- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

Sen. John Kerry went toe-to-toe with President Bush on national security yesterday, charging that the president has weakened the U.S. military and been too timid to commit troops at Tora Bora in Afghanistan, thus blowing the chance to capture Osama bin Laden.

National security and toughness in the war on terror have returned as a threshold issue in the presidential campaign, much as being tough on communism was a threshold during the Cold War. In a speech in California, billed as his comprehensive strategy for the war on terror, Mr. Kerry sought yesterday to dispel the notion hewould be reluctant to use military force.

Mr. Kerry said he will not be afraid to “order direct military action when needed to capture and destroy terrorist groups and their leaders.”

He even faulted the president for not committing forces in one particular instance. He said Mr. Bush lost a chance to capture bin Laden, whom Mr. Kerry said the United States “had in our grasp” during the December 2001 battle in the mountainous Tora Bora region in Afghanistan.

“George Bush held U.S. forces back and instead called on Afghan warlords with no loyalty to our cause to finish the job,” Mr. Kerry said.

Republicans have said this year’s election will come down to who Americans trust to keep a strong course in the war on terror. Mr. Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, has said he is the best candidate to go up against Mr. Bush on this issue.

Mr. Kerry voted in 2002 to authorize the president to use force in Iraq, but has since been one of the harshest critics of how Mr. Bush has followed through.

He has consistently said the administration should have worked to gain approval of more nations before beginning the war. This is consistent with his belief expressed after the Vietnam War, that the United States should not commit troops to war without the approval of the United Nations.

Yesterday, though, Mr. Kerry said he would not let allies “tie our hands and prevent us from doing what must be done.”

“As president I would not wait for a green light from abroad when our safety is at stake,” he said. “But I will not push away those who can and should share the burden.”

He also said the problem isn’t that Mr. Bush has gone too far in the war on terror, but that “he’s done too little.”

“We can prove to the American people that we know how to make them safer and more secure — with a stronger, more comprehensive and more effective strategy for winning the war on terror than the Bush administration has ever envisioned,” Mr. Kerry said.

Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush re-election campaign, said the speech was “filled with defeatist rhetoric and factual inaccuracies.”

“Today, John Kerry ignored the real progress being made on all fronts of the war on terror, and he ignored his own long voting record that would undermine America’s ability to win the war on terror,” Mr. Schmidt said.

Mr. Kerry said Mr. Bush has failed to properly fund the military, including sending troops to patrol Iraq in unarmored Humvees and without proper body armor.

“Families across America have had to collect funds from their neighbors to buy body armor for their loved ones in uniform because George Bush failed to provide it,” Mr. Kerry said.

But Republican senators drafted by the Bush campaign to respond said those supplies have now been purchased. They also said that Mr. Kerry in fact voted against the exact legislation, the $87 billion emergency spending bill last fall, that funded those needs.

Republicans said this is a recurring pattern.

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said Mr. Kerry has shown “a pretty clear pattern of being wrong, of being in the minority, fortunately of not being very effective.”

And Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican, said, “History has shown Senator Kerry’s vision to be wrong.”

“He was wrong when he voted against the first Gulf war. Had we followed his vision, Saddam Hussein would still be in Kuwait and probably have nuclear weapons capability,” Mr. Coleman said.

On the domestic security front, Mr. Kerry faulted Mr. Bush for misdirected priorities, and called for increased military staffing and public safety spending, including:

• Increasing U.S. Army troop strength by 40,000 in what he called “a temporary increase likely to last the remainder of the decade.”

• Paying to hire 100,000 new firefighters and trying to “restore the 100,000 police on our streets which I fought for and won in 1994, but which the Bush administration has cut in budget after budget.”

• Increasing homeland security spending for items such as new screening technology at U.S. ports and new safeguards for chemical and nuclear facilities.

Mr. Kerry said the president “stonewalled” the commission investigating intelligence failures before the September 11 terrorist attacks, and pointed to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s refusal earlier this week to allow a vote on a bill to extend the commission’s deadline by two months. Mr. Kerry demanded that the president call and tell Mr. Hastert, Illinois Republican, to allow the commission more time.

Yesterday, Mr. Hastert issued a letter that he will agree to an extension, though spokesman John Feehery said it was independent of Mr. Kerry’s remarks.

“John who?” Mr. Feehery said. “I assure you that Senator Kerry’s stirring comments had absolutely nothing to do with our decisions.”

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