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The Race to the White House

Advisor Retracts Remark on Kerry Supporting War

James Rubin says he misstated the senator's position in a statement cited by Bush backers as echoing the president's.

August 25, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A top foreign policy advisor to Sen. John F. Kerry on Tuesday retracted a comment that had been cited by President Bush and his supporters to claim that Kerry backed the decision to invade Iraq.

In a statement to The Times, James P. Rubin said he was wrong when he recently said that as president, Kerry "in all probability" would also have invaded Iraq if weapons inspections broke down and the United Nations explicitly authorized war.

"I never should have said the phrase 'in all probability' Kerry would have launched a military attack because that's not Kerry's position and he's never said it," Rubin said in the statement.

His retraction was another example of the struggle by Kerry and his campaign to clarify his position on Iraq and how it differs from Bush's. For months, Bush and his supporters have accused the Democratic presidential nominee of sending conflicting signals on Iraq and trying to blur his position to appeal to both prowar and antiwar voters.

Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for Bush's reelection campaign, said the statement by Rubin, an assistant secretary of state for public affairs during the Clinton administration, was "more in a long line of confusing statements by John Kerry and his advisors" about the war in Iraq.

"There's a reason why a guy as smart as Jamie Rubin is confused about John Kerry's position: it's because John Kerry has changed it on an almost weekly basis," Schmidt said.

Rubin revised his remark after it figured prominently in a debate on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday between senior Kerry advisor Tad Devine and Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman.

Mehlman argued that Rubin's comments meant Kerry and Bush "agreed about sending our troops to war."

Campaign sources said Rubin issued his retraction after discussing the issue with Kerry.

Kerry has consistently argued that Bush moved too quickly to war. But the Massachusetts senator has not explicitly answered whether, and under what circumstances, he might have used force against Iraq.

In an interview, Rubin said, "it is not knowable" whether a President Kerry ultimately would have invaded Iraq, because he would have handled each step along the way so differently than Bush.

Rubin's initial comment came after Bush added a section to his campaign speech defending his decision to invade Iraq and challenging Kerry to say whether as president he would have done the same.

On Aug. 8, the Washington Post quoted Rubin as saying that Kerry still would have voted in October 2002 to provide Bush the authority to invade Iraq, even if it had been clear then that U.S.-led coalition forces would not find weapons of mass destruction. The Post also quoted Rubin as saying that as president Kerry "in all probability" would have launched a military attack by now against Iraq.

Rubin did not dispute the accuracy of the quote. But he said that he offered that assessment only as Kerry's possible response to a long list of hypothetical conditions -- such as if inspections had broken down, if the U.N. had explicitly authorized military force and if a broad coalition had been assembled.

The comment immediately caused consternation within the Kerry camp, with other top foreign policy advisors privately calling it a mistake.

Kerry, in comments the day after Rubin's remarks appeared, affirmed that even knowing all he does now, he still would have voted to provide Bush with the authority to go to war. But Kerry pointedly did not repeat Rubin's contention that "in all probability" he would have invaded Iraq as president.

Bush pointed to Kerry's words as an endorsement of his decision. "My opponent has found a new nuance," Bush said. "He now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq."

Kerry and his aides rejected that interpretation. They said his vote in 2002 was meant to strengthen Bush's hand in building an international coalition and pressuring the U.N. to resume weapons inspections inside Iraq, not necessarily to endorse a decision to invade.

Rubin said Tuesday: "Giving the president the authority to pursue a policy of force and diplomacy to hold [then-Iraqi President]Saddam Hussein accountable, to enforce compliance with U.N. resolutions, was not and never should have been taken as a blank check to go to war the way George Bush went to war."

Schmidt said that argument was "disingenuous" because Congress realized the 2002 vote was an authorization for war.

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