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Briefing and Opinion
September 24, 2004

THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT's correspondent John McWethy examines the words and deeds of the candidates for clues on which will more effectively combat terrorism.

In a world where it is impossible to say if we are really safer, where threats have become a constant, each candidate tries to convince voters that he is the one to trust. Here are a few statements from the candidates on the subject of national security:

President Bush, August 4, 2004, Mankato, Minnesota

"If we show uncertainty and weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. That's not going to happen on my watch."

John Kerry, July 29, 2004, Democratic National Convention

"I will be a commander-in-chief who will never mislead us into war."

New York Post
President Bush, August 18, 2004, St. Paul, Minnesota

"One of the most important lessons that we must never forget, is that after September 11, we must take threats seriously before they fully materialize."

John Kerry, August 18, 2004, Veterans of Foreign Wars

"I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as President. I will never hesitate to use force when it is required...But in these dangerous times, there is a right way and wrong way to be strong. Strength is more than tough words."

Each candidate is trying to overcome cartoon-like stereotypes. Critics paint President Bush as a reckless "cowboy" -- too eager to invade Iraq, oblivious to the potential consequences, too often proposing bumper-sticker solutions to complex problems.

"My answer is, bring 'em on... We're going to smoke 'em out... Dead or alive, either way."

Kerry is seen by his critics as unable to figure out where he stands on crucial issues. They say he flip flops depending on which way the political winds are blowing.
John Kerry at the convention

John Kerry, July 29, 2004, Democratic National Convention

"Now I know there are those who criticize me for seeing complexities, and I do, because some issues just aren't all that simple."

In campaign commercials, they are ripping at each other's perceived vulnerabilities.

Kerry goes after Bush on Iraq.

"The problem is you declared 'mission accomplished' but you had no plan to win the peace. ...I'm John Kerry and I approved this message because we can't go it alone in Iraq. We have to share the burden with other countries. We shouldn't be cutting education and closing firehouses in America while we're opening them up in Iraq."

And Bush goes after Kerry for his voting record.

"Few votes in Congress are as important as funding our troops at war. Though John Kerry voted in October 2002 for military action in Iraq, he later voted against funding our soldiers. And what does Kerry say now? 'I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

For a President trying to deal with terrorism, making the decision to act -- or not to act -- is where he can get himself and the nation into the deepest trouble Should he fire missles at terrorist hiding places, even when the intellligence is not 100 percent and innocent civilians might be killed? Should he send troops on anti-terrorist mission in foreign countries -- even without being invited? These are tough calls. So how does a voter decide which candidates will make the right calls? There are clues in the record.

John Ashcroft
  • He has been aggressive in the use of military force, including a war in Afghanistan and a preemptive invasion of Iraq.

  • He's made foreign policy far less reliant on traditional partners such as the United Nations and NATO.

  • He's used tough new laws -- such as the Patriot Act -- to pursue suspected terrorist.

  • He's embraced controversial legal procedures for holding suspected terrorists captured overseas.

The president generally gets good marks for going after terrorists in Afghanistan. But, his administration struggles with a perception that it sold the war in Iraq under false pretenses and that the president's bold decision to invade may have actually hurt the war on terrorism by diverting resources and energizing a new wave of terrorist recruits.

Daniel Benjamin
"The White House and its supporters are often talking about the President's decisiveness," says Daniel Benjamin, former National Security Council Counter Terrorism Coordinator. "I don't think decisiveness gets you very far if the decisions you make are wrong. I think what you want first of all is judgement and understanding."

The clues on how Kerry might act as president are less clear. Kerry's record includes more than 6,000 votes in his 20 years in the U.S. Senate. His votes on Iraq, in particular, have drawn intense scrutiny.

  • He voted to support the war in Iraq, but sharply criticizes how the war was conducted.

  • He later voted against an $87 billion dollar appropriation to rebuild Iraq and pay for U.S. troops there, opposing the measure, he says, because he wanted the administration to first find a way to pay for it.

  • In 1991 -- along with 45 other Democrats -- he voted against authorizing use of force in the first Persian Gulf War, arguing that diplomacy could get Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait.

  • He supported military action in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti and Panama.

John Kerry, Democratic National Convention

"Any attack will be met with a swift and certain response."

Critics say neither Kerry's record, nor his campaign statements, make clear what -- other than a direct attack on the United States -- would lead him to use force against terrorists.

John Kerry, August 18, 2004, Cincinnati, Ohio

"We will deploy every tool in our arsenal: our economic, as well as our military might; our principles as well as our firepower."

So, how's a voter to decide?

Thomas Donnelly, a national security analyst at the American Enterprise Institute and self-described neo-conservative, says it hinges on whether voters approve of the course President Bush as set.

"I would ask myself as a citizen, 'Is this the price I'm going to pay?' If I'm willing to pay that and I'm certain that it's the right course, then I would say your choice would be George Bush. If you are ambivalent about it, or think it's the wrong course, then you are going to vote for John Kerry."

Thomas Donnelly
For millions of voters, it may boil down to instinct -- a gut check.

Says Donnelly, "I would want to sort of, in my imagination, try to look deep into the soul of these two guys and ask myself, 'Who has the guts to see this thing through to success?'"