it will mark the most significant attempt to forge a political consensus on Iraq since the war. Meanwhile, Japan is hosting a donors’ conference later this month.

Kerry also claimed he has the ‘credibility’ to bring allies back to the table on Iraq. However, it was not the president’s credibility that kept most of the international community out of Iraq; it was –and continues to be– the policies pursued by the US in Iraq… and Kerry is broadly committed to those same policies. Moreover, if, as Kerry says, other countries will participate because they have a stake in the outcome, then presumably they would do so no matter who was President of the United States.

In any case, many analysts think Kerry’s proposal to internationalise the forces in Iraq is unrealistic. There is not much that France and Germany, for example, could contribute, beyond some marginal peacekeeping forces, even if they wanted to. And they are likely to remain unwilling to do so even if Kerry is elected.

In fact, Kerry did not explain why he thinks US allies will shoulder this burden when they are already overextended in Afghanistan, a war they supported from the start –and, when in New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly, French President Jacques Chirac said: ‘French policy with regard to Iraq has not changed and will not change’–. The allies Kerry says he will call to a summit meeting have been unwilling even to provide a United Nations protection force for the upcoming Iraqi elections, despite pleas from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Both candidates want to create similar conditions for an American withdrawal from Iraq, and both men believe American forces should leave Iraq only when the Iraqis are able to guarantee the government’s security there. Bush and Kerry both view the ‘Iraqification’ of the conflict as the critical component in pacifying the country, bringing about elections and setting the stage for a gradual American withdrawal. According to this theory, the ability of Americans to leave depends on building up Iraqi security forces that can take over many of the policing duties now handled by the 140,000 American soldiers in Iraq.

During the debate, Bush said that 100,000 Iraqi troops, police, border guards and other security forces had been trained and that the figure would reach 125,000 by the end of the year. But detailed estimates by the Pentagon show that only 8,169 officers have completed the full eight-week academy training, and the number on whom US commanders believe they can currently rely in frontline combat situations against the insurgents is thought to number no more than 5,000.

Kerry, like Bush, says that he wants to accelerate the training of Iraqi forces. Kerry also proposes to double the number of Army special-forces troops in Iraq and expand the US Army permanently by 40,000 soldiers. Although he contends that doing so would enable a more rapid drawdown of US troops in Iraq, the arithmetic brings into focus another reality.

The US military has been spread thin by America’s global commitments. There are 1.4 million active-duty troops in the combined American armed forces, with another 865,000 National Guard members and reservists. Although this appears to be a large force, in terms of ground troops there are only some 650,000 total active Army and Marine personnel, including support units, headquarters personnel and others who do not go to the front. During a prolonged war like the one in Iraq, units sent to the front have to be rotated out and replaced with an equal number while they rest and retrain.

So maintaining a level of 140,000 ground troops in Iraq, another 20,000 in Afghanistan and a smaller force in the Balkans, while 36,000 remain in Korea and many more troops maintain bases in Europe, creates considerable strains. The current system is already drawing on Guard and reserve units to fill the gap. Moreover, most analysts believe that 140,000 troops is an insufficient force to prevail in Iraq.

And what if another big deployment is needed? What if war erupts on the Korean Peninsula, or tensions with Iran boil over, or the US suffers a major terrorist attack. Estimates vary widely on how many additional troops might be required, but some analysts say the current overall force could easily fall short by more than 70,000 ground troops.

Although some policy makers have recently called for instituting a draft, there is little political appetite for this in Washington. So while military analysts welcome Kerry’s proposals as important first steps to address personnel needs, they remain sceptical that even Bush can expand the Army enough to pacify Iraq.

Finally, even if Kerry were to bring a ‘fresh start’ to US diplomacy on Iraq, once in office presidents usually find themselves prompted by circumstances to modify or reverse a stance they promoted as candidates. So if there is no chance that other nations could contribute enough to substantially reduce America’s burden in Iraq, and if both candidates will find it difficult substantially to increase overall US troop strength, then the policy options available to either Bush or Kerry are not really all that different.

What is Kerry’s Plan for North Korea?
During the debate, Iraq also served as a gateway to other issues. Kerry argued repeatedly that North Korea posed a far greater threat than Iraq to the US, but that Bush had failed to face up to that fact because of his single-minded pursuit of Saddam Hussein. ‘North Korea has made nuclear weapons. I’ll change that’, Kerry said.

In fact, in a rare moment of clarity hardly seen so far in this campaign, the two candidates spelled out clearly divergent views on whether it would be feasible to open direct talks with North Korea as a way to halt its development of nuclear weapons; Bush has pursued a multilateral diplomacy while Kerry favours bilateral talks. Neither approach has been effective in the recent past.

