Earlier this month, Senator John Kerry needed a safe spot to conduct a final job interview with Senator John Edwards. So his neighbor, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, did him a Bud Baxter turn, lending out her Georgetown townhouse for the soon-to-be running mates’ discreet assignation.
Then Mr. Kerry announced his pick. In Lisbon, former Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Holbrooke, now a Kerry foreign-policy adviser, picked up the phone to do some flacking for Mr. Edwards. Unprepared for the Presidency? Ridiculous, Mr. Holbrooke told The Boston Globe and other newspapers. He’d just seen Mr. Edwards speak on Iraq, China and other issues at the recent Bilderberg Conference, an exclusive and secretive gathering of diplomatic types, and he’d reported back to Mr. Kerry on the North Carolina Senator’s “quite dazzling” performance.
A few days later, down in Florida, Democrats met to hammer out the party platform ahead of their national convention in Boston. With Dennis Kucinich’s loyalists threatening to make a stink, Sandy Berger, the National Security Adviser during the Clinton administration, patiently negotiated a sentence saying that Mr. Kerry would withdraw American troops “when appropriate.” It was one of the last favors that Mr. Berger, an informal Kerry adviser, would get to do for the candidate before sailing into a Washington summer squall over allegations that he pocketed-or socked away-classified documents stored at the National Archives.
Three moments in a Presidential election season. Three Democratic foreign-policy luminaries. And three examples of how, in the midst of a campaign that for the first time in decades seems likely to form a referendum on the question of America’s place in the world, the Democratic Party’s foreign-policy establishment is pitching in to help Mr. Kerry.
On the eve of next week’s convention, which could represent Mr. Kerry’s last, best opportunity to articulate a foreign policy he believes in, these high-powered advisers have been helping Mr. Kerry frame a Democratic alternative to Mr. Bush’s worldview.
The mandarin competition for Mr. Kerry’s ear is fast and furious, full of the ambition, politicking, passion for ideas and strategy disputes that go on within the real State Department. Mr. Kerry’s campaign, under increasing pressure to sketch a vision for Iraq and the rest of the world-one that can both win an election and secure America’s moral and political place in the world-is looking more and more like a presidential administration. In good ways and bad. As Mr. Berger’s questionable handling of classified materials shows, it matters who’s whispering in Mr. Kerry’s ear. If a former National Security Adviser comes under (very preliminary) F.B.I. scrutiny for misplacing documents, it isn’t big news. (Remember the tiffs over former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill or former C.I.A. director John Deutsch being similarly shifty? Didn’t think so.) If it’s an adviser to the Democratic presidential nominee and a potential Secretary of State who stands accused, it’s time for an old-fashioned Washington hullabaloo. To Mr. Kerry and his advisers, a message has been sent: The world-and the Republicans-are watching.
“You can begin to think of the Kerry campaign as a shadow government,” said Georgetown professor Charles Kupchan, who served as a National Security Council aide during the first Clinton administration.
Mr. Kerry has stacked his cabinet-in-waiting with some ambitious Democrats, party loyalists who have the experience to be useful. Under Mr. Clinton, these were the men and women who ran the world. They have an incentive to win: The race to be Mr. Kerry’s Secretary of State is still wide open, and it’s hardly a secret that people like Mr. Holbrooke and Mr. Berger want the job. (Though the latter’s chances are likely dashed now that his name is tied to an F.B.I. investigation.) Most of all, they have the anger to stay motivated. For the last four years, they have stewed in think-tank exile, furious in their certain knowledge that they would have done better than Mr. Bush. “We squandered a surplus of good will that we had in the world,” Mr. Berger said in an interview conducted before he stepped aside as a Kerry adviser. “We’ll only get it back when we have a new President and restore the legitimacy of American leadership.”
There’s not much disagreement among Mr. Kerry’s advisers about the contours of the candidate’s foreign policy, at least in public. Everyone agrees that, at least for the purposes of the campaign, Mr. Kerry needs to position himself as a tough-talking foreign-policy pragmatist, a Democrat who has more in common with Poppy Bush than with Woodrow Wilson-or with Bill Clinton, for that matter. Rather, Mr. Kupchan said, the divisions among Mr. Kerry’s advisers “are more sociological than ideological.” That is, all of them want the same job.
