Bush, Kerry Trade Barbs on Iraq War

Times Staff Writers

In a debate barbed from the outset, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry clashed sharply Thursday night over the war in Iraq, with Bush declaring the U.S. invasion a vital step in the fight against terrorists and Kerry depicting the conflict as a costly diversion from more serious threats.

Bush repeatedly used Kerry’s words and actions against him. He portrayed his Democratic rival as too weak and vacillating to run the country at a time when the prospect of a terrorist attack had become a color-coded part of everyday living.

“The only thing consistent about my opponent’s position is that he’s been inconsistent,” Bush said of Kerry’s stance on Iraq. “He changes positions. And you cannot change positions in this war on terror if you expect to win. And I expect to win. It’s necessary we win.”

Kerry, standing across from the president on a theater stage at the University of Miami, said his position on the war had been unwavering: He viewed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as a threat and favored disarming his regime, but not the way Bush approached the task. He also accused the president of making “a colossal error of judgment” by focusing on Iraq at the expense of fighting Al Qaeda terrorists.


“Saddam Hussein didn’t attack us,” Kerry said in reference to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes. “Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaeda attacked us.”

Later in the debate, Bush responded somewhat testily, “Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that.”

Kerry dismissed Bush’s assertion that Iraq was at the center of the worldwide fight against terrorism. “Iraq was not even close to the center of the war on terror before the president invaded it,” Kerry said.

He vowed to hasten the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and speed its reconstruction by drawing the nation’s estranged allies together at an international summit he would convene as president. “We can do better,” Kerry promised over and over throughout the 90-minute session.

Bush accused Kerry of disparaging the contributions of allies such as Great Britain and Poland, and said that minimizing their role in the war effort was not the way to rally further international support.

Citing Kerry’s recent depiction of the invasion of Iraq as “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Bush said such comments not only demoralized U.S. troops but gave other countries reason to question Kerry’s conviction. “You can’t expect to build an alliance when you denigrate the contributions of those who are serving side-by-side with American troops in Iraq,” Bush said.

To drive home his point, he used the words “mixed message” or “mixed signals” half a dozen times to characterize Kerry’s position on Iraq.

Seeking to counter that assertion, Kerry said, “I have no intention of wilting. I’ve never wilted in my life, and I’ve never wavered in my life.”


The two men entered the evening determined to cast their differences on the debate’s chosen topic -- foreign policy and national defense -- in the starkest, most dramatic way possible.

Bush sought to overcome voters’ doubts about the war in Iraq and his hard-nosed approach to foreign policy by framing the November vote as a referendum on leadership. “I wake up every day thinking about how best to protect America. That’s my job,” Bush said.

“You’d better have a president who chases these terrorists down and brings them to justice before they hurt us again,” he added, peering sternly into the TV camera and pounding his hand on the lectern for emphasis.

He also said, “The best way to protect our homeland is to stay on the offensive.”


Kerry sought to turn Bush’s decisiveness against him by portraying the president as bullheaded and reckless in refusing to adjust his course, even when events change. “It’s one thing to be certain,” Kerry said. “But you can be certain and wrong.”

The debate occurred on a day wracked by violence in the Middle East. A series of car bombs in Iraq killed dozens of people, 35 of them children. Two U.S. soldiers were also killed in separate incidents. Meantime, Israeli troops struck inside the largest Palestinian refugee camp Thursday.

But none of these incidents was broached directly, nor were several other issues -- such as relations with Cuba or Haiti -- that would seem pertinent to this tropical city. Instead, the session was devoted largely to the war in Iraq, which has defined this campaign more than any other issue.

Turning to another part of the world, Kerry charged that Bush’s diplomatic missteps had allowed North Korea to produce nuclear weapons, making the world more dangerous.


“We had inspectors and television cameras in the nuclear reactor in North Korea,” Kerry said. “Colin Powell, our secretary of state, announced one day that we were going to continue the dialogue and work with the North Koreans.”

But, Kerry went on, Bush reversed that policy, “and for two years this administration didn’t talk at all to North Korea.... And today there are four to seven nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea. That happened on this president’s watch.”

