Gephardt Says Bush 'Worries Me'
Democrat Critical of President's Foreign Policy Expertise
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 1, 2004; Page A01
Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said yesterday that President Bush lacks an understanding of the complexities of national security policy and has displayed a cowboy mentality toward the rest of the world that threatens to leave the country less secure against terrorist and other threats.
Gephardt, who supported the resolution authorizing Bush to go to war against Iraq, passionately defended that vote, which has drawn criticism from Democratic activists in his bid for the party's nomination, by describing how much the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed his views about preventing terrorism.
But while acknowledging he has embraced some of the broad goals of Bush's policy since then, Gephardt said that, based on his meetings with Bush, he does not trust the president to conduct foreign policy. "He's not dumb," he said, "but he is not informed and he's not experienced and he hasn't surrounded himself with the right people to give him the information and the experience that he doesn't have. And he worries me."
Gephardt made the comments during an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters in which he also questioned former Vermont governor Howard Dean's foreign policy experience and credibility and predicted that a Gephardt victory in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses will fundamentally change the dynamic of the Democratic presidential race.
Dean, he said, has raised questions about himself through a series of statements and clarifications, particularly in the past month, that will give voters pause as they cast ballots in the primaries and caucuses this month. "I don't think you can run for this job and win it if you're clarifying statements you make every day because you kind of shot from the hip and didn't really think through the meaning of what you're saying," Gephardt said.
Gephardt also said he would be a better challenger to Bush because he can draw a sharper contrast with the president than Dean on issues including health care, Medicare, trade and gun control, and because he can run more effectively in the midwestern battlegrounds that could decide the outcome in November. "I really believe I can make a connection with those voters better than anybody in this race and can win this race," he said.
Gephardt and Dean are in a fierce battle in Iowa, the first major contest of the Democratic race. The former House Democratic leader said that if he wins the Jan. 19 event, "that will change the dynamic of the race a lot, because kind of the conventional wisdom now is that Howard is flying everywhere and that he's going to just win and keep flying."
Gephardt said an Iowa victory would alter the landscape in New Hampshire, where Dean holds a strong lead, and give Gephardt momentum going into the seven states that hold contests on Feb. 3 as well as in Michigan, where Gephardt's labor support should prove valuable, on Feb. 7.
Gephardt conceded that Dean has put on "an impressive performance" in the past year by tapping antiwar sentiment in the party and the deep anger toward Bush, but he was less willing to acknowledge that dissatisfaction with the performance of Democratic leaders in Washington during the Bush presidency also fueled some of Dean's support among party activists.
Gephardt talked at length about the impact of the 2001 terrorist attacks on his views of national security. "I've never felt about the country's safety after 9/11 the way I did before," he said. "I literally would lay awake at night after 9/11, after being constantly briefed by the CIA, worried about a dirty bomb or an A-bomb in Washington or New York or St. Louis."
His support for going to war with Iraq, he said, was fueled by concerns that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and he recalled a one-on-one briefing with CIA Director George J. Tenet, who he said "answered emphatically yes" when asked whether Iraq possessed such weapons. Although Gephardt said the administration may have exaggerated the nature of the threat, he added, "I don't feel deceived."
Still, Gephardt was harsh in his assessment of the president. Although saying the United States has the right to take preemptive action to prevent terrorism, Gephardt said Bush's decision to make preemption a stated policy "is not a sensible thing to do." Bush's failure to enlist greater international support, he said, is part of what has led him to describe the president as "a miserable failure."
Gephardt offered a disparaging portrait of the president, based on meetings at the White House since Sept. 11, 2001. "He doesn't carry on a discussion about what we're trying to do with a particular issue with any kind of minimal understanding," he said. Bush operates with a "cowboy kind of a belief" that there are issues that are black and white, Gephardt said. "There's just no deep understanding of the complexity of this thing."
Gephardt said his national security policy would be broader than simply defending against terrorism and would include "getting at the root causes" of terrorism. To accomplish that, Gephardt said, he would be far tougher with Saudi Arabia than Bush has been.
Although he criticized Bush for leaving the United States isolated in going to war in Iraq, Gephardt was asked whether his trade policies, in which he would seek significant modifications in existing treaties to require other nations to meet stricter labor, environmental and human rights standards, would leave the United States equally isolated.
Gephardt offered mild criticism of former president Bill Clinton, saying Clinton should have worked harder to get enforceable labor and other standards into the North American Free Trade Agreement.
On the Middle East, Gephardt accused the Bush administration of "dropping the ball" by not getting involved early and staying engaged. He condemned Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat but declined to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "I don't see us solving this problem by coming down on the Israelis," he said.
After questioning Dean's credentials, Gephardt was asked whether he considered his rival qualified to be president. "I think I'm much more qualified to deal with all this than Howard is, but I would prefer Howard over George Bush," he said. "If you'd been in all these meetings with George Bush after 9/11, you'd be running for president."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company