NEW YORK – President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (search) are offering U.S. voters and the world two starkly different views on Iraq. The incumbent tells skeptical foreign leaders the war is part of a global fight on terror and "there is no safety in looking away." The challenger wants allies to help find a way out.
Each man has a political constituency, because Americans are of two minds on Iraq.
A majority of likely voters agree with Bush that the U.S. should stay as long as it takes to rebuild the nation, polls show. Most believe the president made the right decision in using military force.
But nearly 60 percent say they don't think Bush has a clear plan for resolving the crisis. A growing number are alarmed by the casualties.
Taking advantage of incumbency, Bush defended his policies Tuesday from the cavernous hall of the United Nations, spotlighting every speck of progress in Iraq. Later, in a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search), the president criticized Kerry.
"My opponent has taken so many different positions on Iraq that his statements are hardly credible at all," Bush said.
Kerry, campaigning in Florida, said the president's word was no good with foreign leaders "after lecturing them instead of leading them to understand how we are all together with a stake in the outcome of Iraq."
After months of complicated and sometimes conflicting statements, the fourth-term Massachusetts senator has staked out a position that puts him clearly at odds with Bush. The differences include:
-- In an address Monday at New York University, Kerry said he would not have invaded Iraq had he been president and known that there were no weapons of mass destruction. "We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure," he said.
With Allawi at his side, Bush twisted Kerry's quote to his advantage. "He said that the world was better off with Saddam in power," the president said. "I strongly disagree." Later, Kerry said the world was better off without Saddam, and "the question is how you do it."
-- Kerry suggested the U.S. may be losing the war under Bush's leadership. "Invading Iraq has created a crisis of historic proportions and if we do not change course there is a prospect of a war with no end in sight," he said.
Bush acknowledged that the road in Iraq is rough, but he pointed to advances. "Freedom is finding a way in Iraq," the president said. He dismissed a CIA report that warned of a potential for civil war.
-- Kerry set an ambitious timetable to pull troops out of Iraq. "We could begin to withdraw U.S. forces starting next summer and realistically aim to bring all our troops home within the next four years," he said.
Dangerous idea, replied Bush: "If we put an artificial timetable out there on withdrawal, all the enemy says is, 'We'll wait them out.'"
Kerry said the timetable would be realistic for a U.S. president who hastened the training of Iraqi troops, spent reconstruction money approved by Congress, ensured Iraqi elections next year and recruited help from allies.
Not surprisingly, Kerry said he's the only man for that job. But analysts say there is little chance that skittish allies will send more troops and money to Iraq, even with a change at the White House.
"Initially, it might get you a better atmosphere in the meeting room," said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search) in Washington. "Once the honeymoon is over — and it will likely be a very quick one — there's not going to be a rush to send troops into harm's way for indefinite periods of time against irregular forces."
For 21 minutes, U.S. allies sat silently, attentively, inside the U.N. while Bush linked the war on terror to violence in Jerusalem, Russia, Spain, Turkey and, of course, Iraq. "There is no safety in looking away, seeking the quiet life by ignoring the struggles and oppression of others," he said.
As for Kerry, he was in Florida answering questions about his roundabout record on Iraq. Why vote against authorizing war when Saddam occupied Kuwait in 1991? Why vote to authorize war in 2002? Why vote against funding that war? Why so sour on the war now?
There are no easy answers. Kerry's own advisers acknowledge he's taking a risk, because Americans don't like to be told they're losing a war. It took nearly a decade for public opinion to turn against the Vietnam War, said a senior Democrat with ties to the campaign, and Kerry has just six weeks.
Bush is in a tough spot, too, as casualties and kidnappings mount in a war he started.
"The proper response to difficulty is not to retreat," he said, "It is to prevail."