As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the past 19 years, Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, worked on major international issues ranging from the Iran-Contra scandal to ethnic conflicts in the Balkans.

Whether such experience will improve his chances of winning the White House is unclear.

What is clear, some experts say, is that liberal voters expecting a dramatic shift in US foreign policy under a Kerry presidency might be surprised.

While Kerry has repeatedly condemned President George Bush’s handling of the Iraq occupation, he voted for the congressional resolution authorising the use of force against Saddam Hussein.

Kerry has never said the war itself was unjust, merely that Bush, in his opinion, mishandled the pre-war diplomacy and failed to internationalise the reconstruction effort.

Rules of engagement

Kerry has dismissed the Bush doctrine of pre-emption, yet recently criticised the administration for not sending troops to Haiti, and he voted to authorise the bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1999, without the involvement of the United Nations.

Kerry (R) is not too far off from
Bush's position on some issues

The debate between Kerry and Bush on foreign policy is less about whether to use US military power abroad, and more about how and when to intervene in various conflicts around the world, many analysts say.

"Kerry would be more likely to use US troops for humanitarian reasons than for national security reasons, whereas Bush would be the opposite," says John Hulsman, a foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative thinktank.

Kerry is often portrayed as the candidate more likely to pursue multilateral diplomacy, as opposed to what some describe as the unilateral pre-emption of the Bush administration.

Diplomacy first

However, to characterise the election as a debate between "multilateralism" and "unilateralism" would be far too simplistic, according to many experts.

"The cartoon version is that [Kerry] would be strictly multilateral and Bush would be strictly unilateral, and I do not think they are that cartoonish," Hulsman says.

Although Kerry favours aggressive diplomacy as a first resort in solving global conflicts, he has made it clear that the use of military force should always be an option.

"The cartoon version is that [Kerry] would be strictly multilateral and Bush would be strictly unilateral, and I do not think they are that cartoonish"

John Hulsman,
foreign policy expert,
Heritage Foundation

"Americans deserve a principled diplomacy ... backed by undoubted military might ... based on enlightened self-interest, not the zero-sum logic of power politics ... a diplomacy that commits America to lead the world toward liberty and prosperity," Kerry says in a statement posted in the foreign policy section of his campaign website.

As his support for the bombing campaign in Kosovo suggests, Kerry is not always opposed to using military force outside of a UN framework. That intervention, however, was a NATO-run operation.
 
Kerry's main criticism of the administration’s handling of Iraq is that it has not done enough to "internationalise" the occupation.

"I think that Kerry genuinely believes and wishes that there would be much more international involvement in Iraq," says Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University.

Policy problems

Whatever disagreements Kerry has with Bush over the importance of multilateral diplomacy, the ability to translate such an attitude into policy will be dictated by events beyond the control of the White House, Lieber says.

"The pressures of reality and governing will mean that the Bush presidency is not so unilateral, as is often discussed in debates, and a Kerry presidency would not be as multilateral as is often discussed," he says.

While Kerry does not dismiss the military component of the "war on terrorism", he has emphasised that ideology, perhaps more than weaponry, is a critically important tool in fighting "terrorist organisations".

"The final victory in the war on terror depends on a victory in the war of ideas, much more than the war on the battlefield," Kerry said in early March.

Stoking resistance

Kerry has said the Bush administration created a sense of US "triumphalism" by taking over Iraq without constructing a more widespread international coalition.

That triumphalism, Kerry argues, has "fuelled the fire of jihadists, enabling them to attract more recruits to their cause".

Kerry shares Bush's view on
supporting Israel's Ariel Sharon

One of the few areas, however, in which Kerry has expressed strong support for the president, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an issue on which many people in the Arab world feel the US has been biased toward Israel.

During a recent meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House, Bush said Israel should be allowed to retain a few major settlements in the West Bank as part of any deal to create an independent Palestinian state.

He also said that Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war would have to be resettled within that Palestinian state, rather than returning to their original homes in what is now the State of Israel.

Both concessions were controversial and aroused fierce criticism throughout the Middle East.

Pro-Israeli

In response, Kerry said he "completely" agreed with the president’s position.

"Instead of a Democratic candidate looking at this matter critically ... the best Kerry could do is to endorse what Bush said," says Henry Siegman, director of the US Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Kerry has been supportive of
Israel's illegal barrier

Hulsman says Kerry's response showed that he and Bush are less divided on foreign policy than conventional wisdom might indicate.

"I think that is a clear indication that on any number of big issues there would be very little difference between the two," he says.

Kerry has also issued statements in support of Israel’s separation barrier currently under construction, another provocative issue in the region.

Some Middle East experts view the peace process as the central issue in the "war of ideas" referred to by Kerry in the context of the "war on terrorism".

Supporters of Kerry such as James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, say the key difference between the two candidates is that Bush would seek to implement the concessions he made to Sharon, while Kerry might very well moderate his position if elected president.

"I think that it's not the policy that a Kerry administration would follow," Zogby says.