In a sharply worded challenge to President Bush, Democratic Sen. John Kerry said Wednesday “extremism has gained momentum” as a result of administration missteps in Iraq, but said the war on terror is a winnable one with the right policies.
“When it comes to Iraq, it’s not that I would have done one thing differently, I would have done almost everything differently” than the president, the presidential candidate said in a speech to the national convention of the American Legion.
Kerry spoke dismissively of a statement Bush made Monday — then rescinded on Tuesday — that the war on terror might not be winnable.
“I absolutely disagree,” he said. “With the right policies, this is a war we can win, this is a war we must win, and this is a war we will win.” Kerry said. “... In the end, the terrorists will lose and we will win because the future does not belong to fear, it belongs to freedom.”
Kerry, a veteran who won five medals for service in the Vietnam War, saluted his audience as he stepped to the same podium where Bush spoke on Tuesday. He saluted again as he wrapped up his speech.
He accused the administration of failing to keep faith with the nation’s 36 million veterans by underfunding VA programs that leave thousands of former servicemen and women without adequate, timely health care and reduced retirement and disability payments.
“The job will be done when the government stops asking veterans for increased co-payments, enrollment fees and other charges to shift the burden of care to more veterans and drive more than a million veterans out of the system,” he said.
But the heart of the speech was a strong attack on Bush’s policies in Iraq, delivered at a time when Republicans were midway through a national convention designed largely to stress the president’s credentials as an effective commander in chief in the war on terror.
Kerry catalogued what he said was a long list of administration shortcomings on Iraq — failing to heed the advice of senior generals on the number of troops needed for postwar operations, failing to secure the country’s borders, failing to share responsibility with NATO or the United Nations, shortchanging the training and equipping of the Iraqi police and more.
As a result, he said, “today’s terrorists have secured havens in Iraq that were not there before. And we have been forced to reach accommodation with those who have repeatedly attacked our troops.
“Violence has spread in Iraq. Iran has expanded its influence, and extremism has gained momentum,” Kerry said.
As a Massachusetts senator, Kerry voted in 2002 to give Bush the authority to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and said recently that he would still do so in hindsight, even knowing that no weapons of mass destruction have been found.
But Kerry said, “I would never have diverted resources so quickly from Afghanistan,” where the Taliban has been forced from power but Osama bin Laden and other members of al-Qaida remain free.
“I wouldn’t have ignored my senior military advisers. I would have made sure that every soldier put in harm’s way had the equipment and body armor they needed. I would have built a strong, broad coalition of our allies around the world.
“And if there’s one thing I learned from my service, I would never have gone to war without a plan to win the peace,” he said.
Kerry’s remarks marked his first extensive foray into the controversy that Bush triggered earlier this week. In a television interview aired Monday, the Republican said he wasn’t certain the war on terror was winnable. The following day — before the same American Legion members whom Kerry addressed — Bush said it was.
Kerry spoke as the Democratic Party decided to air a new 30-second ad in battleground states, a commercial designed to stress the same points the Massachusetts senator covered. It accuses Bush of “a failure in leadership.” “Mounting casualties, costing $200 billion and counting,” the ad says. “Now they call it a 'catastrophic success.’ They say they 'miscalculated.’ And now they say the war on terror is unwinnable.”
The visit to the American Legion gathering was Kerry’s first public political campaigning since Saturday, and marked an unusual decision to actively campaign while the opposition party was in the midst of its convention.
Kerry aides announced on Tuesday that the campaign will begin buying $45 million worth of commercial time in 20 states through Election Day. Aides described the investment — which amounts to about half of Kerry’s overall budget for the fall campaign — as a down payment on their advertising strategy.