Pyongyang is indisputably more dangerous now than it was when Bush took office, and US policy does appear to have stalemated. But Bush contends that two-party talks would be unwise because the US is counting on China’s leverage to pressure North Korea. During the debate, Bush argued that because Pyongyang had cheated on the 1994 Agreed Framework between President Bill Clinton and Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, he drew China, Japan, Russia and South Korea into a unified front to confront the North.

Although most analysts agree that the US absolutely needs China and others at the table in order to pressure the paranoid Kim, some of the key parties to those talks –most notably China– are also in favour of the US talking directly to North Korea in order to provide Pyongyang with security guarantees that would improve the prospects for success in the six-party process. Moreover, there are many examples in which the US has negotiated with a nation in several different forums at the same time.

In any case, neither Bush nor Kerry has said what he would do if diplomacy failed.

On Pre-emption
If Americans mostly care about which candidate would make the US safer, the concern abroad is how both candidates will treat their allies. And here Kerry appeared to strike a tone very much different from Bush.

Kerry emphasized the need for the US to forge and lead international alliances, and he suggested that in undertaking any pre-emptive action the nation had to be able to pass a ‘global test’ by making a strong case to the world for why it was doing so. Nevertheless, Kerry failed specifically to define what he meant by ‘global test,’ and Richard Holbrooke, the former UN ambassador who is one of Kerry’s key foreign policy advisers, subsequently clarified Kerry’s comments by saying that the global test did not really mean ‘global test’. It simply meant the US would consult widely with allies before taking action.

Bush said he hoped there would be ‘no need for future recourse to pre-emptive military action beyond Iraq’, because diplomacy would suffice in diffusing future threats. But neither Bush nor Kerry laid out their criteria for judging when diplomacy was no longer useful. In fact, Bush later said, ‘Listen, I’ll continue to work with our allies and the international community –but I will never submit America’s national security to an international test. The use of troops to defend America must never be subject to a veto by countries like France–’.

In any case, pre-emption has been a prominent feature of US foreign policy for nearly 200 years, and most realists agree that preventive action is an unavoidable part of doing business in a world of proliferating weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism. Moreover, unilateralism has been the historical norm for US foreign policy –the Cold War system of alliances was an aberration influenced by geopolitical circumstances that no longer exist–.

Therefore, the question is not whether pre-emptive or unilateral military actions will be taken, but how the international community will sanction them. Neither Bush nor Kerry really addressed this point.

On Democracy Building
An examination of the broad sweep of American history shows that urging democracy upon other nations –often after invasions undertaken for other purposes– is the norm rather than the exception. But Bush, more than any other president in recent history, has made spreading democracy around the world a fundamental ideal of his presidency. During the debate he talked about how Iraq could become an example to the rest of the Middle East if the US stayed the course. ‘I believe in the transformational power of liberty. I believe that a free Iraq is in this nation’s interests. I believe a free Afghanistan is in this nation’s interests, and I believe both a free Afghanistan and a free Iraq will serve as a powerful example for millions who plead in silence for liberty in the broader Middle East’, Bush said.

By contrast, throughout his campaign Kerry has avoided visionary democracy-promoting language, preferring instead to define his foreign policy goals in terms of stability. But during the debate, Kerry did say: ‘I have a plan for reaching out to the Muslim world and isolating the fundamentalists rather than allowing them to isolate us’. Kerry has proposed spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an aggressive PR strategy to change the Arab world’s perception of the US and of Israel.

In reality –as the 9/11 Commission concluded– the depth of US support for Israel (on which there is no difference between Bush and Kerry) will be the prism through which much of the Muslim world perceives US policy –at least as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues–. Because Kerry is not likely to change Washington’s policies in relation to Israel, here too, the way the US is perceived in the Middle East will remain largely a question of policy, not personality.


The first debate of the 2004 presidential campaign showed that this election will not alter the fundamental course of American foreign policy. Although Kerry turned in the stronger performance and may have revived his campaign, the main differences between Bush and Kerry essentially are ones of style, not substance. Both candidates agreed that nuclear proliferation is the single most serious threat to the US, and by common consent, Iran and North Korea are the two most dangerous potential proliferators. And although Bush and Kerry both said they would pursue multilateral diplomacy to fix international problems, both also said they reserved the right to pre-emption if and when it was in the US interest to do so.

Soeren Kern
US foreign policy analyst and former managing editor of Arms Control Today