Debate Iraq, not Vietnam

September 10, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - After months of John Kerry being thrown on the defensive over his service in the Vietnam War, President Bush suddenly finds himself in, so to speak, the same boat.

Documented reports on CBS News' 60 Minutes now indicate that Mr. Bush as a Texas Air National Guardsman in 1972 ignored a superior's order to take a required medical examination, leading to his suspension from flight status.

These and other questions about his service in the Guard have triggered a new round of television ads on Vietnam service similar to those aired in recent weeks by an anti-Kerry group, only this time they come from anti-Bush counterparts.

Crocodile tears are flowing from the Bush campaign over this exercise in tit-for-tat, with spokesman Steve Schmidt wailing about "a smear group launching baseless attacks on behalf of John Kerry's campaign that will be rejected by the American people."

Both this sponsoring group, called Texans for Truth, and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that ran the earlier ads against Mr. Kerry's Vietnam service, are ostensibly independent of the two candidates' campaigns but function similarly as de facto supporters. What differentiates them is that the anti-Bush sponsors have documents to back up their allegations, compared with only the hearsay memories of the anti-Kerry protagonists.

In a sense it is only fair, after the relentless spotlight on Mr. Kerry's Vietnam record, that it now swings on how Mr. Bush spent his time stateside during that deadly conflict. But just as the earlier focus on Mr. Kerry in Vietnam drew voters' attention from the Iraq war, this new element can be a detour from the critical debate on Iraq that should be taking place.

After weeks of meandering through important but secondary domestic concerns from health care to tax cuts, Mr. Kerry seems finally to have recognized that the election of 2004 is about the war in Iraq and how Mr. Bush has conducted it. The president never has had any doubt about it, as evidenced by the way he used memories of 9/11 as the backdrop for his party's convention in New York.

The Bush campaign capitalized on the furor over Mr. Kerry's Vietnam service, and the Swift Boat Veterans' ad, to inflict considerable political damage on him. The Kerry campaign likewise will be tempted to try the same with the new disclosures about Mr. Bush's Guard service, but it will be better off turning up the heat on his conduct of today's war.

Mr. Kerry's ham-handed explanations of his vote for the Bush war resolution, and particularly his foolish statement that even had he known no weapons of mass destruction would be found he would have voted as he did, have severely compromised his ability to challenge Mr. Bush on the war.

But politically he will be better off continuing the course he embarked on this week, attacking the "catastrophic choices" he says the president made in launching his pre-emptive war without broader support from the international community.

The Bush strategy is clear: Convince Americans they will be safer with the decisive incumbent in the White House than with the flip-flopping challenger. Mr. Kerry needs to hammer at the cost of a radical and failing policy in Iraq that demands new leadership, and he needs to say much more clearly and persuasively how he will provide it.

The relative merits of the Bush and Kerry military service during the Vietnam War obviously go to questions of character and patriotism, and should be aired. But with barely more than seven weeks to go before Election Day, it's past time when Mr. Kerry must push Mr. Bush to defend the results in Iraq of his vaunted leadership skills.

It has become a clichM-i in this campaign that Mr. Kerry's strongest argument for election is that he is not George W. Bush. In the remaining weeks of the campaign, he isn't likely to make voters feel much better about himself. So he needs to give voters the reasons Mr. Bush must go, and the best one is not that he didn't serve in Vietnam but that he got the country into a war it didn't have to fight and has made a costly mess of it.

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

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