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Bush, Kerry outline differences on Iraq war, terrorism during first presidential debate

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (BP)–Meeting in their first debate, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry pledged Sept. 30 that he would never concede America’s right to a preemptive strike, while President Bush said that Kerry sends “mixed messages” on the war on terror.

Answering debate moderator Jim Lehrer’s request that he state his position on the concept of preemptive war, Kerry said, “You’ve got to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you’re doing what you’re doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.”

Kerry questioned whether leaders in the world today would respond to President George W. Bush’s policy in the war on terror the way President Charles DeGaulle told President John F. Kennedy “‘the word of the president of the United States is good enough for me” when offered proof that the Cuban Missile Crisis warranted action.

“You don’t help yourself with other nations when you turn away from the global warming treaty, for instance, or when you refuse to deal at length with the United Nations,” Kerry said. “You have to earn that respect. And I think we have a lot of earning back to do.”

Responding that he was uncertain as to what Kerry meant by passing a global test, Bush said pre-emptive action is designed to protect American lives.

“He’s trying to be popular in a global sense,” Bush said. “If it’s not in our best interest it makes no sense. I’m interested in working with other nations and I do a lot, but I’m not going to make decisions that I think are wrong for America.”

Bush asserted that the war in Iraq was necessary.

“To think that another round of resolutions would have caused Saddam Hussein to disarm, disclose, is ludicrous in my judgment,” Bush said. “It just shows a significant difference of opinion.”

The Republican incumbent asked, “What’s the message going to be? Please join us in Iraq for a grand diversion? Join us for a war that is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Other nations would not follow “somebody whose core convictions keep changing because of politics in America,” Bush argued.

While Bush repeated his campaign attack on Kerry’s “mixed messages,” the Democratic contender responded with a call for “statesmanlike summits,” pointing to his record of having “worked with those leaders the president talks about” for 20 years as a senator. “What we need now is a president who understands how to bring these other countries together to recognize their stakes in this,” Kerry said, referring to the desire of Arab nations to avoid civil war and the interest Europeans have in “not having total disorder on their doorsteps.”

Calling for “a president who can understand what we have to do to reach out to the Muslim world,” Kerry said he favors isolating radical Islamic Muslims and “not have them isolate the United States of America.” Noting that Osama bin Laden “uses the invasion of Iraq to go out to people and say America has declared war on Islam,” Kerry said he would try to follow in the footsteps of men like Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy to rebuild alliances and thereby secure homeland security.

Bush said Kerry’s concern over how bin Laden characterizes the war “amazing,” and responded, “Osama bin Laden isn’t going to determine how we defend ourselves.”

Kerry later described Bush as having made “a colossal error of judgment” by diverting attention “from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking it off to Iraq where the 9/11 commission confirms there was no connection to 9/11 itself and Saddam Hussein.”

Kerry said America is safest and strongest when leading strong alliances.

Asked by the moderator whether the war in Iraq had been worth the cost in American lives, Bush said, “Every life’s precious. Every life matters,” later noting “that’s what distinguishes us from the enemy.”

He defended the decision to risk lives, saying he believes a free Iraq and a free Afghanistan “will set such a powerful example in a part of the world that’s desperate for freedom.”

Kerry said he, too, understood the cost of combat as it reminded him of thoughts he had upon returning from service in Vietnam.

“It is vital for us not to confuse the war, ever, with the warriors. That happened before. I want to make sure the outcome honors that nobility,” Kerry said, pledging to “never let those troops down” and to “hunt and kill the terrorists wherever they are.”

The president refused Lehrer’s invitation to assess “underlying character issues” that “are serious enough to deny Senator Kerry the job as commander in chief.” Calling that “a loaded question,” Bush stated, “I just know how this world works and that in the councils of government there must be certainty from the U. S. president. Of course, we change tactics when we need to, but we never change our beliefs, the strategic beliefs that are necessary to protect this country in the world.”

Kerry said he would not address “a difference of character,” adding, “I don’t think that’s my job or my business.” However, he warned that “certainty sometimes can get you in trouble,” leaving room for debate over whether to call that a character trait.

The Massachusetts senator stated, “It’s one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong. It’s another to be certain and be right, or to be certain and be moving in the right direction, or be certain about a principle and then learn new facts and take those new facts and put them to use in order to change and get your policy right.”

The two candidates agreed that the atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan constitute genocide. Bush favors continued humanitarian aid while Kerry wants logistical support.

Lehrer sought to clarify the candidates’ claim that the threat of nuclear proliferation is the greatest concern shared by both men. Kerry called for sending “the right message” to Iran and North Korea while more rapidly containing unsecured material in Russia through an international network.

Bush said he agreed “the biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network,” prompting him to include proliferation of nuclear weapons as part of “a multi-prong strategy to make the country safer.”

While Kerry called for bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea, Bush said that would undercut six-party talks involving other nations in the region. Both men expressed concern that the Russian president’s change to democratic processes went beyond a needed response to terror.

Bush differed with Kerry on the need to sign certain treaties or join the International Criminal Court “where unaccountable judges and prosecutors could pull our troops, our diplomats up for trial.” Calling that “a popular move” in “certain capitals of the world,” Bush said it would not be in the country’s best interest.

“You cannot wilt under that pressure,” Bush stated, adding, “Otherwise, the world won’t be better off.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter