WASHINGTON — Despite all their sparring over the war in Iraq, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry have one thing in common when it comes to foreign policy: Neither wants to draw attention to how much they actually agree.
The two candidates disagree strongly over Bush's decision to invade Iraq last year. But they agree it's vital to rebuild Iraq and train Iraqi troops to secure the country. Both promise to support U.S. forces in the field and bring them home as soon as possible. And as a long-term strategy, both pledge to work with allies, reduce America's depen- dence on Mideast oil and foster the spread of democracy in that volatile region.
"They might not be in the same ZIP Code, but they're in the same area code," said James Lindsay, director of policy for the Council on Foreign Relations.
What really divides Bush and Kerry in the foreign policy arena is not the question of goals, but means -- not what they plan to achieve, but how they plan to achieve it. And that comes from the very different ways in which they view the world, a contrast that will underlie their answers in tonight's first presidential debate of 2004, which deals with foreign policy.
"This is a race between two men, both of whom are internationalists, both of whom believe the United States should be engaged overseas," Lindsay said. "What divides them is how the U.S. should engage the world."
For Bush and most of his closest advisors, the coin of the international realm is military might, which scholars often call "hard power." For Kerry and most Democrats, the United States' power consists both of hard and "soft" power -- not only military, but also economic and political influence, often exercised through diplomacy, trade and international organizations.
In essence, the central question is: Is it better for the United States to be liked or feared?
Bush and his administration have generally shown more of a preference to be feared than liked. In his stump speech, the president underscores his "resolve" to defend America "whatever it takes." While he praises those countries that are serving with the United States in Iraq, one of his biggest applause lines emphasizes a go-it-alone approach: "One thing I'll never do is I'll never turn over our country's national security decisions to leaders of other countries."
Kerry comes down more on the side of being liked than feared -- or as he puts it, "respected." Kerry argues that before Bush became president, the United States had many tools available to exert its influence around the world, including the respect of allies. Now, he says, Bush has created a situation where the United States has only one weapon in its arsenal: military power.
As president, Kerry and his advisors say he would put more emphasis on alliances than Bush has, primarily the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but also the United Nations. They would also be more willing to engage potential enemies -- like North Korea and Iran -- through diplomacy and international organizations, and would intensify efforts to find a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Kerry argues that alliances and good relations with other countries make America stronger, not weaker.
"America must always be the world's paramount military power. But we can magnify our power through alliances," Kerry said in a foreign policy speech in May. "We simply can't go it alone -- or rely on a coalition of the few."
Both Bush and Kerry reserve the right to attack an enemy preemptively and unilaterally -- as has every president. But Kerry presents that option as a last resort, while Bush has made it central to his security strategy.
"The Bush administration seems to have been eager to make a public doctrine of the preemptive use of force, perhaps because they thought it would be a deterrent," said Melvyn Leffler, a professor of diplomatic history at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the nonpartisan U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.
Bush accuses Kerry of having shifted his position on use of force over the three decades he has been in public life. But analysts note that like most Democrats, Kerry went through a slow, post-Vietnam evolution in his thinking about military interventions. Stung by the failures of Vietnam, Democrats in the 1970s and 1980s reflexively opposed the use of American military power around the world. But the success of the Persian Gulf War, followed by the engagements in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, convinced Kerry and many others that U.S. military power could be used effectively.
"Unlike the far left, Kerry understands the necessity of using force. But unlike the Bush Republicans, he understands the limits of military power, which are on display in Iraq," said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank.