Tina Fineberg  /  AP file
New York City police officers stand guard at Grand Central Terminal last Friday.
By Senior correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 3/18/2004 7:22:42 PM ET 2004-03-19T00:22:42

From the president on down, Bush administration foreign policy officials argue that nothing about last week’s bombing in Madrid warrants a change in U.S. foreign policy. Nor does Washington concede any connection between those blasts and Spain’s role in the Iraq war.

“They have not only killed in Spain, they've killed in the United States, they've killed in Turkey, they've killed in Saudi Arabia,” President Bush told reporters Tuesday when asked if such attacks will affect U.S. policy. “They kill wherever they can. And it's essential that the free world remain strong and resolute and determined.”

But the Madrid blast, and particularly the electoral backlash against Spain’s government that followed, is sharpening the way Bush and the Democrat challenging him for his job, Sen. John Kerry, are framing their arguments about homeland security, national security policy and the competence of U.S. intelligence agencies. Behind the rhetoric on both sides, strategies are emerging to counter the perceived effect on the American electorate should al-Qaida manage to mount an “October surprise” ahead of the American election. The race is on to lay down markers that will vindicate their positions if the worst comes to pass.

“I think that certainly what they’re doing is reviewing what they’ve already said and looking that in the light of ‘if something happens, how does that play?’” says James Carafano, a homeland security expert at the Heritage Institute in Washington who spent much of his career in the U.S. Army. “You would want to be looking at a range of recommendations you’d made in this area, whether something happened with an airliner or subway, and you would want to make sure that it is a threat you have addressed.”

A good offense
Bush campaign officials are gleefully tearing into the Massachusetts senator for a half-dozen votes on national security issues he has cast in his two decades in Washington. But only this week did the president and Vice President Dick Cheney begin to weigh in.

Bush did so Thursday in a speech to troops at Fort Campbell, Ky., without ever mentioning Kerry’s name. Indeed, he specifically left him off a list of those the military should thank for approving an $87 billion supplemental spending bill for the Iraq war earlier this year. Kerry, at the time running behind antiwar firebrand Howard Dean and saddled with a complex array of complaints about that GOP legislation, was among a small number of senators who opposed it. Bush made the point like this:

“Our military has had strong supporters in the House and the Senate. I want to thank the Congress for standing up. I want to thank every member of Congress who voted in favor of the $87 billion supplemental that is meeting the needs of our troops in the field right now,” the president said. “When your government gives you a mission, we must accept serious responsibility of our own. And here's my pledge: I'll work to make sure you have every resource and every tool you need to fight and win the war on terror.”

A day earlier, Cheney put it more pointedly, rattling off a list of votes from Kerry’s past — against the Gulf War in 1991, against funding for missiles and weapons systems like the Patriot, B-1 bomber and F-15 during the 1980s — and declaring this “not an impressive record for someone who aspires to become commander-in-chief in this time of testing for our country.”

Tables turned
Yet the “Madrid factor,” as one campaign official put it, reverses this dynamic to some degree, putting the president’s record, and not Kerry’s, on display. The specter of a second attack on America — even something far less catastrophic than the Sept. 11, 2001, assaults — has emerged as a major campaign theme for Kerry.

American intelligence“For Kerry, going on record as saying that the administration has not done enough to protect America — or in the case of Iraq, has done the wrong thing, is a free ride,” says a Bush campaign official, requesting anonymity. “My guy has to put taxpayer money where his mouth is.”

Already, Kerry has adjusted his arguments to emphasize what he characterizes as the unlearned lessons of 9/11.

“When the focus of the war on terror was appropriately on Afghanistan and on breaking al-Qaida,” he told a national meeting of firefighters on Tuesday, “President Bush shifted his focus to Iraq and Saddam Hussein.”

He drove home the “Iraq as distraction” theme again Wednesday.

