Coral Gables, FL -
This is the transcript of the first Presidental election debate between Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush.
The first part of this transcript can be found here
LEHRER: New question, Mr. President. Two minutes.
Has the war in Iraq been worth the cost of American lives, 1,052 as of today?
BUSH: You know, every life is precious. Every life matters. You know, my hardest -- the hardest part of the job is to know that I committed the troops in harm's way and then do the best I can to pro Carolina. She and her son Brian, they came to see me. Her husband PJ got killed. He'd been in Afghanistan, went to Iraq.
You know, it's hard work to try to love her as best as I can, knowing full well that the decision I made caused her loved one to be in harm's way.
I told her after we prayed and teared up and laughed some that I thought her husband's sacrifice was noble and worthy. Because I understand the stakes of this war on terror. I understand that we must find Al Qaeda wherever they hide.
We must deal with threats before they fully materialize. And Saddam Hussein was a threat, and that we must spread liberty because in the long run, the way to defeat hatred and tyranny and oppression is to spread freedom.
Missy understood that. That's what she told me her husband understood. So you say, "Was it worth it?" Every life is precious. That's what distinguishes us from the enemy. Everybody matters. But I think it's worth it, Jim.
I think it's worth it, because I think -- I know in the long term a free Iraq, a free Afghanistan, will set such a powerful in a part of the world that's desperate for freedom. It will help change the world; that we can look back and say we did our duty.
LEHRER: Senator, 90 seconds.
KERRY: I understand what the president is talking about, because I know what it means to lose people in combat. And the question, is it worth the cost, reminds me of my own thinking when I came back from fighting in that war.
And it reminds me that it is vital for us not to confuse the war, ever, with the warriors. That happened before.
And that's one of the reasons why I believe I can get this job done, because I am determined for those soldiers and for those families, for those kids who put their lives on the line.
That is noble. That's the most noble thing that anybody can do. And I want to make sure the outcome honors that nobility.
Now, we have a choice here. I've laid out a plan by which I think we can be successful in Iraq: with a summit, by doing better training, faster, by cutting -- by doing what we need to do with respect to the U.N. and the elections.
There's can't have an election right now.
The president's not getting the job done.
So the choice for America is, you can have a plan that I've laid out in four points, each of which I can tell you more about or you can go to johnkerry.com and see more of it; or you have the president's plan, which is four words: more of the same.
I think my plan is better.
And my plan has a better chance of standing up and fighting for those troops.
I will never let those troops down, and will hunt and kill the terrorists wherever they are.
LEHRER: All right, sir, go ahead. Thirty seconds.
BUSH: Yes, I understand what it means to the commander in chief. And if I were to ever say, "This is the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place," the troops would wonder, how can I follow this guy?
You cannot lead the war on terror if you keep changing positions on the war on terror and say things like, "Well, this is just a grand diversion." It's not a grand diversion. This is an essential that we get it right.
And so, the plan he talks about simply won't work.
LEHRER: Senator Kerry, you have 30 seconds. You have 30 seconds, right. And then the president.
KERRY: Secretary of State Colin Powell told this president the Pottery Barn rule: If you break it, you fix it.
Now, if you break it, you made a mistake. It's the wrong thing to do. But you own it. And then you've got to fix it and do something with it.
Now that's what we have to do. There's no inconsistency. Soldiers know over there that this isn't being done right yet. I'm going to get it right for those soldiers, because it's important to Israel, it's important to America, it's important to the world, it's important to the fight on terror.
But I have a plan to do it. He doesn't.
LEHRER: Speaking of your plan, new question, Senator Kerry. Two minutes.
Can you give us specifics, in terms of a scenario, time lines, et cetera, for ending major U.S. military involvement in Iraq?
KERRY: The time line that I've set out -- and again, I want to correct the president, because he's misled again this evening on what I've said. I didn't say I would bring troops out in six months. I said, if we do the things that I've set out and we are successful, we could begin to draw the troops down in six months.
And I think a critical component of success in Iraq is being able to convince the Iraqis and the Arab world that the United States doesn't have long-term designs on it.
As I understand it, we're building some 14 military bases there now, and some people say they've got a rather permanent concept to them.
When you guard the oil ministry, but you don't guard the nuclear facilities, the message to a lot of people is maybe, "Wow, maybe they're interested in our oil."
Now, the problem is that they didn't think these things through properly. And these are the things you have to think through.
What I want to do is change the dynamics on the ground. And you have to do that by beginning to not back off of the Fallujahs and other places, and send the wrong message to the terrorists. You have to close the borders.
