Bush, Kerry spar over attack on Iraq
CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Sen. John Kerry accused President Bush Thursday night of a "colossal error in judgment" by ordering the invasion of Iraq. "The world is better off without Saddam Hussein," the president shot back in campaign debate, adding his rival once said so himself.
"I agree with him," the president added sarcastically, emphasizing his campaign's contention that Kerry is prone to flip-flops.
In a 90-minute debate dominated by a war that has claimed more than 1,000 American lives, Kerry called the conflict a diversion in the broader struggle against terror and the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
The four-term Massachusetts senator said he could do a better job than Bush of protecting the nation against another Sept. 11-style attack, and pledged to be strong and resolute in fighting terrorism.
"But we also have to be smart ... and smart means not diverting our attention from the war on terror and taking it off to Iraq," Kerry said.
"This president, I don't know if he really sees what's happening over there," Kerry said of Bush, the two men standing behind lecterns 10 feet apart on a University of Miami debate stage.
Bush swiftly returned to his theme of Kerry as a man who changes his mind too often to be president.
"He voted to authorize the use of force and now says it's the wrong war at the wrong time. .... I don't think you can lead if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send to our troops?" said the Republican incumbent.
More than 1,000 Americans have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, many of them by insurgents battling American forces. Not long before Bush and Kerry strode on stage, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major attack against the insurgents in Samarra. The U.S. command said government and police buildings had been secured in the city.
Both men used well-rehearsed lines during their face-to-face encounter, but this was the first time each had to listen to the criticism at close quarters.
Bush appeared perturbed when Kerry leveled some of his charges, scowling at times and looking away in apparent disgust at others. Kerry often took notes when the president spoke.
There were few light moments, the most prominent when they exchanged courtesies about their 20-something daughters. "Trying to put a leash on them," Bush quipped of twins Jenna and Barbara.
The 90-minute debate unfolded scarcely a month before the election, the first in a series of high-stakes encounters between the president and his Democratic challenger. The two men meet Oct. 8 in St. Louis and again on Oct. 13 in Tempe, Ariz.
Vice President Dick Cheney and Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, hold their only face-to-face debate of the campaign Tuesday in Cleveland.
The polls gave Bush a slight advantage, with several key battleground states exceedingly close.
Bush and Kerry differed over North Korea, Iran and Russia as well as Iraq in a debate limited to foreign policy and terrorism.
Kerry charged that North Korea and Iran both have advanced their nuclear weapons programs during the Bush administration and that both countries are more dangerous now. "As president I'll never take my eye off that ball," the senator said.
Bush said he believed that a diplomatic initiative currently under way could solve the crisis with North Korea. "On Iran, I hope we can do the same," the president said.
Bush said that with North Korea, he would continue to pursue a strategy that involves the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea in talks with North Korea to defuse the crisis. But Kerry advocated bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea to find a solution.
Given the stakes, it was not surprising that the two campaigns negotiated what amounted to a 32-page contract that covered debate details. They ranged from the choice of moderator (Jim Lehrer of PBS) to the distance between the candidate lecterns (10 feet).
Even so, a last-minute controversy flared, as Kerry's aides objected to the placement of timing lights on the lecterns.
Kerry appeared to taunt the commander in chief at one point during the debate when he said his father, former President George H.W. Bush, had stopped troops from advancing on Baghdad after they had liberated Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Now, he said, the son ordered an invasion of Iraq anyway, without an exit strategy, and under conditions that mean the United States has incurred 90 percent of the casualties and paid 90 percent of the cost.
In response, Bush ridiculed his opponent, saying he denigrated U.S. allies in the war, voted against an $87 billion measure to aid Afghanistan and Iraq and sent mixed signals.
"What's his message going to be• Please join us in Iraq for a grand diversion?" Bush said to Kerry's contention that he could summon broader international support for the war. "They're not going to follow someone whose core convictions keep changing because of politics."
In response to one question, Kerry said Bush had misled the country on the war by pledging to plan carefully, give diplomacy every chance to prevail and more. He said bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, had used the invasion as a recruiting tool for terrorists.
Bush said that was an "amazing claim," and said the United States, not bin Laden, should decide America's strategy in the war on terror.
Again, he said Kerry had changed his mind on the war, but this time, Kerry said he had held one consistent position.
"The only thing consistent about my opponent's position is he's been inconsistent," said Bush, eager for the last word.
Excerpts from Thursday's presidential debate at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.:
"I believe I'm going to win, because the American people know I know how to lead. I've shown the American people I know how to lead. I have -- I understand everybody in this country doesn't agree with the decisions I've made. And I made some tough decisions. But people know where I stand."
SEN. JOHN KERRY:
"I believe in being strong and resolute and determined. And I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are. But we also have to be smart. And smart means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking if off to Iraq where the 9/11 Commission confirms there was no connection to 9/11 itself and Saddam Hussein, and where the reason for going to war was weapons of mass destruction, not the removal of Saddam Hussein.
"My opponent looked at the same intelligence I looked at and declared in 2002 that Saddam Hussein was a grave threat. He also said in December of 2003 that anyone who doubts that the world is safer without Saddam Hussein does not have the judgment to be president. I agree with him. The world is better off without Saddam Hussein."
"This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment. And judgment is what we look for in the president of the United States of America."
"We're making progress. But the front on this war is more than just one place. The Philippines - we've got help - we're helping them there to bring - to bring al-Qaida affiliates to justice there. And, of course, Iraq is a central part in the war on terror. That's why (Abu Musab al-) Zarqawi and his people are trying to fight us. Their hope is that we grow weary and we leave.
"The biggest disaster that could happen is that we not succeed in Iraq. We will succeed. We've got a plan to do so. And the main reason we'll succeed is because the Iraqis want to be free."
"The president just talked about Iraq as a center of the war on terror. Iraq was not even close to the center of the war on terror before the president invaded it. The president made the judgment to divert forces from under General Tommy Franks from Afghanistan before the Congress even approved it to begin to prepare to go to war in Iraq. And he rushed the war in Iraq without a plan to win the peace.
"Now, that is not the judgment that a president of the United States ought to make. You don't take America to war unless (you) have the plan to win the peace."
"First of all, what my opponent wants you to forget is that he voted to authorize the use of force and now says it's the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place. I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops• What message does that send to our allies• What message does that send the Iraqis?
"No, the way to win this is to be steadfast and resolved and to follow through on the plan that I've just outlined."
"Yes, we have to be steadfast and resolved, and I am. And I will succeed for those troops, now that we're there. We have to succeed. We can't leave a failed Iraq. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a mistake of judgment to go there and take the focus off of Osama bin Laden. It was. Now, we can succeed. But I don't believe this president can.
"I think we need a president who has the credibility to bring the allies back to the table and to do what's necessary to make it so America isn't doing this alone."