Friday, November 28, 2003

Detractors of President Bush’s clandestine trip to Iraq were quick to denounce it yesterday, asserting that the Bush administration had orchestrated the Thanksgiving dinner with U.S. troops for political gain.

“This is a president who has been unwilling to provide his presence to the families who have suffered, but thinks nothing of flying to Baghdad to use the troops there as a prop,” said Joe Lockhart, former spokesman for President Clinton.

The president swooped into Baghdad at night aboard Air Force One with running lights off and window shades drawn to prevent terrorists from targeting the plane.

“The trip highlights how insecure Iraq is and shows how we need to get our allies in to get the American face off the occupation,” said Jamal Simmons, a spokesman for Democratic candidate Wesley Clark, a retired Army general.

The Democratic candidates sought to walk a fine line between applauding the president’s support of U.S. troops and criticizing the White House incumbent whose job they hope to win in 2004.

“The president did the right thing by visiting the troops yesterday, but this visit won’t change the fact that those brave men and women should never have been fighting in Iraq in the first place,” said Courtney O’Donnell, a spokesman for Democratic front-runner Howard Dean.

She said the campaign did not mass-mail the former Vermont governor’s statement about the trip, but instead has been “replying to people who have called.”

Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat whose campaign recently has faltered, said: “The president’s trip to Baghdad was the right thing to do for our country. … But, when Thanksgiving is over, I hope the president will take the time to correct his failed policy in Iraq that has placed our soldiers in a shooting gallery.”

Mr. Kerry conceded, however, he thought the trip was “terrific.”

His comments echoed a statement by a spokesman for fellow White House hopeful Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat.

Sen. John Edwards of South Carolina said the trip “was a nice thing to do, but unless this visit is followed by a change in policy that brings in our allies and truly internationalizes the effort, our mission is not going to be successful.”

Others offered praise for the president.

“I don’t have anything political or partisan to say about it,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, campaigning in New Hampshire. “There are days when you have to say, we’re not Republicans, we’re not Democrats. We are Americans.”

Some newspapers both at home and abroad lambasted the president for the high-profile trip, covered round-the-clock on cable network news channels throughout Thanksgiving Day.

The left-wing Paris daily Liberation headlined its story “Electoral Raid on Baghdad.” The Independent, a British paper with an antiwar slant, put the story on A15 with the headline: “The Turkey Has Landed.”

“George Bush becomes the first U.S. president to visit Iraq in order to provide the television pictures required by his re-election campaign,” the article said, charging that Mr. Bush went to Baghdad to upstage “his undeclared Democratic opponent (Mrs. Clinton).”

The Spanish daily Vanguardia echoed Mr. Lockhart: “George W. Bush does not attend the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq, but has dinner in Baghdad with those who dream of coming home alive.” In Rome, the daily La Reppublica said Mr. Bush’s trip was “obviously an electoral blitz, a Hollywood-style stunt of the kind we will see again and again throughout the campaign.”

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who traveled with the president to Baghdad, yesterday denied any political motivation for the trip.

“The president was concerned about one thing and one thing only: He wanted to spend time with the troops on Thanksgiving and he wanted to do it with front-line troops,” she said.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat and one of the most vocal critics of the president, praised the trip.

“I thought it was terrific,” said Mrs. Clinton, who had lunch yesterday with U.S. troops from her home state in the dining hall at the former palace of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

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