Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, seizing on criticism of the Bush administration's Iraq policy by the former U.S. governor in Baghdad, called on President Bush Tuesday to acknowledge major mistakes in judgment and give Americans a full accounting of what has gone wrong in Iraq.
Kerry questioned whether either Bush or Vice President Cheney is capable of acknowledging errors or correcting U.S. policy, after former U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer said Monday that the United States needed more troops after the invasion to stabilize Iraq and stop the looting and violence that fostered the lawlessness that still plagues the country. Kerry said both men should be held accountable for misleading the United States about the war.
"For weeks I've been asking the president of the United States to level with the American people and to be candid about the situation in Iraq and about what we face," Kerry said while campaigning in rural Iowa. "Maybe he's simply unwilling to face the truth or to share it with the American people, but the president's stubbornness has prevented him from seeing, each step of the way, the difficulties and the ways we best protect our troops and best accomplish this mission."
Bremer's comments triggered widespread political fallout and escalated public debate over U.S. policy in Iraq. They also reflected the growing number of challenges from key government quarters about the Bush administration's original assessments of Iraq and justifications for invading.
In an effort at damage control, the administration disclosed yesterday that top U.S. officials handling Iraq were split over troop strength. After two years of denying internal divisions, the administration confirmed that Bremer had pushed for additional troops. The statement acknowledging the divide, however, came not from the White House but from the Bush-Cheney campaign.
"Ambassador Bremer differed with the commanders in the field," campaign spokesman Brian Jones said. "That is his right, but the president has always said that he will listen to his commanders on the ground and give them the support they need for victory." The statement implicitly distanced the White House from Bremer, who was once considered a leading contender to become secretary of state in a second Bush administration.
"This consistency stands in stark contrast to the shifting positions of John Kerry, who voted for the war, voted against the troops for political gain, said the war was the 'right decision' and said it was the 'wrong war,' " Jones added.
Senior former military officials in Iraq, experts on Iraq and Republican foreign policy analysts strongly endorsed Bremer's comments on troops in speeches about his 14 months in Iraq. "It was certainly a well-accepted notion with the Coalition Provisional Authority among the military staff that we did not have enough troops there to do what was necessary," said Army Col. Paul Hughes, a National Defense University fellow who served in Iraq.
"Bremer is the most impeccable source on this. He was in the position to confirm what was self-evident from common sense -- that the chaos and looting could have been avoided if we had far more of the correct forces in the country at the end of the fighting," said Geoffrey Kemp, a Reagan administration National Security Council staff member now at the Nixon Center.
Pentagon planning had originally called for an additional division of U.S. troops in Iraq, according to military officials who were in Iraq. A fourth division -- the 17,000-strong 1st Cavalry Division, the Army's premier heavy armored unit -- could have "cleaned out the nest of vipers" bypassed en route to Baghdad, Hughes said.
"In our haste and because we lacked sufficient resources, we couldn't do more than go for the head of the snake," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst now at the National Defense University. "It's not that it was a bad military strategy. It probably saved a lot of fighting, but it didn't ensure security or save the population from the remnants of Saddam's regime that we are now fighting."
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence T. DiRita said Bremer was "understandably interested in -- but not in charge of -- security issues." Before, during and after Bremer's tour in Iraq, commanders in the field and at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington concurred that the troop level was "appropriate," DiRita said in a written statement.
The latest controversy over U.S. policy decisions was triggered by Bremer's comments in recent speeches at DePauw University and at an insurance conference. In addition to saying the United States erred by deploying an insufficient number of troops and in not containing the early violence, he said Washington planned for the wrong postwar problems, focusing on potential humanitarian and refugee crises that did not materialize rather than on an insurgency that did.
Neither Bremer nor the administration has said when he asked that more troops be deployed. Bremer denied twice last year -- on NBC's "Meet the Press" in July 2003 and ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" in August 2003 -- that he did so. "I never made a request for more troops," Bremer told ABC. "I agree with the Centcom commander, John Abizaid, who said earlier this week in a press conference that he believes we have enough troops here. I think that's right."
The debate over U.S. troop strength predates the war. In his memoir, retired Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who commanded the invasion force, said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell called him in September 2002 to express concern that the invasion force would be too small.
Kerry, under fire from the Bush campaign for months over his positions on Iraq, is seeking to undermine Bush's credibility on Iraq and to turn the election, in part, into a referendum on the president's handling of the war.
"There are a long list of mistakes, and I'm glad that Paul Bremer has admitted at least two of them, and the president of the United States needs to tell the truth to the American people," Kerry said in Iowa. "I don't know if the president is constitutionally incapable of acknowledging the truth. I don't know if he's just so stubborn."
With the Bush campaign pitting Bremer against military commanders, Kerry was asked whose judgment he would rely on for military advice if he were elected: the uniformed military officers or civilian leaders.
"When you're president of the United States, you're commander in chief," he said. "That's why you have that title. Commander in chief means you have to make judgments that protect the troops and accomplish the mission. I would listen to all of my advisers and make the best judgment possible. I can tell you this: General [Eric K.] Shinseki [the former Army chief of staff] asked for more troops, and he was fired. So that's a surefire way to chill a lot of other people from asking for things later."
Wright reported from Washington. Staff writers Thomas E. Ricks, Glenn Kessler and Josh White in Washington contributed to this report.