Kerry attacks Bush on lack of U.S. intervention in Haiti

Democratic challenger questions foreign policy, says he would've sent help

Election 2004

March 07, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HOUSTON - Had he been sitting in the Oval Office last weekend as rebel forces were threatening to enter Port-au-Prince, Sen. John Kerry says, he would have sent an international force into the city to protect Haiti's widely disliked but democratically elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

"I would have been prepared to send troops immediately, period," Kerry said Friday, expressing astonishment that President Bush, who talks often of supporting democratically elected leaders, withheld aid and then helped spirit the island's leader into exile in Africa after telling him the United States could not protect him.

"Look, Aristide was no picnic and did a lot of things wrong," Kerry said. But Washington "had understandings in the region about the right of a democratic regime to ask for help. And we contravened all of that. I think it's a terrible message to the region, democracies, and it's shortsighted."

Kerry's critique of Bush was emblematic of how he is using national security issues in the first days of his head-to-head contest with the president.

In an hourlong interview, Kerry spoke about hot spots around the world to cast doubts on Bush's judgment beyond their well-aired differences on Iraq, questioning the president's handling of North Korea, the Middle East peace process and the spread of nuclear weapons.

Kerry also argued that he would rewrite the Bush strategy that makes pre-emptive strikes a declared, central tenet of American policy.

The core of Kerry's argument in the interview was that divisions within Bush's foreign policy team have frozen the art of preventive diplomacy - and kept Secretary of State Colin L. Powell from doing his job. Kerry rarely misses a chance to praise Powell, a fellow Vietnam veteran, and then distinguish him from the rest of the administration.

"I think simply Powell - who I know, like and admire - has been never permitted to be fully a secretary of state in the way that I envision the secretary of state," he said, describing how he believes Powell has been regularly undercut by the administration's more hawkish members, led by Vice President Dick Cheney. "I think Powell - I'm not sure they didn't lock the keys to the airplane up sometimes."

In a radio address broadcast yesterday, a response to Bush's weekly radio commentary, Kerry dwelled at length on the stories of American military units scrounging for private donations of steel plates for their Humvees and body armor before they deploy to Iraq. "This administration has given billions to Halliburton and requested $82 million to protect Iraq's 36 miles of coastline," he said. "But they call this basic body armor a `non-priority' item."

The Bush campaign is scouring voting records for evidence that Kerry had sought to kill weapons systems, and it is whispering to reporters about the contrast between Kerry's desire to shrink the intelligence services after the Cold War and his declarations today that they are unprepared for the task of fighting terrorism.

To talk to Bush's national security advisers and then to Kerry is to hear a very different description of the state of America's influence in the world.

But in several cases, Kerry declined to say how he would handle some of the stickiest issues - whether to reward Pakistan for its aid against al-Qaida, for example, or punish it for failing to crack down on what was clearly one of the world's most dangerous nuclear proliferation networks, based in its own nuclear laboratories. He said, however, that he had no confidence in White House assurances that Pakistan's nuclear weapons were secure from terrorists.

Sooner or later, though, Kerry returns the conversation to the touchstone of his early adult life, Vietnam. He compared the Bush administration's participation in the exile of Aristide last weekend to the coup that ousted another unpopular authoritarian leader: President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam four decades ago. Bush's more hawkish aides, he argued, have failed to learn how efforts to change a region's dynamics by changing its government almost always backfire.

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