You've got to show you're serious in that regard. But you've also got to show that you are prepared to bring the rest of the world in and share the stakes.
I will make a flat statement: The United States of America has no long-term designs on staying in Iraq.
And our goal in my administration would be to get all of the troops out of there with a minimal amount you need for training and logistics as we do in some other countries in the world after a war to be able to sustain the peace.
But that's how we're going to win the peace, by rapidly training the Iraqis themselves.
Even the administration has admitted they haven't done the training, because they came back to Congress a few weeks ago and asked for a complete reprogramming of the money.
Now what greater admission is there, 16 months afterwards. "Oops, we haven't done the job. We have to sta give us permission to shift it over into training?"
LEHRER: Ninety seconds.
BUSH: There are 100,000 troops trained, police, guard, special units, border patrol. There's going to be 125,000 trained by the end of this year. Yes, we're getting the job done. It's hard work. Everybody knows it's hard work, because there's a determined enemy that's trying to defeat us.
Now, my opponent says he's going to try to change the dynamics on the ground. Well, Prime Minister Allawi was here. He is the leader of that country. He's a brave, brave man. When he came, after giving a speech to the Congress, my opponent questioned his credibility.
You can't change the dynamics on the ground if you've criticized the brave leader of Iraq.
One of his campaign people alleged that Prime Minister Allawi was like a puppet. That's no way to treat somebody who's courageous and brave, that is trying to lead his country forward.
The way to make sure that we succeed is to send consistent, sound messages to the Iraqi people that when we give our word, we will keep our word, that we stand with you, that we believe you want to be free. And I do.
I believe that 25 million people, the vast majority, long to have elections.
I reject this notion -- and I'm suggesting my opponent isn't -- I reject the notion that some say that if you're Muslim you can't free, you don't desire freedom. I disagree, strongly disagree with that.
LEHRER: Thirty seconds.
KERRY: I couldn't agree more that the Iraqis want to be free and that they could be free.
But I think the president, again, still hasn't shown how he's going to go about it the right way. He has more of the same.
Now, Prime Minister Allawi came here, and he said the terrorists are pouring over the border. That's Allawi's assessment.
The national intelligence assessment that was given to the president in July said, best-case scenario, more of the same of what we see today; worst-case scenario, civil war.
I can do better.
BUSH: Yes, let me...
LEHRER: Yes, 30 seconds.
BUSH: The reason why Prime Minister Allawi said they're coming across the border is because he recognizes that this is a central part of the war on terror. They're fighting us because they're fighting freedom.
They understand that a free Afghanistan or a free Iraq will be a major defeat for them.
And those are the stakes.
And that's why it is essential we not leave. That's why it's essential we hold the line. That's why it's essential we win. And we will. Under my leadership we're going to win this war in Iraq.
LEHRER: Mr. President, new question. Two minutes. Does the Iraq experience make it more likely or less likely that you would take the United States into another preemptive military action?
BUSH: I would hope I never have to. I understand how hard it is to commit troops. Never wanted to commit troops. When I was running -- when we had the debate in 2000, never dreamt I'd be doing that.
But the enemy attacked us, Jim, and I have a solemn duty to protect the American people, to do everything I can to protect us.
I think that by speaking clearly and doing what we say and not sending mixed messages, it is less likely we'll ever have to use troops.
But a president must always be willing to use troops. It must -- as a last resort.
I was hopeful diplomacy would work in Iraq. It was falling apart. There was no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was hoping that the world would turn a blind eye.
And if he had been in power, in other words, if we would have said, "Let the inspectors work, or let's, you know, hope to talk him out. Maybe an 18th resolution would work," he would have been stronger and tougher, and the world would have been a lot worse off. There's just no doubt in my mind we would rue the day, had Saddam Hussein been in power.
So we use diplomacy every chance we get, believe me. And I would hope to never have to use force.
But by speaking clearly and sending messages that we mean what we say, we've affected the world in a positive way.
Look at Libya. Libya was a threat. Libya is now peacefully dismantling its weapons programs.
Libya understood that America and others will enforce doctrine and that the world is better for it.
So to answer your question, I would hope we never have to. I think by acting firmly and decisively, it will mean it is less likely we have to use force.
LEHRER: Senator Kerry, 90 seconds.
KERRY: Jim, the president just said something extraordinarily revealing and frankly very important in this debate. In answer to your question about Iraq and sending people into Iraq, he just said, "The enemy attacked us."
Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Usama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaeda attacked us. And when we had Usama bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, 1,000 of his cohorts with him in those mountains. With the American military forces nearby and in the field, we didn't use the best trained troops in the world to go kill the world's number one criminal and terrorist.
They outsourced the job to Afghan warlords, who only a week earlier had been on the other side fighting against us, neither of whom trusted each other.
That's the enemy that attacked us. That's the enemy that was allowed to walk out of those mountains. That's the enemy that is now in 60 countries, with stronger recruits.
He also said Saddam Hussein would have been stronger. That is just factually incorrect. Two-thirds of the country was a no-fly zone when we started this war. We would have had sanctions. We would have had the U.N. inspectors. Saddam Hussein would have been continually weakening.
If the president had shown the patience to go through another round of resolution, to sit down with those leaders, say, "What do you need, what do you need now, how much more will it take to get you to join us?" we'd be in a stronger place today.
LEHRER: Thirty seconds.
BUSH: First of all, of course I know Usama bin Laden attacked us. I know that.
And secondly, to think that another round of resolutions would have caused Saddam Hussein to disarm, disclose, is ludicrous, in my judgment. It just shows a significant difference of opinion.
We tried diplomacy. We did our best. He was hoping to turn a blind eye. And, yes, he would have been stronger had we not dealt with him. He had the capability of making weapons, and he would have made weapons.
LEHRER: Thirty seconds, Senator.
KERRY: Thirty-five to forty countries in the world had a greater capability of making weapons at the moment the president invaded than Saddam Hussein. And while he's been diverted, with 9 out of 10 active duty divisions of our Army, either going to Iraq, coming back from Iraq, or getting ready to go, North Korea's gotten nuclear weapons and the world is more dangerous. Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons and the world is more dangerous. Darfur has a genocide.
The world is more dangerous. I'd have made a better choice.
LEHRER: New question. Two minutes, Senator Kerry.
What is your position on the whole concept of preemptive war?
KERRY: The president always has the right, and always has had the right, for preemptive strike. That was a great doctrine throughout the Cold War. And it was always one of the things we argued about with respect to arms control.
No president, though all of American history, has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America.
But if and when you do it, Jim, you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.
Here we have our own secretary of state who has had to apologize to the world for the presentation he made to the United Nations.
I mean, we can remember when President Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis sent his secretary of state to Paris to meet with DeGaulle. And in the middle of the discussion, to tell them about the missiles in Cuba, he said, "Here, let me show you the photos." And DeGaulle waved them off and said, "No, no, no, no. The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me."
How many leaders in the world today would respond to us, as a result of what we've done, in that way? So what is at test here is the credibility of the United States of America and how we lead the world. And Iran and Iraq are now more dangerous -- Iran and North Korea are now more dangerous.
Now, whether preemption is ultimately what has to happen, I don't know yet. But I'll tell you this: As president, I'll never take my eye off that ball. I've been fighting for proliferation the entire time -- anti-proliferation the entire time I've been in the Congress. And we've watched this president actually turn away from some of the treaties that were on the table.
You don't help yourself with other nations when you turn away from the global warming treaty, for instance, or when you refuse to deal at length with the United Nations.
You have to earn that respect. And I think we have a lot of earning back to do.
LEHRER: Ninety seconds.
BUSH: Let me -- I'm not exactly sure what you mean, "passes the global test," you take preemptive action if you pass a global test.
My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people, that you act in order to make this country secure.
My opponent talks about me not signing certain treaties. Let me tell you one thing I didn't sign, and I think it shows the difference of our opinion -- the difference of opinions.
And that is, I wouldn't join the International Criminal Court. It's a body based in The Hague where unaccountable judges and prosecutors can pull our troops or diplomats up for trial.
And I wouldn't join it. And I understand that in certain capitals around the world that that wasn't a popular move. But it's the right move not to join a foreign court that could -- where our people could be prosecuted.
My opponent is for joining the International Criminal Court. I just think trying to be popular, kind of, in the global sense, if it's not in our best interest makes no sense. I'm interested in working with our nations and do a lot of it. But I'm not going to make decisions that I think are wrong for America.
LEHRER: New question, Mr. President. Do you believe that diplomacy and sanctions can resolve the nuclear problems with North Korea and Iran? Take them in any order you would like.
BUSH: North Korea, first, I do. Let me say -- I certainly hope so. Before I was sworn in, the policy of this government was to have bilateral negotiations with North Korea.
And we signed an agreement with North Korea that my administration found out that was not being honored by the North Koreans.
