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Can Kerry Deliver the Allies?

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John Kerry casts himself as a bridge builder. In his convention speech and on the road, he promises to repair America's alliances so that it doesn't have to "go it alone in the world." Only a new president, he argues, can restore global respect for the United States.

There's much to be said for this argument - which is the main distinction between Mr. Kerry and President Bush on foreign affairs - but also a risk in expecting too much from this strategy, especially concerning Iraq.

From its withdrawal from the Kyoto and Anti-Ballistic Missile treaties to the Iraq war, the Bush White House has angered close allies and reduced America's overall standing in the world. A challenger with a fresh start and a goal of making up has a better chance of actually doing that than an incumbent with a track record of going against key allies.

But Kerry promises too much when he says that through his leadership he can persuade NATO to deploy "a significant portion" of the force needed to win the peace in Iraq, as he opined in USA Today Monday.

The challenge in bringing more foreign troops to Iraq does not lie so much with US leadership, as it does with facts on the ground.

Public sentiment in NATO countries runs against the Iraq war, and like any elected leaders, these politicians are sensitive to the electorate. Some of them, like German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, are hanging on to power by their fingernails, and are not going to loosen their hold by so blatantly crossing voters. At the same time, NATO is stretched thin with out-of-area deployments in places such as Afghanistan and the Balkans.

Kerry says he'll also turn to Muslim countries, but Saudi Arabia's recent suggestion of the same strategy received a cool reception in the Muslim world. Meanwhile, if Iraqi violence surges in the months ahead, that might be more of a turnoff to foreign governments, because of the increased risk of lives lost.

Better relations with allies are unlikely to change the substance of US foreign policy, though they could improve cooperation in such areas as intelligence sharing, and in Iraq, lead to broader and deeper participation in reconstruction, financial aid, and training of Iraqi security forces. But a "significant" deployment of foreign troops? Even for this bridge builder, that's a bridge too far.


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