Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry offered an instant rebuttal to President Bush’s speech before the United Nations yesterday, saying Mr. Bush is ignoring the difficult reality in Iraq and “does not have the credibility to lead the world.”

Mr. Kerry, who fielded questions from reporters for the first time since early August, stepped up his attacks on Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy and took pains to explain that his position on the war has been consistent.

“The president failed to level with the world’s leaders,” Mr. Kerry said. “Moments after Kofi Annan, the [U.N.] secretary-general, talked about the difficulties in Iraq, the president of the United States stood before a stony-faced body and barely talked about the realities at all.

“After lecturing them instead of leading them to understand how we are all together with a stake in the outcome of Iraq, I believe the president missed an opportunity of enormous importance for our nation and for the world,” he said.

“He does not have the credibility to lead the world, and he did not and will not offer the leadership in order to do what we need to do to protect our troops, to be successful and win the war on terror in an effective way,” Mr. Kerry said.

In the 15-minute press conference, Mr. Kerry was not questioned about contacts between his spokesman, Joe Lockhart, and retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, a virulent Bush critic who provided documents to CBS News that were said to have shown that Mr. Bush shirked his duties with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.

The documents have been identified as fraudulent by scores of media organizations, and CBS has apologized for airing the report.

On the Iraq war, Mr. Kerry accused the president of having “misled” the American people about its costs — both in casualties and money — and “each time has chosen to move in a unilateral way without the help” of the international community, which has “made this a riskier, tougher and more expensive operation.”

Mr. Kerry insisted that he has “a plan to make America safer” and persuade reluctant allies, such as France, Germany and Russia, to help support Iraq’s fledgling democracy.

“You have to engage, I said, in a summit; that you ought to pull those people to the table and come out with a unified agreement as to what you’re going to do to send a message to those wavering Iraqis who are sitting on the fence, unsure of which way this may go,” Mr. Kerry said. “And they need to see the world at our side. I believe the president has not engaged in that kind of diplomacy and summitry.”

The president has charged that if Mr. Kerry had his way in the run-up to the war — waiting long enough to allow inspectors to reveal that Saddam Hussein had no stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons — the Iraqi dictator would still be in power.

Mr. Kerry disputed that argument, saying the lack of such weapons would have eroded Saddam’s ability to retain control of the country.

“If you don’t have weapons of mass destruction, believe me, Saddam Hussein is a very different person,” Mr. Kerry said. “That’s what kept him power. And I believe Saddam Hussein would not be in power.”

Mr. Kerry also addressed the perception that his vote to give Mr. Bush the authorization to invade Iraq and his recent declaration that it was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time” are inconsistent.

“The vote for authorization is interpreted by a lot of people as a vote to go to war,” Mr. Kerry said. “It wasn’t a vote to go that day. It was a vote to go through the process of going to the U.N., building the allies and then making a judgment of whether we had to go. … I believe there was a better judgment to make, and I said so all along.”

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