WASHINGTON - In the wake of President Bush's surprisingly lame performance in last week's first presidential debate, his campaign reacted by latching on to two of Sen. John Kerry's words: his suggestion of a "global test" for pre-emptive military action.
Speaking the day after the debate to one of his usual pre-screened crowds of adoring supporters, Mr. Bush lashed out at the mere suggestion of such a test.
"Senator Kerry last night said that America has to pass some sort of global test before we can use American troops to defend ourselves," Mr. Bush said, pausing and grinning as the audience booed Mr. Kerry's name. "Listen, I'll continue to work with our allies and the international community, but I will never submit America's national security to an international test. The use of troops to defend America must never be subject to a veto by countries like France."
The president's rhetorical jujitsu tries to turn the spotlight on Mr. Kerry's remarks because the Bush administration's record for building international support for the war in Iraq wilts and withers so strikingly in the spotlight.
Here is what Mr. Kerry really said about pre-emptive war during the debate: "No president, through all of American history, has ever ceded - and nor would I - the right to pre-empt in any way necessary, to protect the United States of America. But if and when you do it, Jim [Lehrer, the debate moderator], you've got to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people, understand fully why you're doing what you're doing, and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons."
There is nothing new about showing the world that you have "legitimate reasons" to go to war. Thomas Jefferson began the Declaration of Independence by declaring that "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind" required the colonists to declare the causes that "impel" them to separate from Britain. "Let facts," he wrote, "be submitted to a candid world."
After Sept. 11, 2001, America's war to topple the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in pursuit of al-Qaida easily passed the "global test." Al-Qaida continues to pose a grave threat to this country. Iraq, by contrast, looks like the "diversion" that Mr. Kerry calls it.
"My opponent looked at the same intelligence I looked at and declared in 2002 that Saddam Hussein was a grave threat," Mr. Bush said during the debate. But Congress did not see the same intelligence. Later disclosures revealed that the Bush administration presented a version of U.S. intelligence to Congress in which cautioning facts, evaluations and conclusions were revised to make the strongest possible case for war against Iraq. It worked.
In the run-up to the Iraq war, it turns out that uncomfortable facts were not presented candidly, even to the American public, let alone to the rest of the world.
In mid-September, The New York Times reported a new National Intelligence Estimate. Circulated in August, it forecasts civil war as the "worst-case" outcome in Iraq and continuation of the current bloody and chaotic insurgency as the best-case outlook.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan brushed it off as the work of "pessimists" and "hand-wringers." Mr. Bush similarly dismissed it, saying our nation's intelligence experts were "just guessing as to what the conditions might be like." When that statement reportedly outraged our spy shops, Mr. Bush apologetically conceded that the estimates were more than just guesses.
Considering what has happened in Iraq, this White House could probably use a few more "hand-wringers." Instead, Bush & Co. find themselves playing the patriotism card, condemning Mr. Kerry and anyone else who criticizes the war as undermining our troops and giving aid and comfort to the enemy. What's truly disturbing about Mr. Bush's foreign policy is his discomfort in talking about it.
Mr. Kerry needs to tell Team Bush and a "candid world" what a younger Mr. Kerry once told Congress - that the best way to support our troops is to make sure they don't die for a mistake.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.