They argued about style, and they argued about substance, but mostly President Bush and Sen. John Kerry argued about Iraq.
The president stressed that America must stay the course on Iraq and tried to paint Kerry as inconsistent on the war. Kerry called the invasion of Iraq a “colossal error” and said certainty is no virtue when you’re wrong.
While U.S. involvement in Iraq dominated Thursday night’s 90-minute foreign policy debate at the University of Miami, the two presidential candidates also covered other challenges to national security, including the threat of terrorist attack, nuclear proliferation and the role of our allies in the war on terrorism.
While maintaining he made the right decision to invade Iraq, Bush missed few opportunities to portray Kerry as inconsistent on the war.
“My opponent looked at the same intelligence I looked at and declared in 2002 that Saddam Hussein was a grave threat,” Bush said of Kerry.
“He also said in December of 2003 that anyone who doubts that the world is safer without Saddam Hussein does not have the judgment to be president. I agree with him. The world is better off without Saddam Hussein.”
Kerry made perhaps his strongest argument yet that the war was a mistake.
“This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment. And judgment is what we look for in the president of the United States of America.”
The Democrat also portrayed the war in Iraq as a diversion from the true threat of terrorism.
“The president just talked about Iraq as a center of the war on terror. Iraq was not even close to the center of the war on terror before the president invaded it. The president made the judgment to divert forces from under Gen. Tommy Franks from Afghanistan before the Congress even approved it to begin to prepare to go to war in Iraq. And he rushed the war in Iraq without a plan to win the peace.
“Now, that is not the judgment that a president of the United States ought to make. You don’t take America to war unless you have the plan to win the peace.”
Bush equated Kerry’s opposition to the war with lack of support for U.S. troops.
“First of all, what my opponent wants you to forget is that he voted to authorize the use of force and now says it’s the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place. I don’t see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops? What message does that send to our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis?
“No, the way to win this is to be steadfast and resolved and to follow through on the plan that I’ve just outlined.”
Kerry responded that Bush is confusing the war with the warriors.
“Yes, we have to be steadfast and resolved, and I am. And I will succeed for those troops, now that we’re there. We have to succeed. We can’t leave a failed Iraq. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a mistake of judgment to go there and take the focus off of Osama bin Laden. It was. Now, we can succeed. But I don’t believe this president can.
“I think we need a president who has the credibility to bring the allies back to the table and to do what’s necessary to make it so America isn’t doing this alone.”
The candidates’ disagreement about the global war on terrorism focused largely on what role allies should play in it.
“I can make America safer than President Bush has made us,” Kerry said. “I believe President Bush and I both love our country equally, but we just have a different set of convictions about how you make America safe. I believe America is safest and strongest when we are leading the world, and when we are leading strong alliances.
“I’ll never give a veto to any country over our security. But I also know how to lead those alliances,” Kerry said. “This president has left them in shatters across the globe, and we’re now 90 percent of the casualties in Iraq and 90 percent of the costs.”
Bush countered strongly that he’s led a successful war against terrorism.
“We pursued al Qaeda wherever al Qaeda tries to hide,” Bush said. “Seventy-five percent of known al Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice. The rest of them know we’re after them. … The Taliban is no longer in power. Ten million people have registered to vote in Afghanistan in the upcoming presidential election.
“In Iraq, we saw a threat, and we realized that after September the 11th, we must take threats seriously before they fully materialize. Saddam Hussein now sits in a prison cell; America and the world are safer for it. We continue to pursue our policy of disrupting those who would proliferate weapons of mass destruction. Libya has disarmed. The A.Q. Khan network has been brought to justice.”
Kerry said Bush hasn’t spent enough money on security here at home. He said 95 percent of containers arriving in U.S. ports aren’t inspected and that the cargo holds of airplanes aren’t X-rayed. He also complained that the United States is spending money on police in Iraq while cutting federal spending for local police at home.
“This president thought it was more important to give the wealthiest people in America a tax cut rather than invest in homeland security,” Kerry said.
Bush countered that he’s tripled spending on homeland security to $30 billion a year, added a thousand border-patrol agents to the southern border, spent $3.1 billion for local fire and police departments, made counterterrorism a top priority, signed the Patriot Act to give federal authorities more tools and approved the creation of the Homeland Security Department to coordinate federal security efforts.
North Korea, Iran and Russia
Bush and Kerry agreed that the United States must talk to North Korea to resolve concerns over its nuclear activity, but they differed sharply over how to do it. Bush defended his administration’s participation in six-nation talks on North Korea’s suspected nuclear weapons development, while Kerry said a bilateral track would bring more progress.
“I’m going to immediately set out to have bilateral talks with North Korea,” said Kerry, who added that North Korea had acquired more weapons during Bush’s term in office.
Bush responded that direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang would undercut the six-party negotiations in Beijing and remove China as a powerful influence on its communist neighbor.
“It’s a big mistake to do that,” Bush said.
Bush said he believed that a diplomatic initiative currently under way could solve the crisis with North Korea. “On Iran, I hope we can do the same,” the president said.
Kerry voiced concerns about conditions in Russia, saying that crackdowns initiated by President Vladimir Putin go beyond what’s necessary to combat terror.
Bush said he had a good personal relationship with Putin that “enables me to better comment to him and the better to discuss with him some of the decisions he makes.” Bush said Russia was a country in transition and that he would remind Putin “of the great benefits of democracy.”