WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry sketched the broad outlines of his national security agenda yesterday and warned that President Bush's failed leadership in Iraq has made America "less safe than we should be in a dangerous world."
Kerry took the extraordinary step of addressing the leaders of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations, referring to "these illusions" they may harbor about mounting a pre-election strike to influence the outcome of the presidential contest.
"Let there be no doubt: This country is united in its determination to destroy terrorism," Kerry said to applause from a partisan audience in Seattle. "As commander in chief, I will bring the full force of our nation's power to bear on finding and crushing your networks. We will use every resource in our power to destroy you."
The deadly train bombings in Madrid two months ago were widely seen as a successful attempt by terrorists to oust a pro-U.S. government. In national elections three days later, a Socialist prime minister came to power and quickly made good on his campaign promise to pull all Spanish troops from Iraq.
The Democrat's speech, the first in a series on national security, was in response to a set of addresses on Iraq that Bush launched this week. Taken together, the competing speeches underscore the extent to which foreign policy, and particularly the Iraq war, has emerged as the central issue in the presidential campaign.
'Deep trouble' for U.S.
Kerry, describing the situation in Iraq as "grim" and "deep trouble" for the United States, said high-level meetings next month in Europe and the United States offer Bush a chance to change his "failed approach" on Iraq by obtaining additional troops and money for Iraq from America's allies.
But Kerry did not propose any major changes in U.S. policy in Iraq, such as setting a date for a troop withdrawal, an idea that is gaining favor with an increasing number of Americans, especially liberals in his own party. The senator's caution reflects the view of his campaign strategists that the Democrat's best approach, at least for now, is to avoid further politicizing a crisis that has eroded Bush's standing with the public and threatened his re-election.
The White House sought to undercut Kerry's criticism yesterday by pointing to what Bush's spokesman called "contradictions" in the senator's Iraq position. "He's someone who's been on all sides of the issue when it comes to Iraq," press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One.
In recent months, the president has moved closer to Kerry's position, by giving the United Nations responsibility for forming an interim Iraqi government and by making renewed efforts to gain cooperation from other countries. Those shifts have further blurred differences between the two candidates on Iraq. In addition to voting in favor of the Iraq war resolution, Kerry has continued to echo the president's contention that a U.S. military pullout would lead to chaos.
But Kerry said that Bush's bullying, go-it-alone style had alienated longtime allies, and that his reliance on military force had come at the expense of other tools in the U.S. arsenal, including diplomacy and economic pressure.
"Alliances matter, and the United States must lead them," Kerry said. But he tempered his push for multilateralism with muscular rhetoric about fighting terrorism and repeated references to himself as a future commander in chief.
Taking a jab at Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq, he said that in a Kerry administration Americans would "never be sent into harm's way without enough troops for the task" or "asked to fight a war without a plan to win the peace."
He also said, apparently alluding to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, that U.S. troops "will never be given assignments which have not been clearly defined and for which you are not professionally trained."
The prison abuse scandal and increased violence in Iraq have sent Bush's job approval ratings to the lowest levels of his presidency. But his handling of the war on terrorism remains one of his only advantages over the Democratic challenger.
Recent polling found that one of every two adult Americans thinks Kerry wouldn't make the country safer as president, an indication that the Bush campaign's portrayal of the Massachusetts Democrat as weak on defense may be working.
Kerry adviser Richard Holbrooke, a former ambassador to the United Nations, predicted in a conference call with reporters that those poll numbers, and others showing that more Americans would trust Bush over Kerry in a crisis, will change once voters learn more about Kerry's military service and foreign policy background.
The senator will lay out in greater detail next week his plans for military modernization and the need to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. His top security goal as president, he said, would be to prevent terrorists from gaining weapons of mass murder.
Kerry also said he'd turn to "the best among us" in selecting his national security team, "regardless of party." There is already speculation, which the campaign has done nothing to dispel, that he would offer Republican Sen. John McCain the job of defense secretary.
If elected, Kerry said, he would launch a global initiative to "fully secure" nuclear weapons materials and "sharply limit and control future production." He repeated his call for an end to U.S dependence on Middle East oil, blamed Saudi Arabia for not doing more to rein in terrorist organizations and criticized the Bush administration's "kid-glove approach to the supply and laundering of terrorist money."
Trying to turn the tables on the Republicans, who have sought to portray Democrats as out of the mainstream on national security, he accused Bush of undermining a longstanding internationalist tradition dating back to Teddy Roosevelt.
"They've gone it alone," by resorting to military force before exhausting diplomatic options and by hoping "for the best when they should have prepared for the worst," Kerry said.