Sen. Kerry finally finds the target

September 20, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Sen. John Kerry chose a propitious if politically risky occasion before the National Guard Association to take the gloves off at last against President Bush, socking him with a blistering criticism of his conduct of the war in Iraq.

It was propitious because the Guard is inextricably tied to that war, with thousands of Guardsmen fighting in Iraq and their families' lives in states of suspension because of unexpected and disruptive extensions of tours of duty. Mr. Kerry characterized these extended tours as a "backdoor draft" of the Guard that he pledged he would end as president.

At the same time, the speech was risky because Mr. Bush has a link to the National Guard by virtue of his service during the Vietnam War. Though that service is under scrutiny, Mr. Kerry's criticism could rally more support for the president in Guard ranks.

In any event, the Kerry speech may be the turning point in an internal debate over the campaign's message. Some Kerry insiders have been critical of their candidate's failure to make sufficiently clear his distinctions with Mr. Bush over the war or to hammer hard enough at the president's severe shortcomings and misjudgments in the American effort in Iraq.

Mr. Bush, meanwhile, continues to argue that the military situation demands his brand of decisive leadership and that Mr. Kerry is a flip-flopper who lacks the necessary "clarity" to be an effective leader. Mr. Kerry's speech to the Guard clearly was designed to blunt that line of attack and was an attempt to get Mr. Bush to address and defend the chaos in Iraq.

Rather than simply praising the Guard for its service, as the president did a few days earlier, Mr. Kerry cast the Guardsmen as victims of Mr. Bush's poor choices and inadequate preparations. He suggested that the Guardsmen were being denied "the same resources and respect we give our regular troops" and charged that Mr. Bush had "failed to tell you the truth" about the dire situation in Iraq.

In some of his harshest words of the campaign, Mr. Kerry said, "You deserve a president who will not play politics with national security, who will not ignore his own intelligence while living in a fantasy world of spin, and who will give the American people the truth about the challenge our brave men and women face on the front lines."

Mr. Kerry, accused by critics of failing to offer a policy different from that of the president, reiterated that Mr. Bush was "wrong to rush to war without the allies we needed by our side" and wrong to ignore military advice to commit more troops.

"So when it comes to Iraq," he said, "it's not that I would have done one thing differently than President Bush - I would have done almost everything differently."

Mr. Kerry's sharpest indictment was that "the mess in Iraq has set us back, way back, in the war on terror." By focusing on Iraq, he said, "George W. Bush has taken his eye off the ball."

Many Guardsmen, he also noted, "are our first responders here at home - firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians. To take you out of your communities is to take down our critical first line of defense. That's no way to protect America."

The Democratic nominee made no mention of the controversy over Mr. Bush's Air National Guard service stateside during the Vietnam War. Rather, he made a sharp pivot from the month-long comparisons of the two candidates' Vietnam service records to the issue of national security, which may be the most critical of the election.

Also propitious for Mr. Kerry was the surfacing of the latest National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq that took a sharply pessimistic view of the effort to stabilize Iraq. The White House clearly hopes that optimistic words from Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi during a visit here this week will counter the gloomy report.

With less than two weeks until the first scheduled presidential debate in Florida on Sept. 30, Mr. Kerry's attack on the Bush record in Iraq finally sets the stage for an overdue direct confrontation on the wisdom and implementation of the war, which should be the centerpiece of the election campaign.

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

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