Friday, October 08, 2004

Arms Report Spurs Bitter Bush-Kerry Exchange

The New York Times
October 8, 2004

Arms Report Spurs Bitter Bush-Kerry Exchange

WAUSAU, Wis., Oct. 7 - President Bush and Senator John Kerry engaged in a bitter long-distance debate on Thursday about a report by the C.I.A.'s top weapons inspector, with Mr. Bush arguing that it demonstrated he was "right to take action" in Iraq despite its findings that Saddam Hussein had eliminated stockpiles of illicit weapons years before the invasion.

Mr. Kerry, emboldened by the report's unraveling of the administration's main rationale for going to war, shot back with his sharpest indictment yet, telling reporters that Mr. Bush and his vice president "may well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about Iraq."

Mr. Bush's statement in Washington, and a more impassioned case he made here late Thursday afternoon, were his first responses to the 918-page report by Charles A. Duelfer. Both Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney focused on sections of the report saying that Mr. Hussein had wanted to reconstitute his weapons programs at some point and that he had found his way around economic sanctions.

Unbowed and defiant in an appearance on the South Lawn of the White House, Mr. Bush said of the Iraqi dictator, "He retained the knowledge, the materials, the means and the intent to produce weapons of mass destruction." And, he added, "he could have passed that knowledge on to our terrorist enemies."

Speaking to reporters in Englewood, Colo., Mr. Kerry said that "this week has provided definitive evidence" for why Mr. Bush should not be re-elected. The president, Mr. Kerry said, was "not being straight with Americans."

Both the speed and the heat of the exchanges paved the way for the second presidential debate, to be held Friday night in St. Louis. Perhaps more important, they underscored how both candidates have staked their electoral fates to how voters judge them on Iraq, even as the debates nominally turn to questions of the economy and domestic policy.

Talking to a cheering partisan crowd here in the afternoon, the president quoted at length from a statement the Massachusetts senator made on the floor of the Senate almost exactly two years ago, warning of the danger that Mr. Hussein might spread nuclear technology around the world.

After reading from Mr. Kerry's statement, the president looked up at his crowd in a park here and asked, "Just who is the one trying to mislead the American people?"

The Kerry campaign said Mr. Bush had yanked its candidate's words out of context, and noted that in the same speech, Mr. Kerry had said: "Regime change in and of itself is not sufficient justification for going to war, particularly unilaterally, unless regime change is the only way to disarm Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction pursuant to the United Nations resolution. As bad as he is, Saddam Hussein, the dictator, is not the cause of war."

On Iraq, Mr. Bush has chosen to give no ground, even after a week that his own aides concede has brought nothing but bad news, from the C.I.A. report to a declaration by the former American administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, that the administration committed too few troops to secure Iraq after the invasion was over.

For Mr. Kerry, who has struggled throughout his two-year quest for the presidency to defend himself against charges that his voting record on the war was one of vacillation, the Duelfer report and Mr. Bremer's comments have provided the opportunity to attempt to refocus the debate on Mr. Bush's rationale for going to war, and his competence in executing the occupation.

On Thursday Mr. Kerry described Saddam Hussein as an enemy the Bush administration had "aggrandized and fictionalized," and he warned that if Mr. Bush does not recognize the severity of problems in Iraq, the violence in the Middle East will escalate. "If the president just does more of the same every day and it continues to deteriorate, I may be handed Lebanon, figuratively speaking," Mr. Kerry said, a reference to the civil wars that racked that country for many years.

Standing on a grassy lawn with the snow-topped Rockies in the distance, he said, "My fellow Americans, you don't make up or find reasons to go to war after the fact."

"Ambassador Bremer finally said what John Edwards and I have been saying for months," Mr. Kerry continued, referring to an acknowledgment this week by the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority about shortcomings of the American military operation in Iraq. "President Bush's decision to send in too few troops, without thinking about what would happen after the initial fighting was over, has left our troops more vulnerable, left the situation on the ground in chaos and made the mission in Iraq much more difficult to accomplish."

Mr. Bush was clearly ready for the senator's attack, and he arrived in Wisconsin armed with statements made by Mr. Kerry before the 1991 Persian Gulf war and in the debate that led up to last year's war in Iraq.

"Just a short time ago, my opponent held a little press conference and continued his pattern of overheated rhetoric," Mr. Bush said within minutes of arriving here. "He accused me of deception. He's claiming I misled American about weapons, when he himself cited the very same intelligence" in voting to authorize Mr. Bush to threaten war.

Then he quoted Mr. Kerry's statement in the Senate, where he asked, rhetorically, "Who can say that this master of miscalculation will not develop a weapon of mass destruction, even greater, a nuclear weapon, then reinvade Kuwait or push the Kurds out, attack Israel, any number of scenarios to try to further his ambitions," or "allow those weapons to slide off to one group or another."

The heart of the difference between the two candidates is how they dealt with that assessment.

Mr. Bush says he saw such intelligence as a justification for pre-emptive war - a long-established international practice that permits a nation to strike just prior to being struck itself. The Duelfer report now indicates that the intelligence was wrong in major respects.

Mr. Kerry says that the pre-war intelligence was a reason to press for further inspections and pressure on Mr. Hussein, and that the vote to authorize war was part of that pressure. But he faults Mr. Bush for acting before that process had a chance to work.

Mr. Kerry also responded Thursday to a statement by Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, that the Pentagon, not the White House, was responsible for determining troop deployment. He noted that Ms. Rice works in the White House, "the place that used to have a sign that said 'The Buck Stops Here.' "

"For President Bush, it's always someone else's fault - denial, and blaming someone else," he declared. "It is wrong for this administration to blame our military leaders, particularly when our military leaders gave him the advice that he didn't follow. The truth is, the responsibility lies with the commander in chief."

Mr. Kerry had spent Wednesday in seclusion, drilling with a large team of aides in a nondescript hotel ballroom transformed to resemble Friday night's debate set, leaving the response to the C.I.A. report and to a biting speech by Mr. Bush to his running mate, Senator John Edwards.

But on Thursday he did not resist the opportunity to frame the Iraq issue in advance of Friday's debate.

To underscore the broader case he is trying to make against Mr. Bush's credibility, Mr. Kerry used the word "truth" eight times in as many minutes. "You'll always get the truth from me," he vowed, "in good times and in bad."

Asked about the section of the Duelfer report that suggested Mr. Hussein would have rebuilt his weapons if sanctions waned, Mr. Kerry said it "underscores the failures of this administration's diplomacy."

Vice President Cheney, appearing in Miami, had the opposite interpretation, saying the report showed that "as soon as the sanctions were lifted he had every intention of going right back" to resuming his illicit weapons program. "To delay, defer, wait wasn't an option,'' he said. "The president did exactly the right thing.''

Mr. Edwards similarly echoed his running mate, charging of the Bush administration in an appearance in Bayonne, N.J., that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney "are willing to say left is right, up is down."

David E. Sanger reported from Wausau, Wis., for this article, and Jodi Wilgoren from Englewood, Colo. Raymond Hernandez contributed reporting from Miami and Randal C. Archibold from Bayonne, N.J.