Bush maintained that he pulled out of the earlier talks because they were not working. Instead, he said, the U.S. returned to the bargaining table with Japan, South Korea, Russia and China after a pause, “so now there are five voices ... not just one” seeking to rein in North Korea.

Bush, who has enjoyed small leads in recent nationwide polls, entered with an interest in maintaining the campaign’s status quo. It was Kerry, who polls have found remains ill-defined to many voters, who needed to shake up the race and get voters to view him as a better leader for the Oval Office and cast out the incumbent.


With the first question from PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer, the debate’s moderator and sole questioner, Kerry maintained he could do a better job of preventing a repeat of Sept. 11. He said he would start by reaching out to the Muslim world and building diplomatic alliances to isolate radicals plotting against the U.S.

“I know I can do a better job in Iraq,” he said.

He spoke of broad plans to speed up the training of Iraqi security forces, better prepare for elections and recruit allies to share the burden of rebuilding the country. The president, by contrast, has “a four-word plan,” Kerry jibed: “More of the same.”

At one point, he suggested Bush was divorced from reality. “I don’t know if he sees what’s really happening out there, but it’s getting worse by the day,” Kerry said, describing a U.S. death toll that has been steadily mounting.


Bush said Iraq was on the mend, and reeled off upbeat statistics to make the case. He said 11 times that it was “hard work” to bring peace to Iraq and build a democracy there, but said there was no alternative.

“A free Iraq will be an ally in the war on terror, and that’s essential,” Bush said. “A free Iraq will set a powerful example in the part of the world that is desperate for freedom. A free Iraq will help secure Israel.... A free Iraq is essential for the security of this country.”

One of the sharpest exchanges focused on Kerry’s vote to give Bush authorization to go to war in October 2002, and his subsequent criticism of the results. Kerry accused Bush of misleading the country by cutting short diplomatic efforts to prevent war and overstating the threat that Hussein presented.

Bush replied, “I think what is misleading is to say you can lead and succeed in Iraq if you keep changing your positions on this war. And he has. As the politics change, his positions change. And that’s not how a commander in chief acts.”


Throughout the night, Bush played back Kerry’s various statements on Iraq. The senator responded in one instance by using the words of Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush. He noted the elder Bush wrote in his memoirs that he did not occupy Iraq during the Persian Gulf War because “there was no viable exit strategy. That’s exactly where we find ourselves today.”

Bush did not respond directly, but mentioned Kerry’s vote against an $87-billion appropriation to fund reconstruction and military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. “That’s not what commanders in chief do when you’re trying to lead troops,” Bush said.

“I made a mistake in how I talk about the war,” Kerry replied, referring to his statement earlier this year that he had voted for a Democratic version of the appropriations bill before he voted against the GOP alternative. “But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?”

Kerry occasionally veered off the debate’s topic, working in several references to domestic issues.


He accused Bush of delivering unneeded tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans rather than investing in domestic security. Twice he chided Bush for using Afghan warlords in the hunt for Bin Laden. “He outsourced that job too,” Kerry said, referring to the export of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

At another point, when asked about Bush’s character, he accused the president of ignoring “the truth of the science of stem cell research” by limiting federal research dollars.

Bush brushed off the attack on his tax cuts by suggesting Kerry had failed to account for the spending he had promised. “Anyway, that’s for another debate,” Bush said.

The character question from Lehrer produced the most civil exchange of the evening. Asked if there were any underlying flaws that would prevent Kerry from serving as commander in chief, Bush smiled and said, “Hoo, that’s a loaded question!”


He praised Kerry for his “service to our country” said he admired “the fact that he is a great dad.” He also said he appreciated the fact Kerry’s two daughters had reached out to his twin daughters and “been so kind ... in ... what has been a pretty hard experience.”

Kerry, thanked Bush for his comments and praised his wife, Laura, as “a terrific person and a great first lady.”

The debate was the first of three scheduled between Bush and Kerry, with the next a week from today in St. Louis. Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, will debate Tuesday night in Cleveland.