Seeking to demonstrate where his policy on Iraq diverges from that of President Bush, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that if elected he would commit additional U.S. troops if necessary to stabilize the violence-torn nation, but also would offer the United Nations a more substantial role in an attempt to induce more countries to contribute forces and financial support.
Referring to the president’s acceptance Friday of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s proposal for a caretaker government in Iraq, Kerry argued that Bush was trying to bring the international community into Iraq through “the back door” without giving other nations a real say in the decision making.
“You cannot have America run the occupation, make all the reconstruction decisions, make the decisions on the kind of government that will emerge, and pretend to bring other nations to the table,” he said in a wide-ranging one-hour interview.
“George Bush astonishingly said at his press conference the other day, 'Brahimi will tell us who we’ll turn the government over to' ... but he won’t transfer to the U.N. the real authority for determining how the government emerges, how we will do the reconstruction of Iraq,” he said. “I think that’s a prerequisite to brining other countries to the table. (It’s) that simple.”
Kerry: U.S. diplomacy ‘stunningly ineffective’
Interviewed by NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert in Miami at the outset of a three-day campaign swing through Florida, Kerry was especially critical of U.S. diplomatic efforts to win support for the war in Iraq, which he labeled “stunningly ineffective.”
“Our diplomacy has been about as arrogant and ineffective as I’ve ever seen,” the Massachusetts senator said. “... Never has the United States of America been held in as low regard internationally as we are today. We are not trusted and this administration is not loved.”
He added that one of his first acts as president would be to return multilateralism to U.S. foreign policy because “it is not weakness, it is strength and we need a president who understands how to reach out to other countries, build alliances.”
He conceded that it would be difficult to persuade other nations to join the effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq.
“That is the dilemma,” Kerry said. “That is exactly the quandary that the Bush administration has put the United States in. ... It may well be we need a new president, a breath of fresh air to re-establish credibility with the rest of the world.”
GOP sees ‘contradiction ... confusion’
In a statement in response to Kerry's appearance, Bush campaign Chairman Marc Racicot said that during the interview Kerry's displayed "contradiction, a great deal of confusion, inaccurate attacks and a fundamental misunderstanding of the challenge we face in responding to the threat of terrorism."
Racicot and campaign manager Ken Mehlman continued to hammer Kerry for voting to authorize the war against Iraq, but later voting against an $87 billion in additional funding for the war that, among other things, contained funding for ammunition and armor for troops in Iraq.
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"John Kerry had a full hour to explain to the American people why he voted for war ... and then voted against funds for Americans in harm’s way," Racicot said, adding that Kerry himself had previously said that opposing supplemental funding for the troops would be "irresponsible."
Racicot's comments referred to Kerry's assertion during that interview that he voted against the appropriation bill because it didn't incorporate a proposal that would have reduced the cost of the bill by slicing President Bush's tax cut for wealthy Americans.
He described a Bush campaign commercial highlighting the vote as "sad ... almost pathetic," and noted that Bush himself had threatened to veto the $87 billion bill if it included money to pay for health care for reservists and required Iraq to pay back some of the money set aside for its reconstruction.
“Think of that. The president threatened to veto that bill, and yet he is now accusing me for voting no,” he said.
Stressing differences on Iraq
Kerry, who voted to authorize the war against Iraq and — like Bush — says that failure to create a stable government there would be disastrous, has been criticized by the president’s Republican allies for failing to say what he would do differently in Iraq. As a result, he has in recent days sought to highlight the points where his Iraq policy differs from Bush’s plan.
On Saturday, he touted a four-step plan for peace in Iraq that included more U.S. troops combined with a U.N. mission to help rebuild Iraq and restore a democratic government.
He also called for a NATO security force under a U.S. commander to transform the military force in Iraq.
On other topics touched on during Sunday’s interview, Kerry:
- Said Israel’s killing on Saturday of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi was justified because Israel “has every right in the world to respond to any act of terror against it.”
“Hamas is a terrorist, brutal organization,” he said. “It has had years to make up its mind to take part in a peaceful process. They refuse to ... and I support Israel’s efforts to try to separate itself and to try to be secure.”
Kerry also said he “completely” supported Bush’s endorsement of a plan by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to hold on to lands seized in the 1967 Middle East War, a change to long-standing U.S. policy that has angered the Palestinians.
- Indicated that he is not concerned by polls showing that Bush ads apparently have succeeded in portraying him as wishy-washy on defense and other matters.
“I’m thrilled with where I am right now,” he said. “The Republican Party has spent $50 million in seven weeks to distort my record, to completely mislead Americans about me and about my record. ... We’re in a position now to be able to respond and introduce myself to the country.”
- Stood by his promise to create 10 million jobs and halve the deficit in his first four years as president, though he conceded that soaring red ink could force him to scale back some of his campaign proposals.
- Charged that Bush has worsened the outlook for Medicare and Social Security by running up huge budget deficits, but maintained that reducing the president’s tax cut for the wealthy and other small fixes could rectify that.
“I’m going to put us back on the track that we were on in the ‘90s,” he said. “... I’m not going to cut Social Security benefits and I’m not going to raise the retirement age.”
- Dismissed comments he made after his return from the Vietnam War that the United Nations should be given control of U.S. forces overseas, calling it "one of those stupid things a 27-year-old kid says when you’re fresh back from Vietnam and angry about it.”
- Said that, as president, he would set a goal of producing 20 percent of the nation’s energy needs with “alternative” or “clean” technologies by 2020 to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
- Said he hopes to arrange a private meeting with independent candidate Ralph Nader to discuss “common interests” while he continues to court the consumer rights advocate’s supporters. “I will make it unnecessary for them to support Ralph Nader,” he said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.