Sen. John F. Kerry challenged President Bush on Friday to engage in personal diplomacy to try to repair relationships with other influential nations and gain their support for an international mission in Iraq.
During a 30-minute address at Westminster College here, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee pledged to support his rival’s policy in Iraq if Bush pursued that effort.
Kerry expanded on his previous proposals to quiet the unrest in Iraq, decrying “mistakes that have been made” but steering clear of sharp partisan rhetoric.
He urged the president to form a political coalition with the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and other nations to endorse the effort to stabilize Iraq and back the plan for an interim Iraqi government proposed by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
Kerry also called for NATO to assume a large share of security responsibility in Iraq and proposed the appointment of an international high commissioner, authorized by the United Nations, to oversee the country’s political transition.
“The immediate goal is to internationalize the transformation of Iraq, to get more foreign forces on the ground to share the risk and reduce the burden on our own forces,” he told about 700 people gathered in the gymnasium of the small liberal arts college, the same building where Vice President Dick Cheney denounced Kerry’s national security record on Monday.
“That is the only way to succeed in this mission while ending the sense of an American occupation,” Kerry added.
With his address, Kerry tried to further distinguish his position on Iraq from that of Bush. That has been a difficult task for Kerry, particularly after the president’s recent embrace of Brahimi’s role.
Despite an adulatory crowd that punctuated his speech with at least half a dozen standing ovations, the Massachusetts senator kept his remarks focused squarely on policy, hoping to offer a marked contrast to Cheney’s political attack.
“If the president will take the needed steps to share the burden and make progress in Iraq -- if he leads -- then I will support him on this issue,” Kerry concluded.
The Bush campaign dismissed the speech as a rehash of steps the administration was already taking, arguing that many U.N. and NATO members were already involved in the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq.
“Sen. Kerry has constantly disparaged the coalition of over 30 nations that are making the contribution and sharing the sacrifice in Iraq,” said Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt. “The president is constantly in communication with those nations, so Kerry’s criticism has no basis in fact.”
Kerry’s aides said that by challenging Bush to get involved in a diplomatic effort, the candidate wanted to highlight what he saw as the president’s unwillingness to personally lobby other nations to share the responsibility in Iraq.
The difference between the two approaches comes down to how to “get other countries comfortable with overcoming the reservations that they have in the beginning of the war,” said Rand Beers, Kerry’s foreign policy advisor.
Ivo Daalder, a National Security Council aide under President Clinton, said the senator’s speech underscored a key distinction between Bush and his challenger: Kerry’s belief in the need to internationalize the interim political and military efforts while Iraqis rebuild their government.
In his address, Kerry noted that he was speaking almost exactly a year after Bush declared the end to major combat in Iraq while he stood on an aircraft carrier under a banner that read: “Mission Accomplished.”
But instead of mocking Bush’s premature claim with the red-meat lines he usually delivers before partisan audiences, Kerry offered a sober assessment of the violence that stills grips Iraq.
“This anniversary is not a time to shout,” he said.
“It is not a time for blame. It is time for a new direction in Iraq.”
Kerry had intended to deliver the speech to African American mayors in Philadelphia on Thursday, according to an aide. But that plan changed after Cheney’s charged speech on Monday caused chagrin among some of his listeners, including Westminster College’s president, Fletcher M. Lamkin.
He invited Kerry to make his own appearance in the interest of balance.
The campaign seized the opportunity to showcase Kerry’s foreign policy expertise, stripping the political rhetoric from a draft of the speech.
Kerry, who regularly deviates from his prepared remarks, stuck to his written speech almost word for word, adding just one veiled jab at Cheney and his financial ties to the oil services firm Halliburton, saying “no-bid contracts with favorite companies” had swallowed resources meant for Iraqis.
He made no reference to the vice president’s speech, but tried to implicitly counter Cheney’s charge that he had a weak record on defense issues.
Standing on a stage lined with eight American flags -- and under another giant U.S. banner hanging from the ceiling -- Kerry cast his appearance in the tradition of Winston Churchill, who delivered his famed “Iron Curtain” speech in the same building in 1946.
“You don’t come to Fulton to give a speech; you come to Fulton to honor a tradition and give the country and the world the gift of hard truths and a sense of hope,” he said.
Saying “this moment is a moment of truth in Iraq,” Kerry warned that the United States was running out of time to set Iraq on the right course.
“This may be our last chance to get this right,” he said.
As with Cheney’s speech, the audience at Kerry’s address was limited to ticket holders, who for the Democrat consisted largely of union members and local supporters, along with a few hundred students.
Julie Slisz, a senior studying physics who also heard Cheney’s address, said she appreciated Kerry’s focus on his foreign policy proposals.
With Cheney, “a lot of people were expecting a great speech, but then it was just a campaign statement,” said Slisz, 23, a political independent who had not yet decided whom she would support. “We were really misled. I was really disappointed, because I was expecting something important.”