In his sharpest attack on U.S. policy on Iraq
to date, Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry Monday accused President George
W. Bush of having made "a series of catastrophic decisions" that has
created a "crisis of historic proportions" both in Iraq and in the
wider "war on terror."
Speaking at New York University, just blocks from Ground Zero of the Sept.
11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Kerry said Bush should immediately
implement a four-part plan to redress the mistakes lest the the current situation,
which he characterized as a "mess," become irreversible, no matter
who is elected president.
The plan – which calls for persuading the UN and U.S. allies to assume
more responsibility in Iraq, accelerating and internationalizing training of
Iraqi forces, redesigning the reconstruction process to reduce unemployment
and enhance Iraqi participation, and recruiting a protection force for UN election
officials – should permit Washington to begin withdrawing troops as early
as next summer and complete their withdrawal within the next four years, he
"This is what I would do as president today," he said. "But
we cannot afford to wait until January. President Bush owes it to the American
people to tell the truth and put Iraq on the right track. Even more, he owes
it to our troops and their families, whose sacrifice is a testament to the best
Kerry's remarks, which were clearly designed to sharpen his position on Iraq
and put Bush on the defensive, came at the start of a week which the White House
had planned to use to highlight his international leadership, particularly on
On Tuesday, Bush is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly. His speech
will be designed to rally international support for the U.S.-led "war on
terror" and to frame the current conflict in Iraq as a central part of
On Thursday, Bush will greet interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi at the
White House in a joint appearance at which Allawi is expected to express gratitude
for Bush's decision to invade Iraq and oust former President Saddam Hussein,
and urge strong U.S. support for elections that are still scheduled for January,
despite a growing tide of opinion, even among U.S. officials, that the country
will not be ready.
In a potentially important reversal for Bush, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan,
whose organization is supposed to play a key role in organizing and carrying
out the polling, said late last week that he did not see how the elections could
take place unless the security situation improves substantially. He also said
for the first time that he thought the original invasion of Iraq was "illegal"
under the UN Charter, an observation that provoked widespread contempt and anger
among Republicans and sympathetic media over the weekend.
Kerry's assault on Bush's Iraq policy also came amid indications that the presidential
race, despite the Democrat's generally lackluster performance, has tightened
further. Bush, who emerged from the Republican Convention in New York City earlier
this month with a substantial lead, is now ahead by a few percentage points,
but still within the margin of error, according to most polls.
According to the same polls, Iraq and the broader war against terror are playing
a crucial role in the standings of the two candidates. While Kerry leads comfortably
on issues such as the economy, jobs, and health care, the two are closer on
Iraq, while Bush leads by a substantial margin on the question of who can best
conduct the "war on terror" and protect national security more generally.
For that reason, the Bush campaign has gone all out to depict the Iraq war
as part of the war on terror, hoping that, if they succeed, whatever negative
opinion has built up over the war – and polls showed beginning four months
ago that more citizens believe it was a mistake to go to war than those who
believe it was a good idea – can be neutralized by its broader identification
with Bush's leadership in the anti-terror campaign.
The Kerry campaign has appeared ambivalent about Iraq as an issue, primarily
because the senator voted in Oct. 2002 to give Bush the authority to wage war
under certain conditions. The fact that he became harshly critical of the war
beginning earlier this year has been used by the Bush campaign as an opportunity
to depict Kerry as an indecisive "flip-flopper," a tactic that has
been remarkably successful, according to the latest opinion polls.
Kerry's often-rambling explanations of both his original decision to back the
war resolution and his subsequent decision to vote against a huge appropriation
to fund the occupation actually fueled the Republican's efforts to depict him
as, in the word of one Washington veteran, a "typical mushhead Senator"
in contrast to the strong and decisive leadership of the incumbent.
As a result, the Kerry campaign two weeks ago tentatively decided to soft-pedal
Iraq as the dominant issue in the campaign and move his focus to the economy
and other domestic issues.
