Bringing on war debate

March 19, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - In the early stages of the Iraq occupation, when armed resistance to U.S. forces in Baghdad was mounting, President Bush famously responded: "Bring them on!" Later, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, expressing eagerness to engage Mr. Bush in a debate over national security, slightly modified his taunt by challenging: "Bring it on!"

More recently, Mr. Kerry has invited Mr. Bush to a series of debates between now and the national party conventions this summer. Instead, the president and Vice President Dick Cheney have taken up Mr. Kerry in a long-distance war of words on who is best qualified to protect America.

In an opening volley of negative advertising and from the stump, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have taken dead aim at Mr. Kerry's national security credentials, citing what they say are contradictory statements and positions on supporting the U.S. military in Iraq.

They have noted his caveat-laden Senate vote for Mr. Bush's resolution authorizing the invasion and then his vote against authorizing the president's call for $87 billion to pursue the war, justified as opposition to Mr. Bush's failure to achieve broader international involvement.

They have also brought out earlier Kerry votes to cut spending for the U.S. intelligence community, without noting that the same cuts had bipartisan support on grounds that the agencies involved had not been using much of the appropriations they already had.

In their assault, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have found Mr. Kerry in some ways to be an unwitting accomplice. The Massachusetts senator has offered inarticulate explanations and careless comments that have given the president and vice president more ammunition.

When Mr. Kerry reported that unidentified foreign leaders had told him they wanted him to beat Mr. Bush in November, the president quickly challenged him to identify them. "If you're going to make an accusation in the course of a presidential campaign," he preached, "you've got to back it up with the facts."

It was a rather interesting observation from a man who started a war in Iraq on the accusation that the invaded country had weapons of mass destruction ready for use then couldn't back up that assertion with evidence.

Mr. Cheney also jumped on Mr. Kerry's comment about foreign leaders, saying, "We are the ones who get to determine the outcome of this election," presumably referring to the American voters.

In any event, Mr. Kerry so far hasn't identified who it was who said Mr. Bush had to go. Fortunately for Mr. Kerry, however, Spain's newly elected prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, now has said he hopes his country's ousting of Mr. Bush's staunch ally, Jose Maria Aznar, will lead Americans to act "in Kerry's favor" in November.

But indications of any foreign interference in the American presidential election, even if only by inference, can risk a voter backlash against Mr. Kerry. For that reason, the poll of foreign sentiment just released by the Pew Center's Global Attitudes Project, showing voters in seven of nine countries holding unfavorable views of the United States under Mr. Bush, may be of questionable political value to the Democratic challenger.

Mr. Kerry, meanwhile, has been true to his word on joining the national security debate. He wasted no time countering the Bush/Cheney assault, attacking the administration's occupation performance in Iraq and its treatment of U.S. soldiers there and their families at home.

He laid out a proposal for a military family "bill of rights" addressing needs in pay, housing, education at home and adequate weapons and protection on the battlefield. He repeated his charge that some troops in Iraq have lacked body armor, citing one wife who sent her husband such armor as a Valentine's Day gift.

This debate comes in the subcontext of Mr. Kerry's own service as a decorated Vietnam War veteran in contrast with Mr. Bush's National Guard service, which is under renewed press scrutiny. But more notable is the president's eagerness to raise the national security issue as a way of focusing the political dialogue away from the so-called jobless economy and toward the presumed strength of this self-styled wartime president.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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