U.S. President George W. Bush has said repeatedly that the war in Iraq is the leading front in the war against terrorism. As he runs for a second four-year term, Bush says he -- not his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry -- is better able to protect the American people from a recurrence of the attacks of 11 September 2001, blamed on Al-Qaeda. Bush's opponents counter that going to war in Iraq has actually made the United States more vulnerable. That view was articulated strongly in Washington this week by leading Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy.
Washington, 29 September 2004 -- Veteran U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said the United States not only faces an increased threat of a terrorist attack, but that it risks a nuclear attack.
"The greatest danger we face in the days and weeks and months ahead is a nuclear '9/11' that we hope and pray it is not too late to prevent. The war in Iraq has made the mushroom cloud more likely, not less likely, and it never should have happened," Kennedy said.
In a speech on 27 September at George Washington University in Washington, Kennedy listed 13 reasons why he believes that Bush's policies have made America weaker. They include the anger that such policies have sparked among Muslims, increasing recruitment of young men into groups like Al-Qaeda; the alienation of many traditional U.S. allies; the overuse of the country's armed forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan; and the distraction from what he called the primary job for defending America -- hunting down Al-Qaeda leaders themselves.
But the most important reason, he said, is that the war in Iraq has distracted the attention of the Bush administration away from the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran: "While President Bush has been preoccupied with Iraq, not just one but two serious nuclear threats have been rising, from North Korea and from Iran," Kennedy said.
In a television interview the same day as Kennedy's speech, Bush said he has no regrets about the invasion of Iraq, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 American soldiers. And he said he and his advisers are "working our hearts out" to apply international pressure on Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon.
Although Kennedy's speech was a politically partisan effort on behalf of Bush's main challenger in the November election, Kerry, one analyst, Ted Galen Carpenter, tells RFE/RL that he believes Kennedy's argument is more than a mere campaign speech.
Carpenter is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a private policy research center in Washington. He says Kennedy's views about Iraq are sincerely held by many Democrats and others who oppose Bush's decision to go to war.
Carpenter says it may well be true that the war in Iraq has distracted the Bush administration from the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Al-Qaeda. But he says he does not believe it is distracting the administration from dealing with the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea.
According to Carpenter, Iran and North Korea want nuclear weapons for three main reasons -- to give them global prestige, to make them regional leaders, and to protect their societies from a possible invasion by the United States: "[The Democrats'] underlying assumption is that if we try hard enough with the diplomatic track, both of those countries can be persuaded ultimately to give up their nuclear weapons programs. I'm not convinced of that for a variety of reasons. Even if we negotiated with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that wouldn't necessarily mean that we could get them to abandon their aspirations to have a deterrent."
Carpenter says it is not only Bush who has made the United States more vulnerable to a nuclear attack, whether by a terrorist group such Al-Qaeda or a state such as North Korea. He says the vulnerability is attributable to his predecessors, too -- Bill Clinton and even Bush's father, President George Bush.
Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Carpenter says, the United States has exercised its role as the world's only superpower in a way that has inadvertently encouraged Iran and North Korea to pursue nuclear weapons programs: "When [Iran and North Korea] saw how the United States has acted ever since the end of the Cold War -- we have used military force on nine major occasions -- they certainly have seen how we have treated nonnuclear adversaries such as Serbia and Iraq. It would not be an irrational conclusion for them to say, 'Our only guarantee that the U.S. won't engage in forcible regime change with our country is to have a nuclear deterrent.' "
Carpenter says he tends to agree with the conclusions of Bush critics like Kennedy. He believes there is a nuclear threat from Iran and North Korea, and that the United States is at least in part responsible for these threats, if inadvertently.
But he says his conclusions are based on different evidence, evidence that does not blame the current President Bush entirely, but the trend of American foreign policy since the breakup of the Soviet Union.