Iraq dominates first debate |

Iraq dominates first debate

Adam NagourneyThe New York Times

In their first face-to-face encounter Thursday night, Sen. John Kerry argued that President Bush had made a “colossal error of judgment” in invading Iraq, while Bush belittled Kerry as a weak leader whose shifting opinions would embolden America’s foes.For 90 minutes, standing before a hushed audience on a vast stage in Coral Gables, Fla., Bush and Kerry quarreled about how to deal with the rising nuclear threat in North Korea, the justification for taking the nation into a preemptive war and the extent to which the United States should be prepared to intervene militarily to end what both men described as genocide in Dafur.But most of all, Bush and Kerry argued over the war in Iraq – over Bush’s original justification for launching the invasion when he did, over his handling of the war now and over what the United States needs to do to extricate itself. Kerry, while stopping short of offering a timetable, made clear that he would try to minimize American involvement as soon as possible; Bush said he would not do it until he was assured that stability had returned to Iraq.Again and again, Bush pointed to Kerry’s original vote in favor of the invasion of Iraq as evidence that he was an inconsistent leader who was making decisions based on the exigencies of politics, rather than on principal. And he said that that Kerry’s criticism had disheartened troops in the field and allies abroad, while emboldening the enemy.”The only thing consistent about my opponent’s position is that he’s been inconsistent,” Bush said. “He changes positions. And you cannot change positions in this war on terror if you expect to win. And I expect to win. It’s necessary we win. We’re being challenged like never before, and we have a duty to our country and to future generations of America to achieve a free Iraq, a free Afghanistan, and to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction.””I understand what it means to be the commander in chief,” Bush said, leaning over the lectern and staring intensely into the camera. “And if I were to ever say this is the wrong war at the wrong time at the right – wrong place, the troops would wonder, ‘How can I follow this guy?'”And again and again, Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, portrayed Bush as a headstrong leader whose rush to war in Iraq had isolated the nation in the world community, enraged the Arab world and permitted Osama bin Laden to remain free. At one point, Kerry went so far as to quote from the memoirs of Bush’s father in arguing what he said was the folly of trying to unseat Saddam Hussein without a clear plan for how to get out.”I believe in being strong and resolute and determined, and I will hunt down and kill the terrorists wherever they are,” Kerry said. “But we also have to be smart, Jim. And smart means not diverting your 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, and where the reason for going to war was weapons of mass destruction, not the removal of Saddam Hussein.””This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment, and judgment is what we look for in the president of the United States of America.”The debate, held at the basketball arena of at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, was viewed by aides to both Bush and Kerry as a moment that could shake up a contest that Democrats feared had been setting, since Bush’s nominating convention, against Kerry. It was held under stiff rules agreed to by both sides, intended to limit exchanges between the two candidates, as well as camera shots showing reactions of the two men as their opponent spoke.But the rules were discarded – by the candidates’ and the networks’ – almost as soon as the 90-minute debate began. Bush jumped in and asked for time for an additional rebuttal as Kerry started pummeling the president for his handling of the war in Iraq, a topic that took up the first 70 minutes of the debate.And for much of the debate, television networks showed a split screen, displaying Bush often scowling and grimacing as Kerry challenged his management of the war in Iraq. At one point, Kerry criticized Bush for failing to enlist the help of the United Nations and other allies before going into Iraq, saying the result of that was that the United States was enduring a disproportionate number of casualties and costs.”When we went in, there were three countries: Great Britain, Australia and the United States,” Kerry said. “That’s not a grand coalition. We can do better.””Well, actually you forgot Poland,” Bush said. “And now there are 30 nations involved, standing side by side with our American troops. And I honor their sacrifices, and I don’t appreciate it when a candidate for president denigrates the contributions of these brave – brave soldiers.”At another point, Bush said that he went to war in Iraq because “the enemy attacked us, Jim, and I have a solemn duty to protect the American people to do everything I can to protect us.”A moment later, Kerry said: “The president just said something extraordinarily revealing and, frankly, very important in this debate.In answer to your question about Iraq and sending people into Iraq, he just said the enemy attacked us. Saddam Hussein didn’t attack us; Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al-Qaida attacked us.”Bush looked sternly at Kerry and motioned that he wanted a chance to respond.”Of course, I know Osama bin Laden attacked us – I know that,” he said, adding: “To think that another round of resolutions would have caused Saddam Hussein to disarm, disclose, is ludicrous, in my judgment. It just shows a significant difference of opinion. We tried diplomacy. We did our best.”The debate took place on a day of international bloodshed – with bombings in Baghdad and the Gaza Strip, a military incursion into Samarra in the Sunni triangle – that, along with the intense security in Coral Gables, offered a graphic reminder of the difficult future either man faces should he win the White Hose this fall. In the hours leading up to the debate, television footage of aides to Bush and Kerry was mixed with images of corpses and bloody children from Baghdad.Kerry began attacking Bush almost from the moment the two men entered from opposite sides of the stage – Bush from stage-right, Kerry from stage-left – and took their positions at their lecterns.Although Iraq was took up nearly two-thirds of the discussion, the candidates offered conflicting views on how to deal with nuclear weapons in Iraq and North Korea. Kerry said that Bush’s refusal to engage in bilateral negotiations with Kim Jong Il, the North Korean president, had permitted the country to develop nuclear weapons while Bush was preoccupied in Iraq.”For two years, this administration didn’t talk at all to North Korea,” he said, adding: “Today there are four to seven nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea. That happened on this president’s watch. “Bush said that bilateral talks, by excluding the Chinese, would remove what he said was now leverage the United States had on North Korea. “The minute we have bilateral talks, the six-party talks will unwind,” he said. “It’s exactly what Kim Jong Il wants.”On Sudan, Kerry strongly suggested he was prepared to send U.S. forces in to end the killing. “I’ll tell you this: As president, if it took American forces to some degree to coalesce the African Union, I’d be prepared to do it, because we could never allow another Rwanda. It’s a moral responsibility for us in the world.”Bush stopped short of that, though he too deplored the killing there. “We have committed $200 million worth of aid. We’re the leading donor in the world to help the suffering people there. We will commit more over time to help.”