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Foreign policy is in unusual role as biggest issue in presidential election
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U.S. armoured vehicles roll down a street in the poor neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad. Some 20 U.S. soldiers and a smaller number of ING are patrolling the neighborhood following a weapons for cash deal between the authorities and radical cleric Moqtada Sadr and his Mehdi Army, which ended last week apparently successfully. ( AWAD AWAD/AFP/Getty Images)
If there is one defining issue in this year's presidential campaign, it's the war in Iraq. Democratic Sen. John Kerry charges President Bush's approach to the fight against terrorism is emblematic of a larger go-it-alone philosophy that's seriously damaged U.S. relations around the world. Bush accuses Kerry of underestimating demands of the war against terrorism and of taking numerous competing positions on Iraq.

St. Paul, Minn. — It's the first presidential election since the 9-11 terrorist attacks and issues surrounding national security have dominated the campaign.

John Kerry accuses President George W. Bush of rushing to war with Iraq. Kerry maintains the Bush administration has unnecessarily placed thousands of U.S. troops in harm's way and compromised the global war on terrorism by focusing on Iraq.

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Here's the senator during the second debate.

"I ask each of you just to look in your hearts, look in your guts -- gut-check time. Was this really going to war as a last resort? The president rushed out nation into war without a plan to win the peace," Kerry said.

Removing weapons of mass destruction from Iraq was the primary reason the Bush administration gave for going to war. But as he campaigns Bush insists even though no WMDs were found, invading Iraq was the right thing to do.

"Do I trust a madman and forget the lessons of September 11th or take action to defend this country? Given that choice I will defend America every time," countered Bush.

Here's Bush last week at a rally at the Rochester International Airport.

"Saddam Hussein was a threat. He was a threat because he hated America, He was a threat because he was shooting missiles at American airplanes. He was a threat because he harbored terrorists. He was a threat because he invaded his neighbors. He was a threat because he had used weapons of mass destruction. He was a threat."

Bush goes after Kerry for voting to authorize the administration to use force against Iraq only to later criticize the war as the "wrong war at the wrong time."

Rarely does Bush miss an opportunity to chastise Kerry for voting against the $87 billion supplemental defense appropriation Congress passed last fall, primarily to help pay for the war.

When you go forward the policies are very similar. Both Kerry and Bush say that we need to accelerate training of troops on the ground. Both Kerry and Bush want to move control into Iraqi hands.
- Nancy Roman, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations

"I want you to remind your friends and neighbors that there were only four U.S. senators -- four out of 100 -- that voted to authorize the use-of-force and voted against supporting our troops in combat. Two of whom were my opponent and his running mate," Bush said in Rochester.

The charge that Kerry is a "flip-flopping" political opportunist is the centerpiece of President Bush's re-election campaign. And on no other issue does Bush level it with such fervor than on the war with Iraq.

"Voted to authorize force...but he wouldn't support the troops," Bush said.

Kerry says his position on the war has never changed. He voted to authorize force to give the Bush administration negotiating power.

And the vote against the addition war money? Kerry says it was a protest. He didn't like the no-bid contract awarded to Halliburton, the company Vice President Dick Cheney led before returning to politics.

He says he also wanted to pay some of the $87 billion up front, by rolling back some of the Bush tax cuts, rather than adding the war costs to the deficit.

"I voted the way I voted because I saw that he had the policy wrong and I wanted accountability," Kerry says. "I didn't want to give a slush fund to Halliburton. I also thought the wealthiest people in America ought to pay for it, ladies and gentlemen. He wants your kids to pay for us. I wanted us to pay for it since we're at war. I don't think that's a bad decision."

Going forward, Kerry says he would convene an international commission to determine what to do in Iraq. He would also increase active duty military forces by 40,000 troops. "There really isn't a huge difference in policy (in) Iraq going forward.Most of the animosity and vitriol between Democrats and Republicans is backward looking," he says.

"People are very angry about the way in which we ended up in Iraq," says Nancy Roman, the vice president of the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations. "We should have known there weren't WMDs and there was poor post-war planning etc. When you go forward the policies are very similar. Both Kerry and Bush say that we need to accelerate training of troops on the ground. Both Kerry and Bush want to move control into Iraqi hands."

And both want U.S. troops home. Kerry says he hopes to reduce the number of U.S. troops with in a year.

President Bush says he would keep troops in Iraq as long as necessary and that setting withdrawal timelines sends the wrong message.

Bush fiercely defends against criticism he "went it alone" with the invasion of Iraq. During the second presidential debate Bush ripped Kerry on that and accused the Democrat of denigrating the coalition.

"Tell Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland we're going alone; got 30 countries there. It denigrates an alliance to say we're going alone, to discount their sacrifices. You cannot lead an alliance if you say you know you're going alone and people listen... they're sacrificing with us," Bush said.

"That's not a grand coalition," Sen. Kerry responded. "Ninety percent of the casualties are Americans. Ninety percent of the costs are coming out of your pockets."

It's difficult to nail down the exact human and financial costs of the war, but no one disputes the vast majority of non-Iraqis being killed and injured are Americans. Additionally there little dispute that the U.S. is bankrolling the war; spending, according to the Department of Defense, about $4.5 billion a month.

"This coalition in Iraq is a very, very U.S.-dominated one and that may have been necessary and it may be all to the good in some ways but let's start with the facts. This is a very unilateralist-leaning administration," says Michael O'Hanlon,a foreign policy senior fellow with the Brookings Institution.

O'Hanlon says the Bush administration's approach to foreign policy is a dramatic departure from other post-World War II presidents.

"There is a radical in this administration in its willingness to go alone even when there may have been alternatives and, of course, Iraq is overwhelming the case in point, but there are other examples," he says.

Those examples include the Bush administration's positions on some weapons and environmental treaties. But has Bush focused too much on Iraq and overlooked other serious threats, including those posed by North Korea's nuclear program?

Nancy Roman from the Council on Foreign Relations, says it's difficult to definitely make that case.

"If you could wave a magic wand and fix Iraq overnight, so you know suddenly had the powers the be freed up to focus exclusively on North Korea, it's a challenge because the problem there is that the North Koreans really have the upper hand," according to Roman.

Roman says the U.S. can't invade North Korea without putting populations in South Korea and Japan in Jeopardy. She says given that strategic dilemma, it's difficult to apply pressure.

As far as Iran's nuclear threat is concerned, Roman says the U.S. would be well advised to drop its assumption that there will be regime change there, and instead start talking with the current leadership.

Roman says she agrees with O'Hanlon: U.S. relations with other countries around the world are strained, especially in Europe and throughout Muslim countries.

Roman says it's possible a change in U.S. leadership could serve as a springboard to rebuild relationships, but she says its wishful thinking to expect that a new president would somehow automatically bring a substantive change in the way in which the U.S. is perceived around the world.

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