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Kerry Says President Is Weak on Defense

Times Staff Writer

Democrat John F. Kerry charged Friday that President Bush sent troops to war unprepared and pursued policies that have undermined the U.S. military and the nation’s safety -- one of his harshest attacks yet on Bush’s national security credentials.

In an address at UCLA days before the California primary, the front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination derided what he termed the administration’s “armchair hawks.” And he said, “George Bush inherited the strongest military in the world. And I know and members of the military know ... that George Bush has in fact weakened that military by overextending it.”

By questioning the president’s leadership in Iraq and in the battle against terrorism, Kerry aimed to weaken one of Bush’s central arguments for reelection: that America is at war and the president is the only man who can be trusted to lead the nation to safety.

Kerry’s speech, presented before a crowd of several hundred students and faculty in the Freud Playhouse, also highlighted his strengths in the contest for the Democratic nomination. Heading into critical Super Tuesday -- when 10 states, including California, will weigh in on the race -- Kerry positioned himself as an experienced player in national security matters, an area where rival John Edwards has less experience.

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Kerry criticized Bush’s handling of unrest in the Middle East, calling the peace process “paralyzed,” and he accused the president of shortchanging U.S. troops in Iraq.

“Far too often, troops have been going into harm’s way without the weapons and the equipment they depend on....” Kerry said. “Families across America have had to collect funds from their neighbors to buy body armor that is state-of-the-art for their loved ones in uniform, because George Bush has failed to provide it.”

Kerry charged that American forces had Osama bin Laden in their grasp more than two years ago at Tora Bora, but that “George Bush held U.S. forces back, and instead called on Afghan warlords with no loyalty to our cause to finish the job.”

The Massachusetts senator said that “it will be a great step forward” when Bin Laden is captured, but that it would not be the end of the war on terrorism.

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He also sought to counter recent criticism by the Republican Party that he is soft on defense.

“I don’t fault George Bush for doing too much in the war on terror,” Kerry said. “I believe he has done too little.... George Bush has no comprehensive strategy for victory in the war on terror -- only an ad hoc strategy to keep our enemies at bay. If I am commander in chief, I would wage that war by putting in place a strategy to win it.”

The Bush campaign was quick to fight back Friday against Kerry’s allegations in a conference call with reporters and in e-mails before and after the address. Bush representatives questioned Kerry’s dedication to a strong military and called the talk a “political speech filled with defeatist rhetoric and factual inaccuracies.”

“Today, John Kerry ignored the real progress being made on all fronts of the war on terror,” Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said in a written statement, “and he ignored his own long voting record that would undermine America’s ability to win the war on terror.”

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Bush campaign Chairman Marc Racicot has argued recently that Kerry has repeatedly voted to reduce defense spending and cancel dozens of weapons systems during his 19-year Senate career.

In addition, GOP officials have circulated comments that the Democrat made in 1970 to the Harvard University student newspaper, saying that American forces abroad should be under the supervision of the United Nations.

Kerry struck back, arguing that, as president, he would work with America’s allies to make the nation and the world safer, but he would not be hampered by them or beholden to them.

“Allies give us more hands in the struggle, but no president would ever let them tie our hands and prevent us from doing what must be done,” Kerry said.

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“As president, I pledge to you, I’ll never wait for a green light from abroad, from any other institution, if our safety and security are legitimately at stake.”

Kerry has struggled to succinctly explain his vote last year authorizing Bush to take America to war in Iraq and his subsequent protests of the administration’s action. In recent weeks he has honed that justification, and on Friday he gave his clearest explanation of how he would take the country to war if he were commander in chief.

That rationale for war also served as a repudiation of how Bush initiated combat in Iraq. The administration justified the war by telling the nation that there was distinct evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. No such weapons have been found, the intelligence effort that formed the basis for combat is under investigation, and the administration is being questioned about how upfront it was with the public.

“I will be prepared to use military force to protect our security, our people and our vital interests. And I will be prepared to use it in the great tradition of presidents through all of our history,” Kerry said, “when we have exhausted the remedies available, when the threat is discernible and clear and when we have shared it legitimately in truth to the American people.”

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Opponents of the war in Iraq argue that the Bush administration went to war without exhausting all other remedies and did so without the support of the international community. As a result, they say, the country has been forced to bear the costs of the war and its aftermath.

Those are mistakes, Kerry said, that he would never make and that he would remedy rapidly after being inaugurated as president.

“I will never push away those who can and should share the burden,” he said, “and I will exhaust the remedies available to us in an effort to do that so we give meaning to the words, ‘going to war as a last resort.’ ”

In an interview after his address, Kerry said he would be “potentially” more aggressive than past Democratic presidents when it came to deploying military force abroad. He would send troops to another country, he said, “only under the right circumstances, only within a framework that I’ve described, where it’s last resort, you need to do it, you haven’t been able to get cooperation or you’re threatened in a way that you’ve got to respond to it.”

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He also said he was convinced of his “capacity to leverage a more effective multilateral effort” on behalf of the country.

“I want to get results,” he said. “I think we can do a far better job of mobilizing legitimate responses to very legitimate challenges to us, which we’re just not doing today at all.”

Kerry said in his address Friday that, since America is in Iraq, the nation must finish its work there. He called for adding 40,000 active-duty Army troops temporarily and for reforming the U.S. intelligence system.

He said the United States should create and train an Iraqi security force to safeguard its own people. And he emphasized the need for stronger international cooperation and to bolster homeland security efforts to fight terrorism in this country and abroad.

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“President Bush says we can’t afford to fund homeland security,” Kerry said. Bush “says we can afford to give people who earn more than $200,000 a tax cut. I say we can’t afford to do that; we can’t afford not to fund homeland security.”


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