Kerry outlines his military plan

Bruising political volley between senator, Bush's campaign heats up

March 18, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Condemning President Bush's military leadership, Sen. John Kerry outlined a plan yesterday that he said would modernize the military and bring new benefits to soldiers and veterans, even as he fended off Republican charges that he is unfit to be commander in chief.

"We are still bogged down in Iraq, and the administration stubbornly holds to failed unilateral policies that drive potential, significant, important, long-standing allies away from us," Kerry said in a speech at George Washington University on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. "What we have seen is a steady loss of lives and mounting cost in dollars to the American taxpayer, with no end in sight."

Kerry's remarks, a stinging indictment of Bush's treatment of U.S. troops in Iraq, came in a week in which the president has portrayed himself as a steady wartime commander in chief and has raised doubts about his Democratic opponent's commitment to the military.

The senator's speech seemed to fuel the bruising political volley between Kerry and Bush that has escalated recently. Each has sought to convince voters that he is better equipped to be president at a time of war and grave uncertainty.

In California, Vice President Dick Cheney contributed to the Bush team's broadside, unleashing a barrage of criticism of Kerry for his votes and remarks on defense and questioning his fitness to be president.

Cheney's harsh remarks yesterday came on the heels of a Bush campaign ad that aired in West Virginia on Tuesday, just as Kerry campaigned in that veteran-heavy state, highlighting Kerry's vote against an $87 billion war funding bill.

Kerry's is "not an impressive record for someone who aspires to become commander in chief in this time of testing for our country," Cheney said. "The senator from Massachusetts has given us ample doubts about his judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security."

Such criticism has dogged Kerry in the campaign, in large part because he has struggled to explain why he voted last year to authorize the use of military force in Iraq yet later criticized Bush for rushing to war.

The senator's vote months later against the $87 billion emergency spending bill to finance military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan - a vote some lawmakers used as a chance to register their discontent with Bush's Iraq policy - has raised more questions.

As Kerry fends off accusations that he has flip-flopped on national security matters, his speech yesterday stressed his background as a decorated Vietnam War hero. And it sought to shift attention to what he called Bush's failures in Iraq and his neglect of U.S. troops there.

"This president has had his chance," Kerry declared, "and this president has not delivered."

The senator outlined what he called a military "bill of rights" that he said would provide better benefits to servicemen and women and veterans.

Joining him at the speech were two of the Clinton administration's highest-ranking national security officials: former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and former Defense Secretary William J. Perry.

"He's trying to prevent the Bush administration from claiming some sort of monopoly on caring about the troops," said James P. Rubin, a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign who was a spokesman in the Clinton administration State Department.

Kerry accused Bush of misleading the nation about the reasons for the war and of putting U.S. troops in more peril than necessary by alienating allies that might have been willing to share the burden there. He spoke just before news broke of a car bomb blast at a Baghdad hotel that killed 27 people.

"Our men and women in uniform fight on - almost alone, in reality - with the targets squarely on their backs and their fronts," Kerry said.

He accused Bush of providing inadequate supplies - such as armor for troops and tanks - and of proposing cuts in military benefits, such as health care subsidies for veterans.

Nodding to his fellow Vietnam veterans who attended the speech, Kerry said, "Unlike the time when we fought side by side, I will be a president who does what's right for our men and women in uniform and those who have served."

Among Kerry's proposals were providing more training and equipment to U.S. troops, improving military housing, and increasing military health care subsidies and family separation pay. He also proposed temporarily increasing the size of the active-duty Army by 40,000 troops. That step, which his aides said would cost up to $8 billion a year, would be intended to ease the burden on those deployed for longer than their usual term.

As Kerry was outlining his military agenda, Cheney was seeking to undercut the senator's national security credentials by reminding Republican supporters that Kerry, having endorsed the resolution authorizing the Iraq war, then voted months later not to help fund it.

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