San Diego Union Tribune

September 2, 2004

Kerry rips Bush's war management in speech to vets
'I would have done almost everything differently,' Democratic nominee says


NASHVILLE, Tenn. Sen. John Kerry fired a barrage of criticism at President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq yesterday during an address to veterans, saying "extremism has gained momentum" in the world because of administration policies.

"When it comes to Iraq, it's not that I would have done one thing differently. I would have done almost everything differently," the Democratic presidential nominee told a gathering of the American Legion.

Kerry also alluded to Bush's comment Monday which the president reversed a day later that the war against terrorism cannot be won.

"With the right policies, this is a war we can win, this is a war we must win and this is a war we will win," Kerry said.

Kerry's 35-minute speech was interrupted at least 24 times by applause a few mingled with cheers and he received a lengthy standing ovation at the end. But most of that response came to his comments about veterans' benefits; his criticism of Bush on Iraq was largely greeted with silence.

The Bush campaign reiterated its claim that the Massachusetts senator has shifted his stance on the war in Iraq.

"This is a candidate who voted for the war, voted against the troops and said he was an anti-war candidate, and then said he would make the same vote for the war again," said Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman.

Kerry, a Navy veteran of Vietnam and an American Legion member, told the audience that if he is elected, "you will have a fellow veteran in the White House who understands that those who have fought for our country overseas should never have to fight for what they were promised here at home."

Nearly one-fourth of his speech focused on a list of what he called failures by the administration in its conduct of the war in Iraq and the larger struggle against terrorism.

Noting the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops engaged in conflicts "in all corners of the world," Kerry said: "We owe them the truth; we owe the American people the truth. I'm here to tell you the truth."

Kerry referred to Bush's recent comment that he had miscalculated the difficulty of establishing stability in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Kerry said the president's "miscalculation was in ignoring the advice given to him, including the best advice of America's own military."

Because the swift victory of the U.S.-led forces was never in doubt, Kerry said the administration had an obligation to make sure it had a "plan to win the peace."

Kerry said "the civilian leadership of this country" failed to provide enough troops to secure the country, to prevent looting and to bring in substantial allied support.

"As a result, today terrorists have secured havens in Iraq that were not there before, and we have been forced to reach accommodation with those who have repeatedly attacked our troops. Violence has spread in Iraq, Iran has expanded its influence and extremism has gained momentum.

"Most significantly, they even failed to guard the nuclear waste and ammunition storage sites, despite the fact that weapons of mass destruction were the fundamental reason for the war. That had the effect of supplying the very weapons that are targeting our troops today.

"If there is one thing I learned from my own service (in Vietnam), I would never have gone to war without a plan to win the peace," he said, drawing the only round of applause during his attack on Bush's handling of the war.

Kerry went on to describe his plans to "win the peace" in Iraq, which focused heavily on drawing more international support, increasing the active-duty military to relieve the pressure on the current troops, reserve and National Guard, and ensuring that they have the best technology and intelligence.

He also said the administration wrongly diverted resources from Afghanistan to invade Iraq. He said he would have sent U.S. troops into the mountains of Tora Bora in Afghanistan to prevent the escape of Osama bin Laden, rather than rely on Afghans "who a week earlier were fighting on the other side."

Kerry also dismissed Bush's statement to the American Legion that he is "getting the job done" on veterans' programs. The Democratic challenger launched into a litany of what he called the shortages in funding for health care and other programs, and criticized the proposal to close Veterans Affairs hospitals, though several studies have shown that many VA facilities are underutilized.

His most enthusiastic reception came during his lengthy critique of the administration's funding for veterans' health care and other benefits and his pledge to do better. The strongest applause came when he promised that, if elected president, "I will lead the fight for the military families' bill of rights and mandatory funding for veterans' health care."

Kerry never mentioned the raging controversy over his own Vietnam service and subsequent leadership of the anti-war effort. The group that has led the assault, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, has a display of its attacks on Kerry at the Opryland Resort convention site.

But several veterans, who had different views on voting for Kerry, said they thought the attacks on his service were unwarranted.

Ron Hanson, a Navy veteran from Escondido, plans to vote for Bush but said the fact that Kerry served in Vietnam is good enough.

Bill Dawson, an Air Force veteran from Lake Havasu City, Ariz., liked Kerry's speech and said the attacks on his service are wrong.