ARLINGTON, Va. - For months, President Bush has been a sitting duck, taking incoming rhetorical fire from Democratic opponents and a willing media eager to bring down his poll numbers so they can have themselves a contest. The poll numbers are down, and it appears there will be a real contest. It is time for the president to return fire.
On NBC's Meet the Press interview with Tim Russert on Sunday, the president again defended his decision to invade Iraq and topple the murderous dictator Saddam Hussein. The interview was OK, but he didn't say much that he hasn't said already many times.
He needs to say something new, beginning with more about the unique responsibility of being president. He should note that a president does not enjoy the luxury of his critics, who have opinions about everything but take responsibility for nothing. Mr. Bush acted on the best intelligence available at the time, stopping a madman who has been responsible for the deaths of perhaps millions, his own people and many others. Was that not worth doing?
The leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, presents an inviting target of inconsistency, hypocrisy and opportunism when his statements about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction are examined. Just last June 15 on ABC's This Week program, Mr. Kerry said he thought "it would be irresponsible for me at this point to draw conclusions [about whether intelligence was hyped] prior to all the evidence being on the table."
On NPR's All Things Considered on March 19, Mr. Kerry said, "I think Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction are a threat, and that's why I voted to hold him accountable and to make certain that we disarm him. I think we need to." Since Mr. Kerry had access to some of the same intelligence passed on to the White House, why shouldn't he admit his wrong decision if he now wants to criticize the president for what he regards as Mr. Bush's mistakes?
Mr. Kerry told USA Today a year ago that leaving Mr. Hussein "unfettered with nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction is unacceptable." As far back as 1990, Mr. Kerry warned in a Senate speech, "Iraq has developed a chemical weapons capability," and in January 1991, Mr. Kerry said Mr. Hussein had been working on WMD "for years."
In addition to noting Mr. Kerry's flip-flops, the president should roll out an even more powerful political weapon. He should invite to visit America some Iraqi men, women and children who could publicly thank this country for its commitment and sacrifice on their behalf.
They would tell their stories of life under Mr. Hussein and how things have improved since his ouster. These personal stories of murdered relatives, rape, torture and imprisonment would touch many hearts. Then the president could ask, "Do any of those who want my job wish to tell these people they would have been better off if America and our allies had chosen to stay home?"
Let Mr. Kerry and the other candidates say that more fatherless children would have been acceptable to them. Let the Democrats try to convince the public that the continued rapes of women and girls should be of no concern to a decent nation that has sacrificed its own in the past so others might share the joy of freedom. How many Democrats want to be known for this kind of isolationism, insensitivity and indifference to suffering? Are we our brothers' and sisters' keeper, or not? Does freedom require a certain responsibility and accountability from those who enjoy it in behalf of those who don't?
When he announced the beginning of military operations against Iraq in March, the president said it "could be more difficult than some predict. And helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment."
Part of that commitment ought to be introducing liberated Iraqis to the American public. Call it "Meet the Iraqis."
Americans are used to taking criticism from an unappreciative world. Hearing the stories of grateful Iraqis not only would give us a needed morale boost, it could improve the president's approval ratings.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.