Two Americas?

Kerry and Cheney take aim at one another over national security.


George Bush wants to run as a war president; John Kerry wants to run as a war candidate, albeit one with more time for world opinion. Each needs to convince the public that the United States is safer with the other guy out of office. On Wednesday, both candidates — Kerry in person, Bush through Dick Cheney — made that case in the strongest, most detailed, terms yet.

The immediate prompt was the year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Kerry, speaking in Washington D.C., used the opportunity to accuse the Bush administration of
botching the job and failing to make us safer. Cheney, a few hours later in California, argued that Kerry is a vacillating wimp who lacks the backbone to protect the national interest.

Kerry’s basic argument, made in a speech at George Washington University, is that the U.S. soldiers are “bogged down” and in Iraq “with the target squarely on their backs and their fronts,” and largely alone because “the administration stubbornly holds to failed unilateral policies that drive potential significant, important, long-standing allies away from us.” (He has called the coalition of the willing Bush assembled for the war “window dressing.”)

Kerry also said that troops are overextended — “Soldiers in Iraq are paying the price every single day because our forces are spread too thin” — and underequipped. (This is not a radical view. Tom Friedman, in the New York Times on Thursday, wrote, “We do not have enough troops in Iraq, and we never did. From the outset, the Bush Pentagon has treated Iraq as a lab test to prove that it can win a war with a small, mobile high-tech Army. Well, maybe you can defeat Saddam that way, but you can’t build a new Iraq.”)

Kerry proposed a “military family bill of rights,” his plan to upgrade the armed services and improve conditions for military dependents and veterans; and he said he would increase the size of the active-duty Army by 40,000 troops, paid for without raising the military budget by cutting weapons programs like the national missile defense system.

Cheney, speaking at the Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley, California, fired back:

“It is not an impressive record for someone who aspires to become commander in chief in this time of testing for our country. … The senator from Massachusetts has given us ample doubts about his judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security.”

Truth be told, he has a half a point. Kerry voted in 1991 against authorizing President George H.W. Bush to launch the Persian Gulf War of 1991. Then, in 2002, he voted to authorize military force against Saddam Hussein; then he voted against the $87 billion appropriation to fund the occupation. He can’t seem to explain why he voted as he did on the last two, and he’s obviously vulnerable on the first. (The 1991 was arguably a more justifiable use of military force than last year’s — and involved a broad coalition of the kind Kerry says he favors.)

Cheney said: “Had the decision belonged to Senator Kerry, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today in Iraq. In fact, Saddam Hussein would almost certainly still be in control of Kuwait.”

Cheney also blasted Kerry for voting to cut weapons programs over his 19 year career in the Senate.

“Over the years, he has repeatedly voted against weapons systems for the military,” he said. “He voted against the Apache helicopter, against the Tomahawk cruise missile, against even the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. He has also been a reliable vote against military pay increases — opposing them no fewer than 12 times.”

Kerry aides hit back with quotes from Cheney expressing inconsistent views over the years, including advocating cutting some of the same weapons systems he was faulting Kerry for wanting to cut, according to the New York Times.

As the Los Angeles Times notes, voters say they have “more confidence in Bush than in Kerry to protect the United States from terrorism, and the president’s campaign has sought to press that advantage.” The administration’s basic critique of its rival is that he’s so keen on multilateralism that he’d give foreign governments veto power over U.S. national security decisions.

Kerry addressed this charge in Washington, saying, “If we had built a true coalition, those troops would not have to fight almost alone, and Americans would not have to bear, almost alone, all of the costs in Iraq,” but he also said, “We must, and we will, never give anyone else a veto over the national security of our nation,” and emphasized several times that he would have no trouble sending troops into battle on his own. He has also said he doesn’t think Spain should pull its troops from Iraq.

As Cheney was speaking, a bomb hit a hotel in Iraq killed at least 27 people. Some stations ran the images ran concurrently with Cheney’s speech.

Nick Madigan and Katharine Q. Seelye write in the New York Times:
“The split-screen image underscored the volatility, in domestic politics and foreign policy, that lurks in the background of the White House campaign.” And Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst told The Chicago Tribune:

“The candidates and the politicians don’t always dictate the tempo of the campaigns. Bush has an agenda of how he wants to paint Kerry and Kerry has an agenda of what he’s going to talk about. But day in and day out, they are going to be pulled one way or another by events. They are going to be prepared to play off of those external events.”

The main aim of the dueling speeches, though, was to establish clear differences in foreign policy, the Washington Post calling them “more detailed and sustained arguments than typical campaign speeches, reflecting the genuine philosophical divides being presented to voters this election.” Cheney said that the 2004 election will offer a choice as clear as any “since the election of 1984,” when Ronald Reagan routed Democrat Walter F. Mondale. This is an exaggeration. Kerry is a lot more hawkish on terrorism than was, say, Dean, and he faults Bush not for doing too much in the war on terror, but too little.