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As campaigns begin, Jentleson back in action

Election season is fast approaching, foreign policy is consuming public discourse and many Democrats are seeking experts to advise them on the complexities of a post-Sept. 11 world.

In short, it's Bruce Jentleson time.

Jentleson, director of the Sanford Institute of Public Policy and a former senior foreign policy advisor for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, is stepping back into the political fray. He has increased his profile in recent months with innumerable appearances on television and in print and has been briefing Democratic presidential candidates on his foreign policy views.

As of now, Jentleson said he has no plans to get involved with any candidate as deeply as he did with Gore in 2000, when he was on the front lines of the campaign. However, his presence is still felt in the national debate, just as it was in 2000 when he represented the Gore team in a debate with former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Perle.

"I don't consider myself non-involved now, I consider myself involved in a different kind of way," Jentleson said.

Jentleson, an avowed Democrat, said he has his favorite candidates but declined to reveal his preference because he has offered his services to candidates on a non-exclusive basis. He said this "ideas, but not individuals" approach gives him more opportunities to articulate his own views, not those of someone else.

Indeed, his views have been making the rounds lately. His major appearances have included PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, two interviews with ABC's Nightline, a forum of pre-eminent foreign policy experts that was printed in the Washington Post, an op-ed in The News & Observer of Raleigh, a "constant flow" of newspaper interviews and speaking engagements across the country--all within the past year.

His chief focus recently has been the war and subsequent peacekeeping in Iraq. His current position is that the Bush administration has the right objective--peace, security and stability in Iraq--but the wrong strategy.

After years of exercises in nation-building throughout the world, Jentleson said experts in civil peace and infrastructure are numerous, though largely ignored by the Bush team. "It makes no sense to me to insist to not tap that expertise," he said.

The other problem, in Jentleson's eyes, is credibility. "Fundamentally, the United States cannot create for ourselves legitimacy for being an occupying force in the eyes of Iraqis and the rest of the world," he said.

Jentleson's advice for presidential candidates is to come up with a credible alternative to the Bush administration's war on terror. Despite Bush's dominance in public opinion polls, Jentleson said the president is beatable in 2004.

"It's going to be a contested campaign," he said, cautioning that candidates must strike a balance between rehashing watered-down Republican foreign policies--"Bush lite," as he called it--and the fringe. The challenge will be not just to prove what is wrong with Bush, he said, but to clearly state what's right about the Democratic candidate.

Jentleson also warned against glossing over foreign policy. He said the worst part of working for the Gore campaign in 2000 was how political consultants de-emphasized the candidate's foreign policy credentials and ignored Jentleson and others to the possible detriment of the campaign. "They were assuming we were just a bunch of policy wonks," he said.

At the end of the day, Jentleson is both a policy wonk and a political player, a combination that makes him something of a coveted commodity.

He said he enjoys the dual roles. "My sense [is] that ultimately what I study as an academic gives me a chance to bridge my studies and my scholarship and apply those ideas to actual policy," he said. "That opportunity is very rich."

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