Responding to President Bush's challenge to clarify his position, Sen. John F. Kerry said Monday that he still would have voted to authorize the war in Iraq even if he had known then that U.S. and allied forces would not find weapons of mass destruction.
At the same time, the Democratic presidential nominee said that his goal as president would be to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq during his first six months in office through diplomacy and foreign assistance.
"I believe if you do the statesmanship properly, I believe if you do the kind of alliance-building that is available to us, that it is appropriate to have a goal of reducing our troops" by August 2005, Kerry told reporters during a news briefing from the edge of the Grand Canyon.
Since last month's Democratic National Convention, the senator from Massachusetts has been under mounting pressure to provide a clearer explanation of his views on the war, including why he voted for the congressional resolution authorizing the invasion yet opposed funding for it. On Friday, Bush challenged Kerry to answer whether he would support the war "knowing what we know now" about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction that U.S. and British officials were certain were there.
In response, Kerry said: "Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a president to have."
But Kerry has charged that the president and his advisers badly mishandled the war, and in the news conference he posed sharp questions for Bush.
"Why did we rush to war without a plan to win the peace?" he asked. "Why did you rush to war on faulty intelligence and not do the hard work necessary to give America the truth?"
"Why did he mislead America about how he would go to war?" he added. "Why has he not brought other countries to the table in order to support American troops in the way they deserve it and relieve the pressure on the American people?"
In the past, Kerry has said he would want to talk to commanders in the field before determining troop size and never ruled out increasing U.S. forces if needed. Later, he set a goal of reducing troops by the end of his first term. In an interview last week with National Public Radio, Kerry said he could "significantly" reduce troops a year from now -- a position his aides quickly tried to soften. Stephanie Cutter, Kerry's spokeswoman, said his position has not changed.
As evidence his goal is attainable, Kerry said fellow senators who have traveled abroad told him that other countries will be willing to provide more assistance if Bush is defeated this fall. He also said Arab countries have a stake in Iraq's future and could lessen the United States' burden.
"Obviously we have to see how events unfold," Kerry said. "The measurement has to be . . . the stability of Iraq, the ability to have the elections, and the training and transformation of the Iraqi security force itself."
After the news conference, James P. Rubin, Kerry's national security adviser, said he wanted to "clarify" the candidate's comments as a best-case target for troop reduction contingent upon conditions on the ground changing and other nations offering up more peacekeeping troops in Iraq.
The candidate has made his pledge to internationalize the peacekeeping effort the central tenet of his Iraq policy.
Kerry made his comments during a campaign trek by train through several key western states -- Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.
On domestic issues, he said he would not raise the retirement age or decrease benefits for Social Security recipients, arguing that an improved economy alone can extend the life of the entitlement program. "If anything in America, we should be trying to set a goal of helping people to retire earlier, not later," he said.
Kerry's comments on Iraq overshadowed an event here designed to pay homage to the national park system and accuse Bush of not adequately funding places such as the Grand Canyon. After a brief morning stop in Flagstaff, Ariz., Kerry boarded a six-passenger twin-engine Augusta 109 helicopter to fly to the canyon's edge, 7,200 feet above sea level, for a quick hike and short address to visitors at Powell Point on the south rim. Wife Teresa Heinz Kerry, daughter Vanessa and stepson Andre joined him for the hike and the national park event.
Kerry promised to spend $600 million more on national parks, in part by repealing the Bush tax cuts for those making $200,000 a year or more, changing the 1872 mining law and, possibly, raising fees for park services as a last resort.
"Teddy Roosevelt stood right here at the Grand Canyon, and he looked out at it and said, 'Leave it as it is, you can't improve on it, what you must do is make this available to our children, and to our children's children,' " Kerry said. "And what he was really talking about is not just the Grand Canyon, but he's talking about the parks that we have today. . . . Regrettably, today the national park system is under stress," he said.