Dem Hopeful: Bush Fiddled In Iraq While Qaeda Rebuilt

By E.J. Kessler

Published May 23, 2003, issue of May 23, 2003.
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Wading into the center of President Bush’s support base in the Jewish community, Democratic presidential hopeful Bob Graham took his hawkish critique of the administration’s war on terrorism to an Orthodox audience in New York this week.

The president dropped the ball on Al Qaeda by directing too much attention toward Iraq, Graham told the annual dinner of American Friends of Sanz-Laniado, which supports a chasidic-led hospital in Israel. The focus on Iraq, he said, led the administration to ignore signs that Al Qaeda was regrouping.

“The facts are that we had Al Qaeda on the ropes in the early spring of 2002,” Graham told the Forward in an interview before his speech. “Then we focused on Iraq and allowed Al Qaeda to regenerate.

“In November, there were a series of terrorist attacks that were attributed to Al Qaeda that ran from Yemen to Bali,” said Graham, who is a former chairman of the Senate intelligence committee. “So as early as that we were getting a signal that Al Qaeda was still an effective terrorist organization.”

Graham also proposed that the war on terror be extended to include Syria, saying that if Damascus does not clean up its act and end its support for Hezbollah, it should feel the wrath of the American military. And he criticized the Bush administration’s approach to the “road map” to peace, saying it focused too much on adhering to a calendar and not enough on Palestinian compliance in fighting terrorism.

Graham has been leading the Democratic charge against Bush in the aftermath of last week’s suspected Al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Some observers have described his attacks as an attempt to parlay his experience on the intelligence committee into a foreign policy credential to set himself apart from the others in the nine-candidate Democratic field.

Asked by the Forward if that was his strategy, Graham said simply: “Foreign policy is something I intend to talk about a lot” in the campaign.

Graham’s speech to American Friends of Sanz-Laniado seemed tailored to appeal to the sector of the Jewish community — religiously conservative, hawkish in Middle East affairs — that has backed the Republican president the most. But while the Florida lawmaker has been lauded as a friend of Israel, some observers said it remains to be seen whether the senator’s hawkish talk will be enough to woo conservative voters away from the president, who continues to win high marks for toughness against terrorists.

Graham said that as president he would confront the Syrian regime to demand that it end its support of Hezbollah. He would, he said, tell Damascus that Americans “are not going to let it go unattended. We will form a coalition similar to the coalition that we had in Afghanistan.”

The goal, he said, would be “to dismantle, not the regime of Syria, but the headquarters and training camps that have been established in Syrian-controlled areas.”

Several observers interviewed by the Forward voiced skepticism about Graham’s likelihood of success in leveraging his intelligence credential into support in the pro-Israel community, given his opposition to the war in Iraq. The war remains popular among pro-Israel activists, who often view it as a touchstone of anti-terrorist resolve, and Graham’s argument that the war distracted the United States from the more immediate threat of Al Qaeda appears to be gaining little traction.

One Senate foreign policy staffer who is close to the pro-Israel community noted that while Graham has been a “solid, reliable friend of Israel,” he has not distinguished himself as a leader or pacesetter in this regard and has emerged on foreign policy and Middle East issues only “relatively recently.”

“What changed a bit with his chairmanship is his own focus and ability to talk about terror threats that have not been addressed,” the source said. “He almost always cites Palestinian groups and the threats they pose to the United States.”

Graham’s current trumpeting of the Palestinian and Lebanese terrorist threats, coming after his opposition to the use of force in Iraq, struck an oddly dissonant note in the pro-Israel community, the source said. Meanwhile, Graham’s call for military strikes against Hamas and Hezbollah seem “far-fetched” and “unrealistic” in the current climate, the staffer said.

Graham’s spokesman, Jamal Simmons, disputed those claims. Graham has been on the intelligence committee for 10 years, Simmons said, and he began warning about terrorism during his 1986 Senate run. “He’s been more out front about the threat [more recently] because the threat is greater, and he knows information the administration won’t let out,” Simmons said. He said Graham’s warning to Syria amounts to a threat of a “limited strike.”

Others, however, questioned whether Graham’s criticisms of the president’s foreign policy would resonate, given Bush’s stated resolve to fight terrorism.

“If there’s one thing Americans are willing to credit President Bush with, it’s that he’s willing to confront our enemies and destroy them,” said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, who serves as a foreign policy adviser to another Democratic contender, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

“Senator Graham has an uphill fight… in asserting that the Iraq war in some way put the fight against terrorism on the back burner,” Marshall said. “We captured a number of high-ranking Al Qaeda figures during the war. If anything, the war shed more light on the incestuous relations of various Middle Eastern terror groups.”

As far as Graham’s attempt to train attention on the Syrian-backed terrorists as a threat to the United States, Marshall said, “As most Americans can’t identify the Democratic candidates, they know even less about Hezbollah. It’s a tough sell…. What he needs is some confirmation or agreement from members of the intelligence committee. He’s flying solo on some of these claims.”

The other Democratic hopefuls have ventured different critiques of Bush’s foreign policy in recent days. Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman has faulted what he has described as administration missteps in trying to set up a civil authority and revive the oil industry in Iraq. Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, North Carolina Senator John Edwards and former Vermont governor Howard Dean have criticized the administration for stinting on providing states with homeland security funds. Kerry has assailed Bush’s diplomacy for failing to win international cooperation for American efforts.

At the Sanz-Laniado dinner, however, Graham’s speech was well-received. According to Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman, executive vice president of American Friends of Sanz-Laniado, attendees had questions about Graham’s vote against the war, but his tough talk dispelled most doubts. “People were very impressed by his being a super-mensch,” Feldman said of the senator, who had mingled with guests in a pre-dinner cocktail hour. “If, God forbid, the economy goes down, the president could fall,” Feldman said. “If that happens, Bob Graham has as good a chance as anyone else.”

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