Image: Kerry
Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry speaking on the campaign trail in Dover, N.H., last month.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com

In a major national security address Wednesday Democratic presidential contender John Kerry was sounding an alarm about premature U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. “I fear that in the run-up to the 2004 election the administration is considering what is tantamount to a cut-and-run strategy,” Kerry said in remarks prepared for delivery to the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Massachusetts senator accused Bush and his aides of a “sudden embrace of accelerated Iraqification and American troop withdrawal without adequate stability,” which he called “an invitation to failure.”

He contended that it would be “a disaster and a disgraceful betrayal of principle” to accelerate the transfer of authority to Iraqis so as to allow “a politically expedient withdrawal of American troops.”

Send more troops?
Kerry foreign policy advisor Rand Beers told reporters Kerry “would not rule out the possibility” of sending additional U.S. troops to Iraq.

“It is very clear the number of troops is inadequate” in Iraq, Beers told reporters in a telephone conference call previewing the speech.

Kerry’s first preference, he said, would be to persuade foreign governments to deploy more troops to help share the burden with Americans.

But by not foreclosing the possibility of dispatching more U.S. troops to Iraq, Kerry seems to have changed his position and to have repositioned himself as a more hawkish alternative to Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean.

In a Sept. 4 debate in Albuquerque, N.M., Kerry said, “We should not send more American troops. That would be the worst thing. We do not want to have more Americanization. We do not want a greater sense of American occupation.”

As he flew back to the United States from his Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops in Iraq, Bush said he had told American commanders there, “My message was, I know you’ll succeed, and I’m here to tell you we’re going to stay the course.”

But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said recently, “We’ve got 127,000 men and women over in Iraq, and that’s a lot. It’s not permanent. What we hope to do is to continue to increase the Iraqi security forces to take over those responsibilities.”

Kerry’s speech comes at a time when Democrats are moving to outflank Bush on both the doveish and the hawkish sides.

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On the left, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich continues to press for rapid withdrawal of all U.S. forces, while on the hawkish side, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, just back from a tour of Afghanistan and Iraq, called for more U.S. troops in Iraq.

Kucinich says pull out
“No one else (among the Democratic contenders) is saying definitively that we must end the occupation, and I’m the only one doing it,” Kucinich told MSNBC.com last week. “I see this as being a defining issue in this election. We must have a plan to get out. Not maybe. I put a plan on my Web site a month ago. We must have the Democrats united in ending the occupation. Otherwise we’re in the same situation we are in now, with the death toll continuing to mount … and the possibility of the conflict widening.”

Clinton’s call for more troops puts her at odds with Kucinich and the left wing of her party.

The argument for more troops in Iraq got articulate support Tuesday from Iraq expert and former Clinton administration National Security Council official Kenneth Pollack.

“We desperately need more people. We need more civil affairs officers…. There are not enough of them; they are horribly understaffed,” Pollack argued in a talk to policy-makers and reporters at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“We desperately need infantry, lots more infantry than what we have got right now” in Iraq, Pollack said.

Rampant lawlessness is a primary reason for Iraqis’ increasingly disillusioned view of the U.S. occupation, he said. U.S. infantry soldiers need to be out on foot patrols, alongside Iraqi soldiers, to bring order to Baghdad and other places, Pollack said.

He said it was “a hoax” by the Bush administration to contend that Iraqi police — whom he called “horribly corrupt” — could take over the job of maintaining order on the streets of Iraq’s cities and towns.

Focus on Iran
In his speech Kerry also said he’d renew efforts to reconcile Israel and the Palestinians by appointing an envoy, perhaps former President Bill Clinton, to help the two sides reach an accord.

And he broadened the discussion by focusing on Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran. Kerry said he would explore talks with the regime in Tehran to find areas of mutual interest.

“Just as we have asked that Iran turn over al-Qaida members who are there, the Iranians have looked to us for help in dealing with Iraq-based terrorists who threaten them,” he said.

He called it “incomprehensible” that “this administration refuses to broker an arrangement with Iran for a mutual crackdown on both terrorist groups.”

Kerry has fallen behind Dean in polls in the first two states where contests will be held, Iowa and New Hampshire.

Dean’s candidacy has been fueled by his criticism of the war in Iraq. Both Kerry and Dean have said that they’d make more energetic efforts than Bush has to persuade foreign governments to contribute more peace-keeping troops to Iraq to help replace American soldiers there.

Dean has made at times contrasting statements on Iraq, at one point saying in the Sept. 4 Albuquerque debate, “We need more troops. They’re going to be foreign troops, as they should have been in the first place, not American troops. Ours need to come home.”

But four days later Dean said, “We cannot pull all the U.S. troops out of Iraq. We have to stay there for the duration…. We need to reduce our troop strength in Iraq. We cannot do that until we get foreign replacements.”

Kerry has struggled for months to explain his decision to support Bush in voting for last year’s congressional use-of-force resolution on Iraq.

Kerry has insisted he has no regrets about his vote to give Bush authority to use force, but he has also said that, despite that vote, Bush had still not earned “the legitimacy and consent of the American people.”

Meanwhile, in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews Monday night, Dean continued his critique of Bush policy, saying the president is failing by not paying attention to possible smuggling of uranium into this country and not spending enough on human intelligence.

“By and large, this president, I don’t believe, has any idea how to fight terror, and I don’t think he’s being particularly successful at it, either,” Dean told Matthews.

Lesson in defense
Dean also said on the campaign trail this week, “Mr. President, if you’ll pardon me, I’ll teach you a little about defense.”

Another Democratic contender, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, is touting his foreign policy and military credentials as a career military officer and former NATO commander.

In a speech last month on foreign policy Clark proposed an array of tactics in Iraq, including:

Engaging with Iraq’s neighbors, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, to close the borders with Iraq with the goal of cutting of foreign jihadists who are slipping into Iraq to attack Americans.

Calling the former Iraqi army back to duty, after thorough background checks are done, so that Iraqi soldiers could perform guard duties and U.S. soldiers could focus on counter-insurgency tasks.

Re-assigning linguists and intelligence specialists now assigned to the search for weapons of mass destruction, redeploying them to search for jihadists and insurgents in Iraq.

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