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September 24, 2004



PAUL GIGOT: The other major part of this campaign's foreign policy debate is terrorism. We asked correspondent John McWethy, who has covered national security issues for many years, to examine the subject of how voters can decide which candidate will do a better job dealing with terrorism.

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

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

JOHN MCWETHY: 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.

KERRY: I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as President of the United States. I will never hesitate, not for an instant, to use force when it is required.

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

JOHN MCWETHY: 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.

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

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

JOHN MCWETHY: For a president trying to deal with terrorism making the decision to act -- or not to act -- is where he can get himself or the nation into the deepest trouble. If intelligence is far from 100 percent, if innocent civilians might be killed, if other governments say no should the president act anyway even at the risk of making things worse. These are all tough calls. So how should a voter decided which candidate would make the right call? There are clues in the record.

JOHN MCWETHY: In the three years since the September 11th terrorist attacks President Bush has radically changed America's approach to defending against terrorism. He has been aggressive in the use of military force, including a war in Afghanistan and pre-emptive 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 terrorists.

The president generally gets good marks for going after terrorists in Afghanistan. But his administration struggles with the 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. I don't decisiveness gets you very far if the decisions you take are wrong. I think what you want first of all is judgment and understanding.

JOHN MCWETHY: 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 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 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.

But he supported military action in Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti and Panama.

JOHN KERRY: Any attack will be met with a swift and a certain response.

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

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

JOHN MCWETHY: So how is a voter to decide? Thomas Donnelly, a national security analyst at the American Enterprise Institute and self-described neoconservative, says it hinges on whether voters approve of the course President Bush has set.

THOMAS DONNELLY: I would ask myself as a citizen is this a price I'm willing to pay and if I'm willing to pay that, you know again, and I'm certain that that's the right course, then I would say your choice would be George Bush. If you're ambivalent about it, uncertain or think it's the wrong course then you're going to vote for John Kerry.

JOHN MCWETHY: For millions of voters it may boil down to instinct, a gut check.

THOMAS DONNELLY: And I would to sort of, in my imagination, try to look deep into the soul of these two guys and ask myself, you know, who's got the guts to see this thing through to success.

JOHN MCWETHY: This is John Mcwethy in Washington.

PAUL GIGOT: Dorothy, this is arguably the first presidential election since 1988 where this question of commander-in-chief or national security is the centerpiece of the election. What have we learned about George Bush in the last four years that give him a better claim on that role in a time of war than John Kerry?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: We've learned his record, we've learned that he has -- here's a very interesting headline in THE WASHINGTON POST. Bush stands his ground, sets himself apart. That's what he has done, he's set himself apart from Kerry.

PAUL GIGOT: What about his record, though, tells you that this the role he should play?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: This is a consistent determination and a clarity about the determination. We have been attacked; we are going to take the battle to the enemy.

PAUL GIGOT: Susan, what about this charge that the Democrats make that Bush is, in fact -- he will act but he is reckless sometimes and stubborn and will not change in the face of contrary evidence? Is that a fair charge?

SUSAN LEE: It is and I think if you look at his record that you can pick out, you can pick out certain points where he was in fact a risk taker without being a success . . . If I can make a geezer point, 20 years of looking at the financial markets, they always reward risk takers, but in order to be a successful risk taker, at least on Wall Street, you have to also be flexible, you have to be wiling to change, you have to be able to adjust your position on a moments notice. And this may not be a good political characteristic, but Bush has to show because he's established some kind of risk-taking character, that he can be a successful risk taker and that means to change his mind.

PAUL GIGOT: But is --

SUSAN LEE: Or say he's wrong.

PAUL GIGOT: Isn't there a danger, always when you're President of the United States not to act. That is, there's a temptation to say, "I'm not going to take the risks in national security because they may be longer term, they may be developing longer term." We didn't do that against bin Laden in the 90s because we didn't think that that was an imminent threat. We learned now it was a very dangerous threat. What about that point, Dan?

DAN HENNINGER: Well, yeah, I mean this is very special situation. This is a historical presidency in the sense that we are in a war. We were attacked on September 11th, the President decided to take it to the Taliban and then to Iraq. For most of the course of this war it has been supported by the American people. It's not an intervention, it's a war. And this President has chosen a course and as Daniel Benjamin, the former Clinton official said in that tape, it's no good to be consistent if you're wrong. But he has chosen a course at a major effort and the American people will pass judgment on that in November.

PAUL GIGOT: Let's change, move on to John Kerry. The entire Democratic convention was really framed as a way to say that biography, his biography, his Vietnam War record was crucial to the decision of whether or not voters wanted to select him as commander-in-chief. It was a credential. Is biography enough, Dorothy? Does that tell us anything?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: Biography tells us things, but the record tells us a lot more. In 1986, if I remember, there was an extradition treaty battle. Should we extradite terrorists to Britain -- Northern Ireland -- what was John Kerry's comment when he voted against this? He said "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Have we heard this before? It is not meaningless that you have this sense of relativism, some things are okay, some battles are okay -- Kosovo -- some battles are not okay -- the battle against terror in the Middle East.

PAUL GIGOT: As our friends at THE NEW YORK TIMES put it, he sees shades of gray. But does that suggest perhaps a fatal indecision or a dangerous indecision, Dan?

DAN HENNINGER: It suggests to me that he's a U.S. senator. That's the way senators think about the world, unlike governors. There's only -- JFK was the only senator elected to the presidency in this century. Kerry's problem is that, yes he has the Vietnam resume, but he's mostly been a senator. He has not been a great senator. There is no famous legislation like Jackson-Vanick, Senator Scoop Jackson, associated with his name. So he has mainly spent his career in the gray zone of the U.S. senate.

PAUL GIGOT: There has also, he also has a record. His biography is one thing in Vietnam, but he also has a senate record and his vote have shown, demonstrated most of the time, an aversion or a reluctance to use American force, particularly during the Reagan years and opposition to those policies. In Kosovo, Bosnia and Haiti he was for it -- give him credit for that. But those were easier cases, it seems to me, because he had the whole Democratic party behind him and he had a lot of us on the right also supporting him. So, it didn't take as much of a leap, a real presidential act of courage.

SUSAN LEE: I think you're looking at things through, with 20-20 hindsight. And Dan said it best, this man was a senator, he was a senator for 20 years. What else, what else?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: He was senator preparing to run for president for 20 years.

PAUL GIGOT: Alright, we're going to have to end it there. Thanks, Dorothy. One last note on foreign policy. Last week on this program we raised some of the issues the next president will face in dealing with Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weapons. This week, Iran defied the U.N. nuclear agency announcing that it had begun converting tons of uranium into gas, a crucial step in making fuel for a nuclear reactor, or a nuclear bomb. Some experts believe there is only a year or so left to stop Iran from achieving the means to produce nuclear weapons without any outside help.

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