Sen. John. F. Kerry on Wednesday stressed that the chief interest of the U.S. should be to build a stable Iraq, but not necessarily a democratic one -- a view at odds with President Bush’s vision of the troubled country’s political future.
“I have always said from day one that the goal here ... is a stable Iraq, not whether or not that’s a full democracy,” the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee told reporters after conducting a town hall meeting at the City College of New York in Harlem. “I can’t tell you what it’s going to be, but a stable Iraq. And that stability can take several different forms.”
Kerry’s remarks, although not a change of position, stood in sharp contrast to Bush’s comments Tuesday about the importance of establishing a democratic Iraq. And Bush campaign aides on Wednesday unleashed their harshest critique yet of Kerry’s stance on the conflict, accusing him of undermining U.S. troops in Iraq.
At his news conference, Kerry hastened to add that the U.S. should not give up on the effort to bring democracy to Iraq.
“You leave with stability, [and] you hope that you can continue the process of democratization. Obviously, that’s the goal,” he said. “With respect to getting our troops out, the measure is the stability of Iraq.”
Kerry’s comments came one day after Bush, in a televised news conference, emphasized his view of the importance of a democratic Iraq, which he said would encourage reformers to push for democratic changes in other Middle East nations.
“Iraq will either be a peaceful, democratic country, or it will again be a source of violence, a haven for terror and a threat to America and to the world,” Bush said Tuesday night.
He said he was committed to a hand-over of sovereignty by June 30 to an interim Iraqi government that had yet to be defined, and to elections of a national assembly by January. Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Wednesday that Kerry’s comments in New York demonstrated that he did not share the president’s commitment to remaking Iraq.
“The president said last night that we will stay the course in Iraq until the job is done,” Schmidt said. “And ‘the job is done’ means a free and democratic Iraq that is not a threat to its neighbors.”
Rand Beers, Kerry’s foreign policy advisor, said in an interview that although the Massachusetts senator wants to see a government that fully represents the pluralism of Iraq, “that doesn’t have to be particularly a democracy in the way that we have described a democracy in this country.”
Beers added: “We have been concerned for some time that Bush’s position about having some kind of democratic state was too heroic. It was a goal [the administration] could not clearly define, that we did not know how and when we could get to. What we have tried to do is talk about what are the realistic terms about the transfer of power.”
On Wednesday, Kerry continued to criticize Bush for what he charged was a unilateral approach in Iraq that puts U.S. troops at risk. “We shouldn’t only be tough; we have to be smart,” he said. “And there’s a smarter way to accomplish this mission than the president is pursuing.”
The Bush aides who assailed Kerry said they were reacting to statements by him in which he criticized the “arrogance” of the United States for going it virtually alone in Iraq and suggested that U.S. troops were targets as a result of Bush’s policies.
Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor who is chairman of Bush’s reelection campaign, said, “There is now even further evidence of the fact that Sen. Kerry continues with an approach that is cynical and defeatist, and it’s embraced within a political attack that is seriously undermining our efforts in Iraq and in the war on terror.”
Joining Racicot in a conference call with reporters was Caspar W. Weinberger, secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration. He chided Kerry for “pessimism” about the U.S.-led efforts in Iraq.
Bush’s Tuesday night news conference and Wednesday’s conference call indicated an effort by the White House to try to stamp out potential political damage from weeks of violence and increasing casualties in Iraq.
Racicot said the insurgents in Iraq were paying close attention to the U.S. election. “The terrorists know precisely what is going on with efforts to divide our commitment to Iraq,” he said.
Referring to a recent comment by Kerry, Racicot added, “To say something like we need to get the target off the backs of our troops, for God’s sake, if that could be any more extravagantly irresponsible, I don’t know how.”
Kerry has called for an international approach in Iraq and has said that the United Nations should be given responsibility for rebuilding the country’s government and infrastructure. However, Kerry, who in 2002 voted for the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, declined Wednesday to declare Bush’s Iraq policy a failure.
“No, it’s not a failure today,” he said. “It’s just much more difficult, much more costly, much more risky and much more damaging than it had to be.”
Kerry was confronted at his town hall meeting by an angry antiwar protester who accused him of supporting Bush’s policy.
“What the U.S. is doing is bombing hospitals, bombing mosques ... killing hundreds of civilians, wounding thousands of civilians,” retired college professor Walter Daum said. “People hate George Bush. By the end of your presidency, people will hate you for the same thing.”
Across the room, three people stood up silently and held up a hand-lettered banner that read “Kerry Take a Stand -- Troops Out Now.” A scattering of people in the audience of about 400 applauded and cheered.
Kerry responded to Daum by insisting that he had taken a different approach than Bush.
“I have consistently been critical of how we got where we are,” he said. “But we are where we are, sir, and it would be unwise beyond belief for the United States of America to leave a failed Iraq in its wake. What we need to do is transition to stability that recognizes people’s rights.”
Gold reported from New York and Wallsten from Washington.