WASHINGTON - John Kerry is assembling a network of foreign policy advisers more hawkish than most Democrats but more skeptical of military solutions in the struggle against terrorism than the team surrounding President Bush.
The experts being consulted span a broad ideological range of Democratic opinion - to the point where some party thinkers worry that Kerry is not defining a sufficiently distinctive vision of how America should pursue its goals in the world.
But insiders say those with the most influence on the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee tend to be advisers who support the forceful use of military power, including in Iraq, yet place a much higher priority than the Bush team on maintaining support among allies.
Early speculation about who might serve as Kerry's secretary of state centers mostly on candidates who fit that description: Richard Holbrooke and Sandy Berger, former top officials in the Clinton administration; Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee; and more distantly, Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, whose commitment to traditional alliances places him much closer to the center of thinking in the Democratic than the Republican Party.
"I think the mantra of the Democratic thinkers is 'Together if possible, alone if absolutely necessary,'" said James P. Rubin, a former senior Clinton official who is joining the Kerry campaign as a top foreign policy adviser. "That's a key difference between the Bush foreign policy and the Democratic foreign policy: Do you get enough benefit out of the [the argument for] international legitimacy and burden sharing in order to justify adjustments in tactics and timing in what you are trying to achieve? More often than not, [Democrats think] the answer is yes. Clearly in Iraq, the answer should have been yes."
The common assumptions among the Democrats advising Kerry contrast with the dominant views in the Bush team, not just on the value of alliances but on many other fronts.
While the Bush team tends to see the greatest danger in "rogue regimes," many Democrats place more emphasis on problems rooted in forces beyond the control of any state or government, such as the spread of militant Islamic ideology or the growth of al-Qaida.
The foreign policy team coalescing around the Massachusetts senator has drawn little attention but could shape the interactions between a President Kerry and the world as much as the candidate's own pronouncements on the campaign trail.
Bush, surrounded by a team mostly committed to the aggressive projection of American power, has pursued a far more confrontational approach than he indicated in the 2000 campaign, when he called for a "humble" foreign policy.
Beginning in early 1999, nearly two years before he was elected, Bush convened regularly with a group assembled by Condoleezza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz. Almost everyone in the group, which dubbed itself the "Vulcans," obtained senior foreign policy positions.
Probably the closest analogue to Bush's Vulcans has been a group of Kerry advisers who hold a weekly conference call directed by Rand Beers, the campaign's national security coordinator.
That group has included Lee Feinstein, the former deputy director of policy planning at the State Department, and Joe Wilson, the former diplomat whose report to the CIA challenged Bush's claim that Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa.
Most observers considered the Kerry campaign's signing of Beers in May last year a major coup; Beers had served every president since Richard M. Nixon and had resigned only weeks before from the White House's top counterterrorism job under Bush (the same position earlier held by Richard Clarke). Beers quit in protest over the war in Iraq, which he believed would weaken the struggle against al-Qaida.
Kerry's foreign policy team is also operating in an environment of intellectual change that would inevitably shape his presidency if he wins.
Though the party divided over invading Iraq, most of the Democrats likely to fill key positions in a Kerry administration are more comfortable using American force than their equivalents of the past 20 years. In that sense, they continue an evolution, already apparent during the Clinton years, beyond the reluctance to commit American forces abroad that has been common among Democrats for years after Vietnam.
Potential secretaries of state Biden and Holbrooke were leading advocates of military intervention against Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in the '90s. Biden and Holbrooke were also more forceful than most Democrats, arguing that Bush had authority to invade Iraq last year without a second United Nations resolution explicitly authorizing an attack. Yet each, like Berger, has repeatedly argued Bush made a critical miscalculation by failing to build more international support for the Iraq invasion.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.