Bush follows Kerry playbook on Iraq

Posted: Sunday, June 13, 2004

WASHINGTON For days, President Bush has been performing on the world stage and trying to meet, one by one, the criticisms of Democratic rival John Kerry.

Bush's recent moves and concessions may be an attempt to buy insurance against some of the sharpest Democratic criticism he can expect in the fall. His political advisers also want to protect the GOP's traditional lead over Democrats on national security issues.

But much of that may be lost on Americans preoccupied, for now, with the death and legacy of Ronald Reagan.

The string of international meetings has enabled Bush to exhibit presidential leadership abroad, a role Kerry can't play.

It's almost as if Bush's political advisers had a check list.

Kerry accuses Bush of heavy-handed tactics and going-it-alone unilateralism.

Yet the administration agreed to relinquishing sovereignty to a new Iraqi interim government and worked with the international community in setting up a structure that gives Iraqi leaders a vital say over military operations.

Bush was able to introduce the new Iraqi president, Ghazi al-Yawer, to western allies last week at a the Group of Eight summit in Georgia and to declare ''there will be an Iraqi face on the security of Iraq.''

Kerry accuses Bush of alienating traditional allies and squandering good will from the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

Yet the president chummed it up at the G-8 summit with some of his harshest critics, reaching out to French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The G-8 summit, and D-Day celebrations the week before, produced a trans-Atlantic love fest and show of unity.

Kerry accuses Bush of being dismissive of the United Nations and other multination institutions.

Yet Bush gave a U.N. envoy a central role in helping to set up the new Iraqi interim government and then worked to overcome objections of France and Russia to win unanimous approval for a Security Council resolution paving the way to elections next year in Iraq.

Bush also proposed expanding the role of NATO in Iraq a subject that will top the agenda of a NATO summit in two weeks in Istanbul, Turkey, allowing Bush to continue to command world attention.

Not that all major differences have been resolved between the United States and what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld referred to dismissively as ''Old Europe.''

Bush's initiative to try to spread democracy through the broader Middle East was greeted by many in the region and in Europe as naive at best, U.S. meddling at worst. And Bush had to concede that NATO was unlikely to deploy troops to Iraq after meeting European resistance, especially from Chirac.

Suddenly it's the Bush administration arguing for more international involvement and the Europeans arguing against it.

''Bush is trying to remove any distance between himself and Kerry on the future of Iraq,'' said Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

That may help Bush overcome his image, both abroad and in the United States, as a unilateralist, said Mann, ''but the only thing that will really help him is if there is an improvement on the ground in Iraq.''

Bush's efforts to find an exit strategy from Iraq, and to spread responsibility for reconstruction wider, comes as an increasing number of Americans are doubting whether the Iraq war was worth it given the continuing violence.

Polls show the presidential race is a dead heat between Bush and Kerry. An Associated Press survey taken Monday-Wednesday showed Bush at 46 percent, Democrat John Kerry at 45 percent and independent candidate Ralph Nader at 6 percent.

The AP poll, conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs, showed that less than half of registered voters approve of Bush's job performance or his efforts on domestic affairs while 51 percent approve of his handling of foreign policy and the war on terrorism.

But when the question is narrowed to Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq, just 43 percent said they approved while 55 percent disapproved.

Apart from domestic politics, there are reasons on both sides of the Atlantic for getting past recent bitterness and working together on Iraq. And both sides can claim a victory.

Europeans can assert that the new U.S. overtures for international help only show they were right about Iraq in the first place, and now Bush, too, is seeing the light.

The Bush administration can claim that it is gaining increasing international support, helping to put belated but welcome blessings on its original Iraq mission.

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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