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Presidential Candidates Trade Jabs Over Exit Plan for Iraq

September 20, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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SEN. JOHN KERRY: Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator who deserves his own special place in hell. But that was not… that was not, in and of itself, a reason to go to war. The satisfaction that we take in his downfall does not hide this fact: We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure. (Applause)

Now the president has said that he “miscalculated” in Iraq and that it was a “catastrophic success.” In fact, in fact, the president has made a series of catastrophic decisions, from the beginning, in Iraq. At every fork in the road, he has taken the wrong turn and he has led us in the wrong direction.

The first and most fundamental mistake was the president’s failure to tell the truth to the American people. He failed to tell the truth about the rationale for going to war, and he failed to tell the truth about the burden this war would impose on our soldiers and our citizens.

By one count, the president offered 23 different rationales for this war. If his purpose was to confuse and mislead the American people, he succeeded. (Applause) In Iraq, this administration has consistently over promised and underperformed.

This policy has been plagued by a lack of planning, by an absence of candor, arrogance and outright incompetence. (Cheers and applause) And the president has held no one accountable, including himself. Two years ago, Congress was right to give the president the authority to use force to hold Saddam Hussein accountable. This president, any president, would have needed that threat of force to act effectively.

This president misused that authority. Instead, the president rushed to war without letting the weapons inspectors finish their work. He went purposefully, by choice, without a broad and deep coalition of allies. He acted by choice without making sure that our troops even had enough body armor. And he plunged ahead by choice, without understanding or preparing for the consequences of post-war — none of which I would have done.

Yet today, President Bush tells us that he would do everything all over again the same way. How can he possibly be serious? Is he really saying to America that if we know there was no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al-Qaida, the United States should have invaded Iraq?

My answer, resoundingly, “no,” because a commander-in-chief’s first responsibility is to make a wise and responsible decision to keep America safe. (Applause) Now the president is looking for a reason, a new reason to hang his hat on; it’s the capability to acquire weapons. But ladies and gentlemen, my fellow Americans, that was not the reason given to the nation; that was not the reason the Congress voted on. That is not a reason today. It is an excuse.

Just this weekend, a leading Republican, Chuck Hagel, said that we’re “in deep trouble in Iraq. It doesn’t add up to a pretty picture,” he said. “And we’re going to have to look at a recalibration of our policy.”

Republican leaders like Dick Lugar and John McCain have offered similar assessments. We need to turn the page and make a fresh start in Iraq.

First, the president has to get the promised international support, so our men and women in uniform don’t have to go it alone. It is late; I acknowledge that. But the president has to respond by moving, this week, to gain and regain international support.

Second, the president must get serious about training Iraqi security forces. Third, the president must carry out a reconstruction plan that finally brings tangible benefits to the Iraqi people, all of which, may I say, should have been in the plan and immediately launched with such a ferocity that there was no doubt of America’s commitment or capacity in the very first moments afterwards.

Fourth, the president must take immediate, urgent, essential steps to guarantee that the promised election can be held next year. If the president would move in this direction, if he would bring in more help from other countries to provide resources and to train the Iraqis to provide their own security, and to develop a reconstruction plan that brings real benefits to the Iraqi people, and take the steps necessary to hold elections next year, if all of that happened, we could begin to withdraw U.S. forces starting next summer and realistically aim to bring our troops home within the next four years. That can be achieved. (Applause)

JIM LEHRER: President Bush responded to Sen. Kerry at a town meeting this afternoon in New Hampshire.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Saddam Hussein was a threat. We had been to war with him once. Many politicians prior to my arrival in Washington had said we better… it would be naive to the point of grave danger not to confront Saddam Hussein. That would be Sen. John Kerry — “naive to the point of grave danger.” I went to the Congress and said I see a threat. They looked at the same intelligence I looked at, the very same intelligence, and they came to the same conclusion as I came to, that Saddam Hussein was a threat, and they authorized the use of force.

My opponent looked at that intelligence, as he had for many years, since he’d been in Washington for a long period of time, and voted “yes” when it came to the authorization of the use of force. Today my opponent continued his pattern of twisting in the wind with new contradictions of his old positions on Iraq.

He apparently woke up this morning and has now decided, “no, we should not have invaded Iraq,” after just last month saying he still would have voted for force, even knowing everything we know today. Incredibly, he now believes our national security would be stronger with Saddam Hussein in power not in prison. (Audience boos)

Today he said, and I quote, we have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure. (Audience boos) He’s saying he prefers the stability of a dictatorship to the hope and security of democracy. (Audience boos) I couldn’t disagree more. And not so long ago, so did my opponent. (Laughter and applause)

Last December he said this, and I quote, those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe we are not safer with his capture don’t have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president, end quote. (Cheers and applause) I could not have said it better. (Applause)

He also changed his mind and decided that our efforts in Iraq are now a distraction from the war on terror, when he earlier acknowledged that confronting Saddam Hussein was critical to the war on terror. And he’s criticizing our reconstruction efforts, when he voted against the money to pay for the reconstruction.

Forty-three days before the election, my opponent has now suddenly settled on a proposal for what to do next, and it’s exactly what we’re currently doing. (Laughter and applause) We’re working with the international partners, we’re training Iraqi troops, we’re reconstructing the… reconstructing the company, and we’re preparing for elections.

They’re going to have elections in January. (Applause) Our work in Iraq is hard work. There are people there who want to stop the march to democracy. That’s what they’re trying to do. For our children and grandchildren to grow up in a safer world, we must defeat the terrorists and the insurgents, and complete our mission in rebuilding Iraq as a stable democracy. (Applause)

We must show resolve and determination. Mixed signals are the wrong signals to send to the enemy. Mixed signals are the wrong signals to send to the people in Iraq. Mixed signals are the wrong signals to send to our allies. And mixed signals are the wrong signals to send to our troops in combat. (Cheers and applause)

And it breaks my heart to see the loss of innocent life and to see brave troops in combat lose their life. It just breaks my heart. But I understand what’s going on. These people are trying to shake the will of the Iraqi citizens, and they want us to leave. That’s what they want us to do. And I think the world would be better off if we did leave… if we didn’t… if we left, the world would be worse. The world is better off with us not leaving. It’s a mistake to pull out. Can you imagine what Iraq would be like today if Saddam Hussein were in power?

It would be terrible for them, and we’d be dealing with a guy who had just totally ignored the demands of the free world. The sanctions weren’t working. We know he had the capability of making weapons and it was just a matter of time.

Now we didn’t find the stockpiles we thought would be there. But his desire to make weapons and the ability to make them and the ability to work with these terrorist organizations was a threat we could not afford to take. (Applause)

Secondly, if we put an artificial timetable out there on withdrawal, all the enemies says is we’ll wait them out. Our mission has got to be to help to train the Iraqis, get them on the path to stability and democracy as quickly as we can, and then our troops come home — but to complete the mission. It makes no sense to pull out of there early. If we pull out of there early, Iraq will come even more dangerous. (Applause)