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Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Kerry Accuses Bush of Incompetence on Iraq

September 21, 2004
Filed at 8:10 a.m. ET
NEW YORK (AP) -- Staking out new ground on Iraq, Sen. John Kerry said Monday he would not have overthrown Saddam Hussein had he been in the White House, and he accused President Bush of ``stubborn incompetence,'' dishonesty and colossal failures of judgment. Bush said Kerry was flip-flopping.
Less than two years after voting to give Bush authority to invade Iraq, the Democratic candidate said the president had misused that power by rushing to war without the backing of allies, a post-war plan or proper equipment for U.S. troops. ``None of which I would have done,'' Kerry said.
``Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell,'' he added. ``But that was not, in itself, a reason to go to war. The satisfaction we take in his downfall does not hide this fact: We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure.''
Bush hit back from a campaign rally in New Hampshire, interpreting Kerry's comment to mean the Democrat believes U.S. security would be better with Saddam still in power. ``He's saying he prefers the stability of a dictatorship to the hope and security of democracy,'' the Republican incumbent said.
``Today, my opponent continued his pattern of twisting in the wind,'' Bush said. ``He apparently woke up this morning and has now decided, No, we should not have invaded Iraq, after just last month saying he would have voted for force even knowing everything we know today.''
Both candidates addressed partisan crowds, drawing cheers and hoots as they stretched each other's records and rhetoric -- mixing facts with political creativity toward the same goal: raising doubts about the other man's credibility.
Kerry called on Bush to do a much better job rallying allies, training Iraqi security forces, hastening reconstruction plans and ensuring that elections are conducted on time. But his speech was thin on details, with Kerry saying Bush's miscalculations had made solutions harder to come by.
Bush cited Kerry's four-point plan and dismissed it as proposing ``exactly what we're currently doing.''
With more than 1,000 U.S. troops killed in Iraq, including nearly 900 since Bush declared an end to major combat, with free elections in doubt, reconstruction efforts stalled and violence and kidnappings on the rise, Iraq could be Bush's biggest political liability. Even some Republican senators have begun to publicly second-guess the president's policies.
But Kerry has failed to capitalize thus far, struggling for months to find a clear, consistent way to differentiate his views from those of his Democratic rivals during the primary season and, since the spring, his general election foe in the White House.
Kerry's advisers say they're not sure whether it is too late for the Democrat to make the Iraq critique resonate. Polls show voters favor Bush over Kerry on Iraq and terrorism. The president shines the spotlight on his foreign policy agenda with a visit Tuesday to the United Nations.
Kerry said in August that he would have voted in 2002 to give Bush war-making ability, even had he known no weapons of mass destruction would be found. He stood by the vote again Monday, saying the president needed to use the threat of force to ``act effectively'' against Saddam.
He made a distinction between that vote to grant a president war-making authority and what he himself would have done as commander in chief with such power.
``Yet today, President Bush tells us that he would do everything all over again, the same way. How can he possibly be serious?'' Bush's presidential rival said at New York University.
``Is he really saying to Americans that if we had known there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al-Qaida, the United States should have invaded Iraq? My answer is resoundingly no because a commander in chief's first responsibility is to make a wise and responsible decision to keep America safe.''
Kerry called national security ``a central issue in this campaign,'' a bow to the fact that the race is being waged on Bush's terrain.
``Invading Iraq was a crisis of historic proportions and, if we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight,'' he said.
Kerry used the word ``truth'' a dozen times to say Bush had dodged it. That doesn't count the number of times he said the president ``failed to level'' with Americans or misled and confused them. He blamed Bush for ``colossal failures of judgment.''
``This is stubborn incompetence,'' he said.
Kerry has sounded more hawkish, as in December when Democratic primary rival Howard Dean said the world was not safer with Saddam out of power. Anybody who believes that, Kerry said, doesn't ``have the judgment to be president.''
Reading that quote to his GOP crowd on Monday, Bush cracked: ``I could not have said it better.''
The running mates got into the act, too. ``Iraq's a mess,'' said Democratic Sen. John Edwards, while Vice President Dick Cheney said Kerry offers only ``confusion, weakness, uncertainty and indecision.''

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