Campaign aides, while not denying that some of those advising Mr. Kerry may end up in plum positions, won’t play along with Beltway parlor games. “That just comes with being part of the team,” said Rand Beers, the campaign’s chief foreign-policy strategist.
Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and an occasional Kerry adviser, said: “I think all these people want to serve in a Kerry administration.” (Not him, though-he says he likes his current job.)
Mr. Gelb added that he thought all the jockeying was good for the campaign. Others warned, however, that the ambitions of Mr. Kerry’s advisers may not be such an unmitigated blessing. “I think it’s all-consuming,” said one former senior Clinton administration official. “They are all competing to offer him the soundest political advice, and none of them is going to suggest things that might be considered even slightly off-the-wall.”
As far as handicapping goes, Mr. Holbrooke has long been considered the front-runner for Secretary of State-even before Mr. Berger’s recent misadventure. Widely considered “the closest thing the Democratic Party has had in modern times to a Kissinger,” in the words of one foreign-policy analyst, many believe Mr. Holbrooke would be perfect for the job. If he could wheedle a peace deal out of Slobodan Milosevic, the thinking goes, he can do anything.
But Mr. Holbrooke shouldn’t start measuring drapes in Foggy Bottom just yet. A gifted diplomat with a paradoxical reputation for undiplomatic behavior, his relationship with Mr. Kerry has seemed strained at times. Back in late May, for instance, Mr. Holbrooke, while briefing reporters on the eve of an important Kerry speech on foreign policy, attacked the United Nations’ envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi. Mr. Brahimi, Mr. Holbrooke said, was “a smart, estimable Sunni Arab from Algeria whose interests, I can assure you, are not symmetrical at all with American national-security interests.” Mr. Holbrooke also worked the “Sunni Arab” broadside into several television appearances. U.N. officials were stunned, and Mr. Kerry, in an interview with The New York Times , swiftly repudiated his adviser’s remarks.
Mr. Kerry may plan to act as his own foreign minister. Will he want another glory hound getting in the way? In the end, the choice of a Secretary of State may boil down to a simple question, said one foreign-policy analyst: “Do you want brilliance, or solid collegiality and teamwork?” If it’s the latter, the logical choice would have been Mr. Berger, a well-liked Washington operator who sits at the center of a network of loyal Clintonites. Now, look for a dark-horse candidate-some Democrats are pushing former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin-to emerge. Others suggest that Mr. Kerry could go for bipartisanship and pick Republican Senator Chuck Hagel.
If Mr. Kerry values rapport most, he may well look to his colleague on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden. The two men, who have served together in the Senate for 20 years and have vacationed together on occasion, talk to each other a few times a week. Mr. Biden acts as a “sounding board” for his fellow Senator, said one Senate aide. “I think they can talk to each other in a shorthand that comes from knowing each other for a long time.” Yet Mr. Biden has a reputation for speaking his mind-sometimes with unfortunate results. And if the Democrats manage to retake the Senate, Mr. Biden may be more valuable to Mr. Kerry there, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
At the convention, there will be few clues to which direction he’s leaning in. Mr. Kerry will underscore his belief in the United Nations. (He voted against the first Gulf War, in part, he said at the time, because it lacked “the full measure of international cooperation.”) He’ll say that soldiers should never be sent to war without a good reason. But he won’t pose as an isolationist: In a speech to the NAACP last week, Mr. Kerry labeled the ongoing strife in Sudan’s western region of Darfur “genocide” and advocated that the U.S. and the U.N. lead an “international humanitarian intervention” there. Which is to say, the very tough-guy humanitarian streak that was the Bush administration’s most successful early spin on Iraq will be his métier.
