Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush has ridden a wave of popular support for his tough foreign and national security polices. For that reason, few in the opposition Democratic Party have dared to criticize him for the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the war on terrorism, or for policies that have often isolated Washington from its European allies. But with presidential elections 15 months away, the Democrats are finally starting to criticize Bush on foreign policy, an issue that could prove pivotal to winning back the White House.
Washington, 11 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In 2000, when George W. Bush was running for the White House against Vice President Al Gore, the former Texas governor was seen as a foreign policy amateur, with little knowledge of the world or experience overseas -- despite being the son of a former president.
But what Bush did have was a keen awareness of what it took to win a presidential election -- and a clear idea of the American president's role and place in the world.
"The first challenge of leadership," Bush wrote in his campaign autobiography, "is to outline a clear vision and agenda."
More than halfway through his first term, it's hard to argue that Bush lacks a vision for America's role in the world. The Bush administration sees the world as a scary place, where force must be used against enemies bent on harming America and where multilateral obligations often hamper more than help U.S. national interests.
But as the Democratic contenders begin the battle to become their party's nominee in the November 2004 presidential election, analysts say none of them has yet to articulate a clear alternative foreign-policy vision.
Maureen Steinbruner, president of the Center for National Policy, says the Democrats do not have "a coherent alternative agenda at this point to articulate. And so, what's left is a criticism of the way that the Bush administration is pursuing its agenda." The Center for National Policy, a liberal Washington think tank, was once run by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright.
Though sympathetic to the Democrats' cause, Steinbruner tells RFE/RL that on foreign policy, the Democratic presidential contenders look something like beginning tennis players trying to defeat top professionals at Wimbledon.
Leading Democratic presidential hopefuls such as senators John Kerry and Joseph Lieberman have criticized Bush's handling of relations with Europe and the United Nations as well as the aftermath of the war in Iraq. But among the Democratic leaders, only former Vermont Governor Howard Dean has taken a strong stance against the Iraq war.
Steinbruner says such criticism is a far cry from offering another vision of America's role in the world. She says Bush's national security policy heavyweights -- such as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice -- had spent years creating their vision before they actually got into power.
"The thing that people underestimate about this President Bush is that he gathered a team around him who have been developing an approach to the world -- that they've been undertaking conversations about, intellectual efforts about, building relationships about for years. So they came to the table in this administration prepared with a sense of what they wanted to accomplish."
To take one example: Wolfowitz, the former dean of the prestigious Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, led a group of intellectuals that began envisioning the overthrow of Iraq's Saddam Hussein back in the mid-1990s.
At its core, the Bush vision emphasizes strengthening America's military, dealing harshly with threats, and making what Rice recently called a generational commitment to transforming the Arab world into a democratic and prosperous region.
Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September, it is a vision that has resonated with Americans concerned about the possibility of even deadlier attacks.
While the Democratic alternative is less clear, a speech last week by former Vice President Al Gore may point the way for the party's candidates to challenge the president.
In a lengthy speech in New York last week, Gore criticized Bush on Iraq, the economy, and the environment. But what made headlines was the heart of Gore's criticism: that, in his view, Bush has deceived Americans on virtually every issue.
Gore said Bush exaggerated the Iraqi threat; falsely linked Baghdad to both the 11 September attacks on America and Al-Qaeda; and used intelligence on Iraq's alleged nuclear ambitions that was known to be false to justify the war. Moreover, Gore said assertions that U.S. soldiers would be welcomed as liberators proved to be false, as did promises to the American public that the international community would contribute funds to Iraq's reconstruction.
The former vice president said, "Now, of course, everybody knows that every single one of these impressions was just dead wrong."
Gore then went on to suggest that Bush has also misled Americans by downplaying the dangers of global warming and on his massive tax cuts, which rather than going to the middle class would benefit the rich and lead to a crippling budget deficit.
"So," Gore said. "Here's a pattern that I see linking all this together: The president's mishandling of, and selective use of, the best evidence available on the threat posed by Iraq is pretty much the same as the way he intentionally distorted the best available evidence on climate change and rejected the best available evidence on the threat posed to America's economy by his tax and budget proposals."
Gore has said he will not run for president, although some analysts said the speech was to test the waters ahead of a possible return to campaigning. Others said he probably wanted to provide an example to the Democrats on how to challenge Bush on foreign and domestic policy.
Patrick Basham is a domestic politics analyst with the Cato Institute. He says that while Gore did not offer an alternative vision on foreign policy, his speech was a start.
"He appears to get it, that there needs to be some overarching theme, ideally a vision -- that may be going too far at the moment -- [of how] to critique Bush in a coherent, and therefore effective, manner."
In recent weeks, Bush's support has slipped in the polls. This has come amid a weak economy, revelations that Bush used faulty intelligence to justify the Iraq war, and the near-daily deaths of U.S. soldiers in an Iraqi occupation that is costing taxpayers $1 billion a week.
Basham says in the absence of a leader with a clear alternative vision, Gore's strategy could prove successful if the message is coherent and effectively communicated.
"What it can do is it can contribute to an overall victory if they can tie it in, they can create a general impression that the Bush administration -- whether it's foreign or domestic policy -- hasn't delivered what it promised, has consistently oversold what the benefits would be, whether it's the tax cuts, or Iraq, or whatever it might be, [even] education reform. The Bush administration doesn't deliver what it says it will."
For many observers, however, the Democrats still lack that coherent message -- let alone an alternative vision for defending America and leading the world in a new century.