The debate over the “war on terror” between President Bush and challenger Sen. John F. Kerry sharpened today to a central question: Is killing terrorists the best way to end terrorism?
Or does the United States also have to emphasize policies such as interdicting terrorist money flows and combating anti-Americanism?
At events in New Mexico and Colorado, President Bush seized on a quote from Kerry in a published article in which the Massachusetts senator said he believes the threat of terror can be reduced to the level of a “nuisance” that doesn’t affect most Americans’ daily lives.
“I couldn’t disagree more,” Bush told a rally in Hobbs, N.M. “Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of nuisance, our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive, destroying terrorist networks, and spreading freedom and liberty around the world.”
Kerry campaign aides immediately protested that the president was taking Kerry’s words out of context and urged voters to read the entire article.
“Considering that George Bush doesn’t think we can win the war on terror, let Osama bin Laden escape and rushed into Iraq with no plan to win the peace, it’s no surprise that his campaign is distorting every word John Kerry has ever said,” Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said in a statement.
“John Kerry is going to hunt and kill the terrorists before they can come after us and no amount of selective editing by the Bush campaign can change that basic fact,” he said.
The Bush campaign had released a television ad over the weekend in which they misquoted Kerry, suggesting he was describing terrorism now as a “nuisance,” not in the future. The president and vice president did not repeat that error today.
Kerry’s comment came in a lengthy article in the New York Times magazine on Sunday as part of a discussion about how best to combat terrorism.
“We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance,” the Times quoted Kerry as saying. “As a former law enforcement person, I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn’t on the rise. It isn’t threatening people’s lives every day, and fundamentally, it’s something that you continue to fight, but it’s not threatening the fabric of your life.”
By contrast, in his public comments, Bush argues that fighting terrorism is primarily a military matter — killing the terrorists before they can attack.
“Just this weekend Sen. Kerry talked of reducing terrorism to, quote ‘nuisance,’ end quote, and compared it to prostitution and illegal gambling,” Bush said in New Mexico. “Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of nuisance, our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive, destroying terrorist networks, and spreading freedom and liberty around the world.”
In defense of their candidate, Kerry aides distributed a quote from Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security advisor to the president’s father and described the “war on terror” in language similar to Kerry.
“Can we win the war on terrorism? Yes, I think we can, in the sense that we can win the war on crime,” Scowcroft told a conference at the nonpartisan U.S. Institute of Peace in September 2002. “There is going to be no peace treaty on the battleship Missouri in the war on terrorism, but we can break its back so that it is a horrible nuisance and not a paralyzing influence on our societies.”
Ironically, there is less difference between the two candidates than each likes to admit.
Both say they would spare no military effort to kill terrorists; indeed, one of Kerry’s central complaints about the Bush administration’s war in Afghanistan is that they were too wary of using U.S. troops to hunt down Bin Laden in a climatic battle at Tora Bora. And while in his campaign remarks Bush plays down law enforcement, he has actually implemented many of the interdiction policies first advocated by Kerry.
But one area in which they disagree is on how military force should be used in the fight against terrorists. Bush sees any moderation in the application of force as an opening for terrorists. Kerry talks about the danger of creating more terrorists than we kill by using force indiscriminately.