But that decision appears to have been reversed over the past week, particularly
in light of the sharp escalation of violence and its toll on U.S. soldiers in
Iraq, as well as the sudden speculation about whether the next benchmark in
the "transition" in Iraq – the January elections – can indeed be
reached on schedule.
The decision to return the campaign's focus to Iraq was also propelled by the
fact that Bush's fellow-Republicans were themselves making increasingly outspoken
attacks on Iraq policy, particularly in reaction to the increasingly optimistic
rhetoric of Bush and his top aides.
"The worst thing we can do is hold ourselves hostage to some grand illusion
that we're winning," said Nebraska Republican and former Vietnam veteran
Sen. Chuck Hagel during a widely noted hearing last week. "Right now we
are not winning. Things are getting worse."
In unusually harsh language, the normally bland and ultra-polite Senate Foreign
Relations Committee chairman, Indiana Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, joined
in, complaining about the "dancing-in-the-street crowd" within the
administration, notably the vice president's office and Pentagon political appointees,
for unrealistic assumptions about how Iraqis would greet a U.S. occupation.
On Sunday, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who has strongly backed Bush's
reelection despite a close friendship with Kerry, also noted that the administration
had made "serious mistakes" in Iraq due mostly to its failure to deploy
more troops there. Yet another influential Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham,
assailed Bush for being "stubborn about troops. We do not need to paint
a rosy scenario for the American people," he said.
The Republican attacks were also provoked by a series of leaks of classified
intelligence documents that depicted a far bleaker outlook in Iraq than what
Bush was offering publicly. Both the leaks and the Republican attacks suddenly
made Bush appear a great deal more vulnerable on Iraq than just seven days before.
In his address Monday, Kerry deliberately echoed many of the Republicans' complaints,
even citing Hagel, Lugar and McCain by name.
Bush was "in denial," he said, noting that before, during, and after
the war, "he hitched his wagon to the ideologues who surround him, filtering
out those who disagreed, including leaders of his own party and the uniformed
military." The result, he declared, included "colossal errors of judgment"
during and after the war for which no one was held accountable. "In fact
the only officials who lost their jobs over Iraq," he said, "were
the ones who told the truth."
Despite the fact that the major justifications for the war – such as Hussein's
alleged buildup of weapons of mass destruction and his ties to al Qaeda – have
since turned out to have had little or no factual basis, "President Bush
tells us that he would do everything all over again, the same way. How can he
possibly be serious?" Kerry asked.
Now, he said, "we have a mess on our hands [in Iraq]. But we cannot throw
up our hands. We cannot afford to see Iraq become a permanent source of terror
that will endanger America's security for years to come," he said, calling
for a "fresh start."
First, Kerry called for Bush to convene a summit meeting of the world's major
powers and Iraq's neighbors during the General Assembly this week to offer to
fully include them in the reconstruction process in exchange for peacekeeping
troops, training of Iraqi security personnel, and securing Iraq's borders.
Second, he called for the administration to "get serious about training
Iraqi security forces," in part by recruiting thousands of trainers from
U.S. allies and encouraging them to also open training centers in their own
Third, Kerry called for a reconstruction plan designed to bring "tangible
benefits to the Iraqi people" by using "more Iraqi contractors and
workers, instead of big corporations like Halliburton." In addition, "he
should fire the civilians in the Pentagon responsible for mismanaging the reconstruction
Finally, Bush should take "immediate, urgent, essential steps to guarantee
the promised elections can be held next year," according to Kerry, who
noted that a resolution authorizing a protection force for UN electoral monitors
was approved by the Security Council in the spring. "Three months later,
not a single country has answered that call, and the president acts as if it
While it "will not be easy" to recruit such a mission now, Kerry
noted, "even countries that refused to put boots on the ground in Iraq
should still help protect the UN."
"George Bush has no strategy for Iraq," he said. "I do."
(Inter Press Service)