Originally published in the Finanacial Times on May 4, 2004

If he is elected president in November, John Kerry will have one great asset in seeking allies for the war in Iraq and the struggle against terrorism - the fact that he is not George W. Bush.

This will be a very considerable asset. Unfortunately, as things stand today, it also looks like being Mr Kerry's only asset. The senator has denounced Mr Bush's record and quite rightly. But, as an alternative, he has offered only platitudes about appealing to US allies and relying on the United Nations. Moreover, as a result of the unfolding debacle in Iraq, the Bush administration itself has in recent months adopted much of this language. Mr Kerry therefore sounds as if he is running against the Bush of 2001 to 2003, not the Bush of 2004.

Indeed, it is on Iraq, the Middle East and the war against terrorism that the Kerry team seems to be most bereft of new ideas. It is not that the desire to involve the UN is wrong. On the contrary, that body would certainly have to play an essential role in negotiating any Iraqi settlement and new political order. But when it comes to both military forces and political will, the UN can provide only an acceptable form. The content, in terms of force and will, has to be provided by states; and it is to states that the US will have to appeal for help in Iraq.

Given the situation in Iraq today, this means chiefly Muslim states, and above all those which border Iraq. This is because, in the first place, only a solution that has the full backing of the Muslim and Arab worlds can hope to enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of most Iraqis. Second, the attitude of these states will be critical to the long-term stability of Iraq, just as the policies of Afghanistan's neighbours are critical to the future of Afghanistan. Finally, while Turkey, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia have differing agendas in Iraq, they also have certain interests in common. None of them wants to see Iraq break up, if only because Turkey, Iran and Syria have Kurdish minorities that would be encouraged to seek secession. They would all be gravely damaged by an Iraqi civil war. And they would all be directly threatened if Iraq became a long-term base for al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups. With US approval, Iran has already sought to play a positive role in mediating between the US and the Shia insurgents in Najaf.

Sadly, when it comes to appealing to the Muslim world, Mr Kerry has already taken a disastrous step. By immediately and unconditionally approving Mr Bush's endorsement of Ariel Sharon's plans for Gaza and the West Bank, Mr Kerry has suggested that he is just as tied to the present Israeli government as is Mr Bush. This in turn suggests that he will be unable to resist Israeli pressures when it comes to seeking rapprochement with Muslim countries hostile to Israel. Moreover, Likud's rejection of Mr Sharon's plan for Gaza withdrawal, even after it was backed by Mr Bush, demonstrates the complete bankruptcy of the bipartisan US approach to Israel and the "peace process", and the inability of the US to influence Israel without applying much tougher forms of pressure than anyone in the US political elite is willing even to discuss.

In consequence, a Kerry administration would be no more able than a Bush administration to reduce wider Muslim hostility by pushing for a just and stable peace between Israel and the Palestinians. As the recent letter by retired British diplomats to Tony Blair makes clear, American strategy and American leadership in the war against terrorism would go on being seen by Europeans, too, as lacking both legitimacy and basic common sense.

Mr Kerry has said that his foreign policy would reflect a spirit of "progressive internationalism". This phrase appears to have been taken from the name of a plan for Democrat security strategy drawn up late last year by a group of hawkish Democrat intellectuals who supported the Iraq war.

This document speaks of multilateralism, but several of its signatories have adopted positions on the use of force, on the democratisation of the Middle East, and on the need for a position of unrelenting hostility towards Iran, indistinguishable from the positions of the neoconservatives.

On Israel and Palestine, they talk of how the US must push for a settlement, while remaining studiously vague about what this settlement should be. Above all, over the years I have heard these people speak again and again of the need for the US to do more to "persuade", "convince", or "enlist" its allies. Only very rarely have I heard them speak of America's need to listen to its allies, let alone to the views of Muslim states and peoples. But without such a willingness to listen and respond, it will be impossible for a Kerry administration to appeal to them for help, or to formulate any truly new strategy in the war against terrorism.

The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His next book, America Right and Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, will be published later this year