San Diego Union Tribune

June 17, 2004

Bipartisan group of Bush critics throws down gauntlet


WASHINGTON Standing around the microphone, they were the very picture of the Washington establishment, their gray hair earned in service to Republican presidents since Richard Nixon and Democratic leaders since Lyndon Johnson. But their message was anything but reassuring to the current establishment.

Retired diplomats and generals, they were critical of President Bush and his foreign policy and said he should be voted out of office.

While their critique was dismissed by Republicans and ignored by the White House, GOP political strategists will not be able to ignore the reality behind their message that the president will have to fight to defend his national security record in this re-election campaign.

That debate noticeably sharpened yesterday when the group, numbering more than two dozen, officially launched an attack designed to throw the administration on the defensive.

The group's statement proved immediately controversial, suggesting that the critics may have touched a nerve.

In the declaration released by Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change, the 27 critics asserted that Bush's handling of the war has weakened national security and added, "Never in the two and a quarter centuries of our history has the United States been so isolated among the nations, so broadly feared and distrusted."

They elaborated on their complaints at a morning news conference.

Republicans counterattacked by claiming that the group is pushing a partisan agenda. While disclaiming any links to Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign, several members acknowledged support for the eventual Democratic nominee.

Some experts said that the group's critique could prove politically significant at a time when the two major party candidates appear to be preparing for a rare presidential election that may turn on issues of national security as much as on domestic concerns. A continuing drumbeat of news about setbacks to American policy in Iraq could give yesterday's statement considerable resonance that might prove useful to Kerry, according to some analysts.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan newsletter, said, "It's all about events and results, and the public perception of progress or a lack thereof."

Gordon Adams, an expert on national security policy at George Washington University, contended, "This is not a garden-variety event that happens . . . every (four) years that some band of Washington heavyweights get together and say, we're in trouble. It's very, very unusual to have people who appear, at least to me, to be of a relatively bipartisan or nonpartisan stripe saying this was not handled in a good way."

But others warned against overstating the group's political clout.

"It was a little bit like a Kerry press conference," said Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University who studies public attitudes on national security matters. "It's a little bit like union officials coming out for Kerry or Wall Street bankers endorse Bush. It matters, but it's not going to be a campaign-defining moment."

Both in the statement and at the news conference, the group took aim at what was Bush's political trump card when he proclaimed an end to major combat operations in Iraq 14 months ago. However, the troubled effort to pacify the country in subsequent months has severely depressed the president's poll ratings and boosted Kerry's prospects.

Even so, political experts in several battleground states said they are doubtful that the critique would change the minds of many Bush partisans or prove impressive to as yet uncommitted swing voters.

"It will have some impact, but I think it'll basically reinforce beliefs that are already there," said Andrew Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire.

Describing an electorate already polarized over Iraq, Smith added, "A statement like this is going to just provide additional evidence . . . to Democrats who already are opposed to the Bush administration's policies in Iraq, where Republicans will probably be dismissive of it.

"The swing voters or independent voters," he added, "tend not to pay that much attention to politics anyway, and they certainly aren't paying that much attention to politics in the middle of the summer."

The White House yesterday largely ignored the statement, signed mostly by people who before retirement held senior posts including ambassadorships under presidents of both parties.

After being heavily criticized by Kerry and other Democrats for neglecting traditional allies, the Bush administration in recent weeks made an effort to synchronize its policies with those of its allies.

Several of the retired diplomats praised the administration for its change of course, culminating in the recent unanimous approval of a new Iraq resolution by the U.N. Security Council. However, a couple of critics said the new emphasis was belated. The group's spokeswoman, Phyllis Oakley, a former assistant secretary of state who served Republicans and Democrats, said she is worried that Bush was simply executing a tactical, and not a fundamental, shift.

At least two of the retired diplomats later acknowledged that Kerry has yet to draw sharp distinctions with the administration over how to devise a successful exit strategy from Iraq.

Both the administration's change in focus and Kerry's posture could blur the issues being raised by the group and diminish its impact, several experts argued.

Feaver, the national security expert at Duke, argued that Bush had maneuvered effectively at the United Nations and last week at an international summit and that a failure now on the part of European allies to provide significant help could not be blamed entirely on Bush.

At the news conference, retired Air Force Gen. Merrill A. "Tony" McPeak acknowledged that he has met with and endorsed Kerry.

But McPeak noted that he was a registered Republican when he retired from the Air Force, was a local organizer for Sen. Bob Dole's failed 1996 presidential campaign and was a member of Veterans for Bush in 2000.

"I don't think the accusation of politics on my part is going to wash. This administration has gone away from me, not vice versa," the McPeak said.