In a sweeping critique of President Bush's foreign policy, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) on Thursday charged that the administration was moving too quickly toward war in Iraq and had not yet built sufficient support at home or abroad for military action.
"Mr. President, do not rush to war," said Kerry, whose speech marked him as the most skeptical about war of the top-tier contenders for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
While calling for the United Nations to intensify pressure on Iraq to disarm, Kerry urged Bush to give more time to the U.N. inspections process that the administration has increasingly condemned as inadequate.
"The United States should never go to war because it wants to; the United States should go to war because we have to," Kerry said at Georgetown University. "And we don't have to until we have exhausted the remedies available, built legitimacy and earned the consent of the American people, absent, of course, an imminent threat requiring urgent action."
Kerry's remarks come as polls show most Americans would prefer that the inspections continue before an attack is launched on Iraq. The surveys also show the public is reluctant to see force used at all without broad allied support.
The speech also marks another shift in emphasis for Kerry on Iraq. Last year, he accused Bush of ignoring international opinion in the administration's initial moves toward a confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But after Bush pledged to work through the U.N., Kerry voted for the congressional resolution in October that authorized the president to use force against Iraq.
Kerry now has moved closer to the war's critics, who maintain Bush is once again risking dangerous divisions with allies in repeatedly raising the prospect of invading Iraq, even without U.N. approval. Indeed, the heart of Kerry's speech was a charge that, across the board, Bush has pursued a "belligerent and myopic unilateralism" that has isolated the United States and increased threats to American security.
The complexity and shifting nuance of Kerry's message on Iraq may reflect the delicacy of his political situation. He faces a Democratic primary electorate increasingly dubious of a war. But many Democratic strategists believe any candidate who overtly opposes a Bush move against Iraq could damage his credentials as a potential commander in chief for the general election if a war turns out well.
For Kerry, that concern may be especially acute. Although he is a veteran of the Vietnam War, his advisors also remember how effectively Republicans painted the last Democratic presidential nominee from Massachusetts -- Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 -- as weak on defense.
Among the Democrats who have taken formal steps toward entering the 2004 race, Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri voted to support the use of force against Iraq. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and civil rights activist Al Sharpton have opposed an invasion.
Dean, in one of the first criticisms aimed by one Democratic presidential candidate at a potential rival, welcomed Kerry's remarks but denounced the senator's vote for the use-of-force resolution. That measure, Dean charged, gave Bush "a blank check to go to war."
Jim Dyke, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said Kerry was creating a "credibility problem" for himself by raising such sharp questions about war with Iraq after voting for the resolution authorizing force. "People start to wonder what you really stand for and how you can be a leader if you can't reconcile your own position within a three-month period," Dyke said.
In an interview after the speech, Kerry said his views have remained "exactly consistent" in stressing that the United States needed to maximize international support for any action against Iraq.
"If [the weapons inspectors] ask for more time, and it's under a reasonable framework, with an understanding that you can perhaps bring the French and Germans along and build your coalition ... it makes all the sense in the world to do that," Kerry said in the interview.
Kerry seemed to anticipate the Republican line of attack in his speech by distancing himself from those who "reflexively oppose" the use of U.S. military force and "place a higher value on achieving multilateral consensus" than protecting vital American interests.
"Americans deserve better than a false choice between force without diplomacy and diplomacy without force," Kerry said. He repeatedly described his approach as "bold, progressive internationalism."
On issues from Iraq and North Korea to global warming, Kerry charged, Bush's approach to foreign policy "has meant alienating our long-term friends and allies, alarming potential foes and spreading anti-Americanism around the world."
Kerry called for the United States to work closer with allies and international institutions in confronting systemic challenges such as global warming and the spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa, and individual crises such as the steps North Korea has taken toward restarting its nuclear weapons program.
"Working through global institutions doesn't tie our hands," Kerry said. "It invests U.S. aims with greater legitimacy and dampens the fear and resentment that our preponderant power sometimes inspires in others."
Kerry also argued that the war on terrorism will demand an intensified effort to bring prosperity and political freedom to Islamic nations in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Kerry said the United States should build on a free-trade agreement already in place with Jordan by offering trade benefits to Middle Eastern nations that agree to reform their economies, abandon the Arab boycott against Israel and renounce support for Palestinian violence. He also argued that America should expand its support for nongovernmental groups and individuals agitating for greater openness and democracy in the Middle East.
And he said the United States should step up its efforts to broker a peace between Israel and the Palestinians that would include a Palestinian state.
On Iraq, Kerry said he had "no doubt" America could win a war, if one was necessary. But he said that launching war without more international support could complicate both the post-war reconstruction in Iraq and the broader struggle against terrorism.