PHOENIX – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) on Friday dismissed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's apology for U.S. abuses of Iraqi prisoners and said the responsibility lies with the commander in chief.
"The chain of command goes all the way to the Oval Office," Kerry said. "Harry Truman did not say 'the buck stops at the Pentagon.'"
Kerry issued a broad challenge to Bush's conduct of the war on terror in remarks to the centrist-leaning Democratic Leadership Council (search), saying a strong foreign policy means "taking responsibility for the bad and good" and accusing the Bush administration of talking tough but bumbling.
Although Bush apologized on Thursday for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners and Rumsfeld apologized Friday during a session with the Senate Armed Services Committee (search), Kerry said they should have moved far faster. The administration had to be pressured into acknowledging its responsibility, he said.
"We need a president who understands the difference between strength and stubbornness," he said.
Kerry said presidents of both parties have moved quickly in the past to accept blame for failure abroad. More aggressive action in rooting out and condemning the abuse could have stemmed the damage to U.S. prestige throughout the region, he said.
"We should be the leaders in condemning the appalling images of abuse, not following others who showed them to us," Kerry said. "We should be the leaders in setting a standard of behavior that we talk about in the abuse that we've seen flashing across television screens all across the world. We cannot ever succeed in Iraq or anywhere else on this planet by abandoning the values that define the United States of America."
Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, accused Kerry of a "consistent pattern of inserting politics and playing politics with the war on terror and serious national security issues."
Kerry told the Democrats that their party can't cede the issue of national security to Republicans, arguing that they must prove to voters that they understand the issue more clearly.
"For 30 years since Vietnam, the other party has tried to frighten voters into thinking that only Republicans care about national security," he said. "They attacked us so often that some in our party would rather try to change the subject to the economy than show our national security strength."
The Massachusetts Democrat warned that "the terrorists aren't going to change the subject and we shouldn't either" as he offered his own prescription for a Democratic war on terror.
"I think it's time we have a president who understands that strength abroad means providing real leadership in the world, and taking responsibility for the bad as well as the good," he said.