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Candidates need to debate foreign policy

He is hardly the ideal spokesman for caution and candor in international relations. He may be doing this out of sheer desperation or cold-blooded political calculation. His plan doesn’t differ all that much from what the Bush administration has tried to do and looks more like a hope than a solution.

Even given all that, however, John Kerry is performing a valuable service for the American people.

In deciding to throw down the gauntlet on the wisdom of the Iraq war and the adequacy of planning for its aftermath — as any number of news stories suggest he has decided to do and he actually did in a speech earlier this month — Kerry has opened up the most important issue facing the country as a campaign issue. That might help us as a people to think about how to handle future real or imagined crises and perhaps eventually to decide on policies more calculated to produce safety and eventual peace.

To be sure, the modern American political campaign, with its attack ads, tightly produced and scripted campaign appearances, reliance on sound bites and relentless partisanship, is hardly the ideal environment in which to hold a sober, informed discussion of present and future American foreign policies and the implications of making different choices. But more people are paying attention during an election than at most times, and having candidates with at least somewhat different positions encourages at least a modicum of discussion.

The issues surrounding war and peace are the most profound an American president must handle. One suspects that Bush and Kerry would handle them differently, but until recently the indications were that Sen. Kerry was going to focus on the economy and health care, giving the American people little chance to compare and contrast the two on foreign policy issues.

The decision to focus on President Bush’s war leadership is potentially risky. So far the president does better in most polls on such qualities as leadership and decisiveness. But things — not everything, but perhaps the most important things, such as security against insurgency — really are going badly in Iraq. The people whose tax money and sons and daughters are paying the price deserve a discussion of why, and the president seems determined not to waver from the most pollyannaish portrayal possible.

Only in recent days has Sen. Kerry come out swinging fairly effectively. Speaking before the National Guard Association, he said the president's appearance before the same group “had an unreal quality.” He continued: “He did not tell you that with each passing day, we're seeing more chaos, more violence, more indiscriminate killings. He did not tell you that with each passing week, our enemies are getting bolder — that Pentagon officials report that entire regions of Iraq are now in the hands of terrorists and extremists. He did not tell you that with each passing month, stability and security seem farther and farther away.”

On Monday at New York University, he was even more specific and offered what he called a plan. Insofar as it depends on more participation from other countries, it doesn’t sound especially realistic, and the Bush administration is already trying to train as many Iraqi police and military people as possible. But it was something.

Sen. Kerry really has been all over the map on this issue, and it remains to be seen whether his latest position will be viewed as credible. But we hope that during the upcoming debates, which begin tonight, the two candidates push one another to become increasingly specific about what they would do and why, and why they think their plan will succeed.

The candidates and others should widen the scope of the debate to include consideration of a range of policies that might help the United States to avoid mistakes in the future. We would suggest a more modest, less politically and militarily ambitious policy of free trade, non-interference in the affairs of other countries, attention to American freedoms and focused attacks on real enemies.

All we really ask, however, is for the American people to have a wide range of options and analysis available in the weeks to come so their decisions about the future are as informed as possible. Elections seldom turn on foreign policy, but in this election it deserves to be central.