Correction: In “Kerry’s War Strategy,” David Corn mistakenly reported that Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution favors a withdrawal of troops from Iraq by the end of the year. Daalder notes, “My position on troops is (a) we haven’t had enough and still don’t; (b) NATO should take over the mission; and (c) we should stay as long as there remains a need for them and they’re wanted by legitimate Iraqi authorities.” He would like the first set of elections in Iraq, now scheduled for the end of the year or early next year, to happen sooner if possible. (6/16/04)

On the day Senator John Kerry gave a Big Speech on national security, Win Without War–a coalition of forty-two antiwar organizations–called for the Administration to set a specific date for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. (It did not say what day that should be.) The week before, James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution proposed that the United States declare it will recall its troops by late 2005, after the election of an Iraqi government and the adoption of a Constitution. (Steinberg was a deputy national security adviser for President Clinton.) Their Brookings colleague, Ivo Daalder, also an alumnus of Clinton’s national security team, favors a pullout by the end of this year.

But Kerry, although he blasted Bush for his arrogant, reckless, counterproductive foreign policy, made no reference to removing troops by a particular date. He reiterated the position he had laid out weeks earlier: Internationalize the mess in Iraq, bring in more NATO troops, appoint an international high commissioner, expand the training of Iraq’s security forces. In pursuit of stabilizing Iraq, he has even been open to deploying more US troops in the short run. Kerry is nuancing his way through the dilemma of Iraq and consequently has not unveiled a bold approach that stands in sharp contrast to the Bush policy, which has been drifting (reluctantly) toward his ideas. Kerry’s take boils down to this: Bush screwed it up–I can do better. This is indeed an important distinction, and perhaps it’s the best Kerry can offer since he’s not calling for disengagement. But if a policy (if not yet a political) split is developing between Kerry and antiwar Democrats, how might he respond?

There are debates on Iraq within Kerry’s foreign policy team. “For a while,” says one of those advisers, “the debate was whether it was better not to offer an Iraq plan. Now there’s a continuing discussion on how to deal with the changing realities in Iraq.” This conversation is taking place within a senior group of a dozen advisers headed by Rand Beers, a counterterrorism specialist who resigned from the Bush White House. The group includes James Rubin, a former State Department spokesman; Nancy Stetson, a longtime Kerry Senate aide; Jonathan Winer, a former Kerry aide and past State Department official; Lee Feinstein, former deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff; Daniel Feldman, a former Clinton National Security Council officer; and former ambassador Joseph Wilson. Several foreign policy bigfoots–Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, Richard Holbrooke, Senator Joe Biden–regularly counsel Kerry. The important discussions come, according to another Kerry aide, when Kerry talks to “whoever he trusts, like Holbrooke and Berger. He’s been on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He carries a lot of this around in his own head. He has strong ideas himself.”

Kerry appears to feel no pressure–from policy wonks, Ralph Nader or peaceniks–to call for removing the troops. The deliberations within the campaign have not focused on military disengagement. “It was clear to everyone,” one Kerry adviser says, “that cutting and running was not the right approach and that this can’t be an American-only operation, that we have to broaden the international role dramatically. But a question has been, How hard do you hit the President? And we haven’t engaged the issue of an exit date at this point. It’s politically difficult because that does look like cutting and running. Kerry has to establish that he’s steely enough to do the job.” Acknowledging that Kerry’s highly refined position on the war has not helped his campaign, the adviser says, “These are the broad strokes: Senator Kerry has a plan and the Administration doesn’t, and we are where we are because this Administration went off half-cocked. Is that the silver bullet everyone is looking for? Probably not.”

Another campaign adviser on national security says, “Most of Kerry’s advisers want to get US troops out as quickly as possible. The issue is how specific to be. Perhaps there will be more political pressure for a direct pullout. But while I disagreed with him over his vote to authorize Bush to go to war, I’ve come round to thinking he has rather good political instincts about these matters.” Holbrooke, for one, opposes setting a date for removing troops. “It means,” he explains, “hard-liners get harder and wait you out. A hard date increases the chances of civil war. It’s irresponsible. I don’t know if Kerry agrees with me.”

A Democratic foreign policy expert close to key Kerry advisers observes, “Kerry is playing it very cautiously. It’s a prevent-defense kind of game. He’s counting on Bush to keep making mistakes and is playing out the clock. I’m skeptical of it. But it could work. My fear is he’s not setting a strong enough foundation for people not only to reject Bush but to embrace Kerry.” Some Kerry advisers, he says, have been pushing for a starker differentiation in policy. But Holbrooke notes that the issue is the man, not the plan: “In temperament, style and experience, nothing could be more different than John Kerry and George Bush. That’s more important than Kerry’s plan, especially when the situation changes every day. The demands for Kerry to be even more specific are misguided.”

“Here’s the problem,” says a Democratic foreign policy expert not affiliated with the Kerry campaign. “He has already tacked right, left and right. He voted for the war while arguing against it. Then he voted against the $87 billion for it. Then he said we need more troops and to stay as long as needed. As Bush tacks in his direction, he can’t tack again and do what Steinberg and O’Hanlon advocate. One of Kerry’s big weaknesses is the flip-flopping charge the Republicans have used against him. He may have no choice but to let events in Iraq be a referendum on Bush. Sometimes a rope-a-dope strategy can lead to a technical knockout in fifteen rounds.”

A member of Kerry’s senior foreign policy squad reports, “The policy is pretty much set. We’ll have to see what happens after the June 30 handoff of sovereignty.” He notes that part of Kerry’s indictment of Bush is that Bush has been “unwilling to adjust or admit mistakes.” Antiwar Democrats, eager to see Bush booted, are not likely to lodge that charge against Kerry. Still, Kerry has to hope that both events and slices of his party’s base do not turn against him in the coming months.