NEW YORK — Sen. John Kerry took a strong stand yesterday against President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, calling it a mistake and a “profound diversion” from the war on terror as the Democrat cast aside many of his former statements to attack the president on his strongest issue.
“Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions and, if we do not change course, there is the prospect of a war with no end in sight,” the Democratic presidential nominee said at New York University yesterday.
“Today, President Bush tells us that he would do everything all over again the same way. How can he possibly be serious?” Mr. Kerry said.
“Is he really saying to America that if we know there was no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al Qaeda, the United States should have invaded Iraq?” Mr. Kerry asked. “My answer, resoundingly: No.”
Still, he said, the United States must not fail now that it is engaged in Iraq.
He said that if the president changes policy now and follows the plan Mr. Kerry has laid out, the United States could begin a withdrawal of troops by next summer and pull out completely within four years.
Mr. Kerry laid out a four-point plan: convene a summit to garner the international support in men and money that he said Mr. Bush had promised but not won; put more effort into training Iraqi security forces; re-evaluate reconstruction and draw up a new list of priority projects; and take steps to ensure elections are held next year.
But he also said the situation on the ground is so volatile that he can’t say how feasible the withdrawal timetable will look in January, when he would take office if elected.
Just two weeks ago, Mr. Kerry called Iraq part of the war on terror. And in January, at a debate during the Democratic primaries, Mr. Kerry said the administration exaggerated the threat of terrorism, particularly the chance of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction.
Yesterday, though, he called Iraq a distraction from the war on terror, which he deemed “the defining struggle of our times: the struggle between freedom and radical fundamentalism.”
Mr. Kerry has now defined the ground on which he will fight the final six weeks of this campaign, going straight at the president on an issue the Bush campaign thinks is his key to re-election.
Mr. Kerry yesterday pounded on that theme: “The president’s insistence that he would do the same thing all over again in Iraq is a clear warning for the future, and it makes the choice in this election clear: more of the same with President Bush or a new, smarter direction with John Kerry that makes our troops and America safer.”
Mr. Kerry also said that even though “Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell,” this would not justify war.
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt called those remarks “the mother of all flip-flops,” and sent out a transcript of “Meet the Press” from Jan. 11, when Mr. Kerry listed for moderator Tim Russert the problems Saddam had wrought on Iraq and the region.
“This is a man who has used weapons of mass destruction, unlike other people on this Earth today, not only against other people but against his own people,” he said. “This is a man who tried to assassinate a former president of the United States, a man who lobbed 36 missiles into Israel in order to destabilize the Middle East, a man who is so capable of miscalculation that he even brought this war on himself.”
Mr. Bush, speaking yesterday in Derry, N.H., mocked Mr. Kerry for changing positions again.
“He’s saying he prefers the stability of a dictatorship to the hope and security of democracy. I couldn’t disagree more, and not so long ago, so did my opponent,” Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Kerry, though, said yesterday that Mr. Bush had been just as confusing going into the war about the reasons for military action.
“By one count, the president offered 23 different rationales for this war,” Mr. Kerry said. “If his purpose was to confuse and mislead the American people, he succeeded.”
Mr. Kerry had voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq in October 2002. He said yesterday that his vote had been right because he had expected the result of the resolution to be the reintroduction of weapons inspectors, not necessarily war.
“The idea was simple,” he said. “We would get the weapons inspectors back in to verify whether or not Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.”
But Mr. Kerry said the president didn’t follow through, and rushed into the war while actively ignoring the advice to build a broader coalition.
He said his current criticism is in the same spirit as his protest of the Vietnam War after he returned from a four-month combat tour in the U.S. Navy.
“I saw firsthand what happens when pride or arrogance take over from rational decision making,” he said. “After serving in a war, I returned home to offer my own personal views of dissent. I did so because I believed strongly that we owed it to those risking their lives to speak truth to power.”
Joseph Curl contributed to this report.