LOS ANGELES - Democrat John F. Kerry charged yesterday that President Bush sent troops to war unprepared and pursued policies that have undermined the U.S. military and the nation's safety - one of his harshest attacks yet on Bush's national security credentials.
In an address at the University of California, Los Angeles days before the California primary, the front-runner for his party's presidential nomination derided what he termed the administration's "armchair hawks." He said, "George Bush inherited the strongest military in the world. And I know, and members of the military know ... that George Bush has, in fact, weakened that military by overextending it."
By questioning the president's leadership in Iraq and in the battle against terrorism, Kerry aimed to weaken one of Bush's central arguments for re-election: that America is at war and the president is the only man who can be trusted to lead the nation to safety.
Kerry's speech, presented before a crowd of several hundred students and faculty, also highlighted his strengths in the contest for the Democratic nomination. Heading into critical Super Tuesday - when 10 states, including California and Maryland, will weigh in on the race - Kerry positioned himself as an experienced player in national security matters, an area in which rival John Edwards is lacking by comparison.
Kerry criticized Bush's handling of unrest in the Middle East, calling the peace process "paralyzed," and he accused the president of shortchanging U.S. troops in Iraq.
"Far too often troops have been going into harm's way without the weapons and the equipment they depend on," Kerry said. "Families across America have had to collect funds from their neighbors to buy body armor that is state of the art for their loved ones in uniform because George Bush has failed to provide it."
Kerry charged that American forces had Osama bin Laden in their grasp more than two years ago at Tora Bora, but that "George Bush held U.S. forces back and instead called on Afghan warlords with no loyalty to our cause to finish the job."
The Massachusetts senator said that when bin Laden is captured, "it will be a great step forward," but that it would not be the end of the war on terror.
He also sought to counter recent criticism by the Republican Party that he is soft on defense.
"I don't fault George Bush for doing too much in the war on terror," Kerry said. "I believe he has done too little. ... George Bush has no comprehensive strategy for victory in the war on terror - only an ad hoc strategy to keep our enemies at bay. If I am commander in chief, I would wage that war by putting in place a strategy to win it."
The Bush campaign was quick to fight back yesterday against Kerry's allegations in a conference call with reporters and in e-mails sent before and after the address. Bush representatives questioned Kerry's dedication to a strong military and called the talk a "political speech filled with defeatist rhetoric and factual inaccuracies."
"Today, John Kerry ignored the real progress being made on all fronts of the war on terror," Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said in a written statement, "and he ignored his own long voting record that would undermine America's ability to win the war on terror."
Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot has argued Kerry has repeatedly voted to reduce defense spending and cancel dozens of weapons systems during his 19-year Senate career.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.