Kerry accuses Bush of `stubborn incompetence'

Kerry says Bush `incompetence' left America less safe

September 21, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - In his most comprehensive critique of the administration's foreign policy, Sen. John Kerry said yesterday that President Bush's "stubborn incompetence" has weakened America's national security and left the country less safe than when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was in power.

Kerry warned that Bush's re-election would mean "more of the same" in Iraq. But he stopped short of offering a new strategy for ending the war. Instead, the Massachusetts senator repackaged previous statements that amount to more of an expansion of Bush's plans than a sharp break in policy.

"Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell. But that was not, in and of itself, a reason to go to war," said Kerry, who voted in 2002 to give Bush authorization to invade Iraq. "The satisfaction we take in his downfall does not hide this fact: We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure."

On a day when the two campaigns agreed on a presidential debate schedule, Bush delivered a rapid-fire response to his Democratic opponent.

At a stop in New Hampshire, Bush said Kerry's words amount to "new contradictions of his old positions on Iraq." He referred to a December 2003 speech in which Kerry said, "Those who believe we are not safer with [Hussein's] capture don't have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president."

Kerry made that remark in response to Democratic rival Howard Dean's statement that Hussein's capture had not made America safer. Kerry, who initially applauded the capture, has increasingly echoed some of Dean's anti-war lines as he tries to capitalize on voter discontent over the violence in Iraq.

In his latest attack on the president, Kerry said Bush's mishandling of Iraq had damaged the fight against terrorism by diverting attention from urgent problems, including mounting nuclear threats in North Korea and Iran, and rising instability in Afghanistan.

The Democratic nominee delivered his remarks on the New York University campus hours before the news of the beheading of an American hostage in Iraq was posted on an Islamic Web site. Kerry's speech was timed to coincide with Bush's arrival here for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, which the president is to address today.

Kerry criticized Bush for rejecting a wider U.N. role in rebuilding Iraq. He said that "arrogant decision" and what he called Bush's go-it-alone policy had reduced the United States' reputation to "an all-time low" and made the world "a more dangerous place" for Americans.

Bush's "colossal failures of judgment" underscore the need for "a fresh start" in Iraq, Kerry said. Kerry predicted that if Bush is re-elected, he would repeat, "somewhere else, the same reckless mistakes" he made in Iraq.

In recent days, even some of the president's Republican supporters have expressed growing concern about the situation in Iraq. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said over the weekend that the United States is in "deep trouble in Iraq" and is no longer winning the war.

`Honest debate on Iraq'

Kerry has been stepping up his attacks against Bush on Iraq - even as he rebuts charges from the president's campaign that he's flip-flopped on the issue. Bush's response yesterday pointed up how convoluted Kerry's position on Iraq has become, though the senator and his aides say he has held a consistent position from the outset.

Reacting to Bush's retort, Joe Lockhart, a Kerry spokesman, said in a statement: "George Bush just can't tell the truth about Iraq. John Kerry was talking about the difference between Saddam Hussein being free in Iraq to direct insurgency operations against our troops vs. being captured. John Kerry made clear today we can't change the reality of Iraq until we have a president who's willing to face the reality of Iraq."

The Iraq conflict, and what critics say are Kerry's shifting positions on it, have become a focus of the presidential campaign. In the face of lagging poll numbers, Kerry is putting more emphasis on foreign policy and the war, though aides say he still intends to shift attention to such domestic issues as jobs, the economy and health care.

Kerry said the candidates "owe it to the American people" to have "a great honest debate" on Iraq. Later in the day, the Bush and Kerry campaigns announced that they had agreed to a series of three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, starting next week, with foreign policy and homeland security the topic of the first encounter.

Kerry catalogued a deteriorating situation in Iraq that he said has left most Iraqis "sitting on the fence, instead of siding with us against the insurgents."

In his most sweeping and detailed denunciation of Bush's handling of Iraq, he accused Bush of committing "errors of presidential judgment of historic proportions."

"We need to turn the page and make a fresh start in Iraq," Kerry said. "The president misled, miscalculated and mismanaged every aspect of this undertaking."

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