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Speech sets the stage for nasty showdown

Even as President Bush gave his acceptance speech Thursday night at the Republican convention, his rival John Kerry opened a new and strikingly personal counter-offensive.
President Bush waves as he takes stage at Republican convention in New York
"Do I forget the lessons of September 11th and take the word of a madman, or do I take action to defend our country?" Bush asked Thursday by way of explaining his decision to invade Iraq.Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
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As President Bush spent Thursday night making an appeal to the voters for another term, two questions underlay the re-election question: Could Bush assure the American people that the sacrifices made so far, including the Americans killed in Iraq, had been worth the effort?

And could he brace them for the challenges ahead?

Bush began with an allusion to the struggle against terrorists since Sept. 11, 2001, and promised something better, even if not victory: “Because we have made the hard journey, we can see the valley below.”

He pointed to evidence that his leadership had brought benefits: “Libya is dismantling its weapons programs, the army of a free Iraq is fighting for freedom, and more than three-quarters of al-Qaida's key members and associates have been detained or killed.  We have led, many have joined, and America and the world are safer.”

But even as Bush was delivering his speech at Madison Square Garden in New York, his Democrat challenger John Kerry released blistering remarks that he was to make at a midnight rally in Ohio.

“I'm not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have, and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq,” Kerry said, in a slap at Vice President Dick Cheney.

The vice president addressed the Republican convention Wednesday night, belittling Kerry’s grasp of what it takes to be commander-in-chief.

Cheney had said, “Sen. Kerry is campaigning for the position of commander in chief. Yet he does not seem to understand the first obligation of a commander in chief — and that is to support American troops in combat,” an allusion to Kerry’s vote against an $87 billion supplemental spending bill in October 2003 to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cheney also said that Kerry “speaks often of his service in Vietnam, and we honor him for it.”

“I'll leave it up to the voters whether five deferments makes someone more qualified to defend this nation than two tours of duty,” Kerry said in his midnight speech in Ohio.

Kerry surrogates have needled Cheney before for getting draft deferments instead of serving in Vietnam, as Kerry did.

But for Kerry himself to bring the topic up again in such vituperative terms promised to set off another round of recrimination.

Accusation of 'misleading'
“Let me tell you what I think makes someone unfit for duty. Misleading our nation into war in Iraq makes you unfit to lead this nation,” Kerry said.

The tactical question was whether Cheney had taunted Kerry into using up more of his precious campaign time in once again touting his Vietnam service. And was touting his Vietnam service an effective answer to the charge that he had been wrong to vote against the $87 billion?

Was Kerry dancing to the Karl Rove playbook? Or was he opening a new front that will force Cheney on the defensive? Voters in 1992 and 1996 may have settled this Vietnam question by electing Bill Clinton, who like Cheney, avoided Vietnam service.

Bush — presumably without seeing Kerry’s remarks about Iraq — did have an answer to them.

After Congress, including Kerry himself, had voted in October of 2002 to authorize Bush to use military force against Iraq, why did Bush go ahead and do so?

“We gave Saddam Hussein another chance, a final chance, to meet his responsibilities to the civilized world,” Bush explained to the convention Thursday night. “He again refused, and I faced the kind of decision that comes only to the Oval Office — a decision no president would ask for, but must be prepared to make.  Do I forget the lessons of September 11th and take the word of a madman, or do I take action to defend our country? Faced with that choice, I will defend America every time.”

Bush also spent part of his speech taunting Kerry on the Iraq issue, reprising what Bush’s campaign ads have said in recent months: “When asked to explain his vote, the Senator said, I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.’ Then he said he was ‘proud’ of that vote.  Then, when pressed, he said it was a ‘complicated’ matter.  There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat.”

Kerry and U.S. allies
For months Kerry has argued that he is an internationalist and has portrayed Bush as a blustering unilateralist.

But Bush challenged Kerry’s internationalist credentials, pointing out that he had criticized U.S. allies in the Iraq war.

“In the midst of war, he has called America's allies, quote, a ‘coalition of the coerced and the bribed,’” Bush said.

“That would be nations like Great Britain, Poland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, El Salvador, Australia, and others, allies that deserve the respect of all Americans, not the scorn of a politician. I respect every soldier, from every country, who serves beside us in the hard work of history. America is grateful, and America will not forget.”

The GOP assault on Kerry’s votes on Iraq and on weapons systems, which culminated in Georgia Democratic Sen. Zell Miller’s speech on Wednesday night, apparently was one of the things that prompted Kerry to unleash his salvo Thursday night.

Obscuring threat
But the fracas also threatened to obscure the real nature of the threats America faced in the post-Sept. 11 era.

All the weapons and weapons systems — the F-14A Tomcat, the Apache helicopter, etc. — that Miller itemized in his indictment of Kerry on Wednesday night were in the U.S. arsenal on Sept. 11, 2001.

But none of them did any good against Mohammed Atta and his brigade of killers who entered the United States as enemy soldiers under the false colors of student and tourist visas.

There was not a word in Bush's speech Thursday nor in Kerry's acceptance speech last month about strengthening the visa system as a first line of defense.

While Kerry’s votes against specific weaponry and against the 1991 Persian Gulf War do indicate a pattern of lack of support for military hardware and the use of force, one of the lessons of the Sept. 11 attacks was that in asymmetric warfare, the less technologically adept enemy, using all-too-familiar techniques such as airplane hijackings, can score devastating tactical victories.

This topic — the new nature of warfare — might be a worthy one for Kerry and Bush to debate in their first meeting.

But given the harshness of the past 48 hours, it looks like they may not get around to that topic.