“We were misled about weapons of mass destruction. We are misled now when the costs of Iraq are not even counted in the president's budget. But having gone to war, we have a responsibility to keep and a national interest to achieve in a stable and peaceful Iraq,” Kerry charged in a speech in West Virginia.  “But the answer is not a stubborn pursuit of the same arrogant policies; the answer to failure is not more of the same. … All of us support our troops. But if we had built a true coalition, they would not have to fight almost alone — and Americans would not have to bear almost all the costs in Iraq.”

Plenty of issues
Kerry’s Senate record may indeed define him as too liberal for a segment of the American electorate, but Kerry campaign strategists argue that Bush will merely be preaching to the converted if he sticks to that argument.

“We all know the country is divided. A good 40 percent view Bush as a radical who has to be stopped, and about the same number admires Bush for his handling of 9/11,” a Kerry adviser says. “But we don’t think the 9/11 story has been told.”

Among the issues the Kerry campaign intends to elevate in coming months:

  • Intelligence failures: Report after report cites a lack of progress on the one most serious deficiency identified after 9/11: information-sharing between the many competing arms of U.S. law enforcement or intelligence. The most recent such study, the bipartisan Markle Task Force report released in December, criticizes the administration for making the intelligence problem worse by creating new agencies with overlapping jurisdictions — the Terrorist Threat Assessment Center (TTIC) and the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Information Analysis and Infrastructure protection office.

“The very fact of the TTIC’s creation has caused confusion within the federal government and among state and local governments about the respective roles of TTIC and DHS,” the report says. “Moreover, neither the TTIC nor the DHS has gotten very far in putting in place the necessary staff or framework for analyzing information and sharing it broadly among the relevant federal, state and local agencies.”

  • Losing the global debate: Kerry and his supporters will bang home the abysmal state of America’s prestige abroad, as measured by pollsters and governments willing to back Washington when the going gets rough. Kerry knows that on this issue —Bush’s unilateralism and doctrine of pre-emptive action — he has strong support from some GOP stalwarts, too, including Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser in Bush’s father’s administration. Lawrence Korb, a Reagan administration defense official, put it this way in a recent article for Insight magazine: “The Bush administration has abandoned the fundamental tenets that have guided our foreign policy for more than half a century.… It is the Democratic Party that now carries the Eisenhower legacy and therefore is much better equipped to protect our national security.”
  • Secrecy and deception: Already, Kerry is making the case that America, and he as well, was “misled” into the Iraq war. This summer, the campaign is banking on a bonanza when the results of a full investigation of the intelligence failures of 9/11 are made public. The 9/11 commission recently won an extension largely made necessary because the White House was refusing to commit the president’s time for testimony. Throughout its two year tenure, its Republican chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, has complained about a lack of cooperation from the Bush administration.
  • ‘First responders:’ In a line of attack that opened Wednesday with his speech to firefighters, Kerry is citing complaints from emergency officials around the country that the funding increases needed to tackle issues like chemical and biological attacks simply have never come through. The Bush response — that some $400 million was added to the budget this year — may not survive the scrutiny of a Congress increasingly wary of rising budget deficits.

The Bush campaign remains confident that Bush’s decision to pursue the war on terrorism and then smite Saddam to boot will neutralize this line of attack. Kerry’s own record is seen as a liability, too.

Speaking at a Texas fund-raising event earlier this month, Bush portrayed Kerry as a typical Massachusetts liberal who wants to have it both ways on every issue. "Senator Kerry voted for the Patriot Act, for NAFTA, for the No Child Left Behind Act and for the use of force in Iraq," he said. "Now he opposes the Patriot Act, NAFTA, the No Child Left Behind Act and the liberation of Iraq. My opponent clearly has strong beliefs — they just don't last very long."

But others see Bush more than Kerry at the mercy of fate — and of al-Qaida.

“In many ways, I think Kerry is sitting pretty,” says Juliette Kayyem, an authority on homeland security and terrorism at Harvard University. “If there’s no terrorist attack between now and the election, it won’t be animating the political debate, and he can beat Bush up over Iraq. If it does happen, he’s on record saying we’ve squandered our resources and done the wrong things. That will be hard to counter.”

Michael Moran's column appears weekly. Mail bravenewworld@msnbc.com to join the Brave New World alert list.

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