Kerry defends his record on national security

Bush ads attack senator for vote against Iraq funds

Election 2004

April 19, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John Kerry defended himself yesterday against Republican accusations that he is weak on national security, but he wouldn't say whether he would oppose any future spending request for U.S. troops in Iraq.

The Democratic presidential candidate, in a broadcast television interview, described the Bush campaign's latest attack ad against him as "sad and full of distortion, almost pathetic." The commercial, airing in key election states and on cable television, calls Kerry "wrong on defense" because of his vote last fall against an $87 billion spending measure for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During an hourlong appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, Kerry tried to turn the tables on Bush. He criticized the president's failure to send U.S. forces into the mountains of Tora Bora to capture Osama bin Laden and said that administration blunders in Iraq had heightened the threat to U.S. soldiers there and increased the cost to U.S. taxpayers.

The Massachusetts senator, who voted in favor of Bush's Iraq resolution, refused to label the war a mistake. But he said it "may well be that we need a new president, a breath of fresh air, to re-establish credibility with the rest of the world so that we can have a believable administration as to how we proceed" in Iraq.

Kerry repeated his calls for greater involvement in Iraq by the United Nations and NATO but offered no specific new plan for handling the situation there.

He acknowledged that the recent surge of anti-U.S. violence made it less likely that his alternative can succeed. That is "the dilemma [and] the quandary" caused by Bush's mistakes, he said, describing administration diplomacy as "about as arrogant and ineffective as anything that I have ever seen."

Questioned about his votes on the Iraq war, Kerry said that there was "nothing inconsistent" in his opposition last fall to Bush's $87 billion funding request and a statement he made a month earlier that it would be "irresponsible" for anyone in Congress to deprive U.S. troops of the ability to defend themselves.

"Even the generals in Iraq said the money in that bill had no impact on their ability to continue to fight," the Democrat said in his most extensive broadcast interview since the start of the general election campaign.

Kerry called it "an outright lie" to suggest, as Bush's ad does, that his vote against the $87 billion measure would have prevented U.S. troops from getting additional body armor. The measure contained $300 million for body armor.

At the time of the October vote, Kerry's candidacy for the Democratic nomination was in trouble, largely as a result of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's success in capitalizing on anti-war sentiment among party activists. Kerry was one of 12 senators who voted against the $87 billion request.

"That was a vote for principle," he said.

Had his vote been the deciding one, he added, the administration would have been forced to negotiate with Congress and develop a better plan. Kerry supported an unsuccessful Democratic alternative that would have raised taxes on wealthy Americans to pay for the military operations.

Kerry refused to commit either way when moderator Tim Russert asked if he would oppose another measure to provide money for the troops.

"It depends entirely on what the situation is. I'm not going to say that," he said.

As public support for Bush's handling of the war in Iraq has declined, the president's re-election strategists have increased their attacks on the challenger's defense record in an apparent effort to limit Kerry's ability to capitalize on the issue.

Even though Kerry went out of his way yesterday to stress his strong support for the troops in Iraq, Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot said the senator's refusal to give a blanket endorsement of any future funding request had "incredibly" raised doubts about the depth of his commitment to U.S. troops and reflected "a disturbing lack of judgment."

Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill responded with a statement that accused the Bush campaign of waging a "desperate" effort "to deflect attention away from the White House" and Bush's "failed policies," particularly in light of the "disturbing revelations" in a new book by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post about the administration's pre-war decision making.

In the television interview, Kerry said more U.S. troops may be needed to secure Iraq, and he declined to predict whether, if he is elected, there would still be 100,000 U.S. troops there a year from now. "It depends on what the situation is," he said.

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