All this is developing in a constant consultation with those who would serve him in a Kerry administration. Reportedly, campaign staffers call Mr. Holbrooke and the rest of Mr. Kerry’s coterie of advisers “the Pooh-Bahs”-a nickname meant to evoke the rarefied, wood-paneled world they inhabit. Mr. Kerry, “an inveterate phone caller,” in the words of Mr. Beers, likes to ring them up from the campaign trail to refine his thinking as he prepares to make pronouncements on subjects like reforming the C.I.A. or the violence in Darfur.
“If he’s not being called, he’s calling people whose views he values in assimilating his own ideas,” said Mr. Beers, describing his boss’ “Socratic” style. “Even if he agrees with a position, you find that you’re arguing with him about it.”
In recent months, the campaign’s web of “informal advisers”-the epithet that has been used for Mr. Berger throughout a breathless 24-hour news cycle at this printing-has grown. (These days, it’s hard to find an international-relations professor in Washington who isn’t a Kerry adviser.) Much hashing-out goes on at a weekly strategy meeting attended by about a dozen Kerry foreign-policy advisers and chaired by Mr. Beers. The strategy group is modeled on the real National Security Council. (Mr. Beers is frequently touted as a future National Security Adviser.) Among those regularly in attendance at the sessions are Nancy Stetson, a Kerry aide attached to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; James Rubin, a former top aide to Ms. Albright who now travels with Mr. Kerry as a campaign spokesman; longtime Kerry adviser Jonathan Winer; former National Security Council staffer Daniel Feldman; Council on Foreign Relations fellow Lee Feinstein; and Susan Rice, a former assistant Secretary of State, who last week officially joined the campaign as a deputy to Mr. Beers. In recent months, the group has spun off some 20 different subcommittees, which are devising strategies to deal with everything from terrorism to trade.
At these meetings, the questions Mr. Kerry would encounter as President are debated. Should he go after Al Qaeda first, or should he concentrate on stabilizing Iraq? What about North Korea, the nuclear-armed elephant in the room? How to prevent war between China and Taiwan? Between India and Pakistan?
Mr. Kerry has lately been casting himself as a “realist,” implicitly distancing himself from core liberal values like human rights and democracy-building. (In a recent Washington Post op-ed column, Mr. Kerry used the R-word or some derivation of it nine times in the course of 10 paragraphs.)
“We cannot look at the world through rose-colored glasses,” Mr. Berger said.
Mr. Holbrooke, in particular, is said to have been advocating the “realist” position, arguing that so long as the news from Iraq and elsewhere remains bad for Mr. Bush, Mr. Kerry should keep the focus on his opponent, leaving his own vision deliberately vague. In a recent New Yorker article, Mr. Holbrooke said it was “not necessary” for Mr. Kerry to explain his plans for Iraq in much detail. “Everyone knows he would do it differently,” he told the magazine.
That doesn’t give much to Republicans, who are calling Mr. Kerry out to say what he would have done differently. But then, that may be the point-for now.
“His advisers are mostly advising him to be very, very careful,” said the former senior Clinton administration
official. “He’s very carefully avoiding, it seems to me, breaking with Bush on any issues and saying, ‘No, no, no, I have a different vision’-because it might look airy-fairy or politically unpopular, and he’s trying to look tougher than Bush.”
Nevertheless, at next week’s Democratic National Convention, it will be important for Mr. Kerry to at least sound like he’s articulating a bold new vision. So expect him to talk about putting more money into the military. Expect him to talk about “multilateralism,” about shoring up fragile alliances, and about reclaiming the “respect” of the rest of the world. Expect to hear the words “realistic” and “strong” come out of his mouth many, many times.
“You’ll see a guy who will convey his sense of a nasty world,” said Mr. Gelb. “He does not have liberal goggles on about the nature of the world. And [he] will also convey the willingness to use all means to deal with the nastiness.”
Applying that approach to Iraq-while still defining himself against President Bush-could prove difficult.
“The situation in Iraq is a mess and a real muddle and it’s complicated,” admitted another Kerry foreign-policy aide. “But I think there is a consensus among most Democrats, and certainly among those talking to Kerry at all levels, that we really can’t fail here.”
The aide paused for a moment.
“Now how do you define success? That’s a different question. We have to be thinking about it now.”