Winner's most critical role may be that of war leader

Election 2004

THE ISSUE: Foreign policy

October 03, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON — One of a series of weekly reports on major issues in the 2004 presidential campaign.

WASHINGTON - Whoever wins the presidential election Nov. 2 will, by necessity, be a war leader. With U.S. forces battling a stubborn insurgency in Iraq and a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, amid a worldwide campaign against Islamist terror, the United States unquestionably will have soldiers fighting overseas well into the future.

But President Bush and Sen. John Kerry frame the war in starkly different terms. They clash over who America should be fighting, the nature of the threat and what strategies to use in confronting it.

Their disagreement over whether Iraq is the "right" or "wrong" war reflects opposing visions of the world that shape how they propose to tackle other problems, from Iran's support of terrorism to North Korea's development of nuclear weapons.

"There are huge differences on the three most critical issues: democratization in the greater Middle East, starting with Iraq; North Korea; and the urgency with which we pursue nonproliferation," said Harlan K. Ullman, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has advised Kerry.

Bush says he didn't choose to be a "war president," but Sept. 11 transformed his presidency. He has even compared his period in office to that of Winston Churchill, who rallied Britons to a death struggle with Hitler's Germany. Bush keeps a bust of the wartime prime minister in the Oval Office and says, "He watches my every move."

For Bush, the terror attacks in September 2001 "changed how America must look at the world." His own vision called for a response that, at the outset, was overwhelmingly military, taking the fight to the enemy. But the invasions of Afghanistan and later Iraq formed part of a grand strategy for starting a dynamic of change throughout the Muslim world, a region that extends from Morocco to Indonesia.

Bush describes the Iraq war as an integral part of a long-term struggle against the forces of extremism - forces that his administration says have hijacked Islam for their own nihilistic ends and feed on the discontent of a region trapped in poverty and ignorance by autocratic regimes.

He brought to prominence a group of hard-line strategists, including top aides to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney and led by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who saw the toppling of Saddam Hussein as a first step in letting democracy spread in the Middle East as it had in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

That Hussein had neither weapons of mass destruction, as the president had contended before the war, nor any operational link to al-Qaida doesn't mean he wasn't a threat, the White House says: Hussein intended to rebuild his banned stockpile once free of sanctions, and had aided and abetted terrorists in the past.

The administration believes its demonstration of strength will have an intimidating effect on other autocrats with nuclear ambitions. It notes Libyan leader Muammar el Kadafi, who renounced his nuclear weapons program after the invasion of Iraq, as a case in point.

Early in his presidency, Bush showed a willingness to defy world opinion, pulling out of the Kyoto climate-change agreement and refusing to endorse the international criminal court and a treaty to enforce the biological weapons convention.

With the Iraq war, Bush implemented a new doctrine of pre-emption, enshrined in his National Security Strategy, under which the United States can use force to prevent threats from materializing.

What critics call "unilateralism" Bush and his supporters refer to as leadership: Only the United States, they say, has the vision, values and strength to confront the world's evils.

The United Nations Security Council, they say, tolerated a decade of defiance from Iraq and stood by as sanctions withered, allowing Hussein to skim billions from U.N.-monitored oil sales and smuggling while his people suffered. Rumsfeld summed up a prevalent attitude toward cooperating with other leading nations when he dismissed France and Germany as "Old Europe."

So effective has Bush been at persuading Americans that he is a strong commander in chief that his Democratic challenger, John Kerry, devoted precious primetime hours of the Democratic convention to highlighting his combat service in Vietnam, and opened his own acceptance speech with a salute and the words, "John Kerry, reporting for duty."

Lately, however, Kerry has recovered the voice of the 27-year-old veteran-activist that first propelled him to national prominence in 1971, when he denounced the Vietnam War and asked a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

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