And so I decided that a better way to approach the issue was to get other nations involved, just besides us. And in Crawford, Texas, Jiang Zemin and I agreed that the nuclear-weapons-free peninsula, Korean Peninsula, was in his interest and our interest and the world's interest.
And so we began a new dialogue with North Korea, one that included not only the United States, but now China. And China's a got a lot of influence over North Korea, some ways more than we do.
As well, we included South Korea, Japan and Russia. So now there are five voices speaking to Kim Jong Il, not just one.
And so if Kim Jong Il decides again to not honor an agreement, he's not only doing injustice to America, he'd be doing injustice to China, as well.
And I think this will work. It's not going to work if we open up a dialogue with Kim Jong Il. He wants to unravel the six- party talks, or the five-nation coalition that's sending him a clear message.
On Iran, I hope we can do the same thing, continue to work with the world to convince the Iranian mullahs to abandon their nuclear ambitions.
We worked very closely with the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Great Britain, who have been the folks delivering the message to the mullahs that if you expect to be part of the world of nations, get rid of your nuclear programs.
The IAEA is involved. There's a special protocol recently been passed that allows for inspections.
I hope we can do it. And we've got a good strategy.
LEHRER: Senator Kerry, 90 seconds.
KERRY: With respect to Iran, the British, French, and Germans were the ones who initiated an effort without the United States, regrettably, to begin to try to move to curb the nuclear possibilities in Iran. I believe we could have done better.
I think the United States should have offered the opportunity to provide the nuclear fuel, test them, see whether or not they were actually looking for it for peaceful purposes. If they weren't willing to work a deal, then we could have put sanctions together. The president did nothing.
With respect to North Korea, the real story: We had inspectors and television cameras in the nuclear reactor in North Korea. Secretary Bill Perry negotiated that under President Clinton. And we knew where the fuel rods were. And we knew the limits on their nuclear power.
Colin Powell, our secretary of state, announced one day that we were going to continue the dialog of working with the North Koreans. The president reversed it publicly while the president of South Korea was here.
And the president of South Korea went back to South Korea bewildered and embarrassed because it went against his policy. And for two years, this administration didn't talk at all to North Korea.
While they didn't talk at all, the fuel rods came out, the inspectors were kicked out, the television cameras were kicked out. And today, there are four to seven nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea.
That happened on this president's watch.
Now, that, I think, is one of the most serious, sort of, reversals or mixed messages that you could possibly send.
LEHRER: I want to make sure -- yes, sir -- but in this one minute, I want to make sure that we understand -- the people watching understand the differences between the two of you on this.
You want to continue the multinational talks, correct?
LEHRER: And you're willing to do it...
KERRY: Both. I want bilateral talks which put all of the issues, from the armistice of 1952, the economic issues, the human rights issues, the artillery disposal issues, the DMZ issues and the nuclear issues on the table.
LEHRER: And you're opposed to that. Right?
BUSH: The minute we have bilateral talks, the six-party talks will unwind. That's exactly what Kim Jong Il wants. And by the way, the breach on the agreement was not through plutonium. The breach on the agreement is highly enriched uranium. That's what we caught him doing. That's where he was breaking the agreement.
Secondly, he said -- my opponent said where he worked to put sanctions on Iran -- we've already sanctioned Iran. We can't sanction them any more. There are sanctions in place on Iran.
And finally, we were a party to the convention -- to working with Germany, France and Great Britain to send their foreign ministers into Iran.
LEHRER: New question, two minutes.
Senator Kerry, you mentioned Darfur, the Darfur region of Sudan. Fifty thousand people have already died in that area. More than a million are homeless. And it's been labeled an act of ongoing genocide. Yet neither one of you or anyone else connected with your campaigns or your administration that I can find has discussed the possibility of sending in troops.
KERRY: Well, I'll tell you exactly why not, but I first want to say something about those sanctions on Iran.
Only the United States put the sanctions on alone, and that's exactly what I'm talking about.
In order for the sanctions to be effective, we should have been working with the British, French and Germans and other countries. And that's the difference between the president and me.
And there, again, he sort of slid by the question.
Now, with respect to Darfur, yes, it is a genocide. And months ago, many of us were pressing for action.
I think the reason that we're not saying send American troops in at this point is severalfold.
Number one, we can do this through the African Union, providing we give them the logistical support. Right now all the president is providing is humanitarian support. We need to do more than that. They've got to have the logistical capacity to go in and stop the killing. And that's going to require more than is on the table today.
I also believe that it is -- one of the reasons we can't do it is we're overextended.
Ask the people in the armed forces today. We've got Guards and Reserves who are doing double duties. We've got a backdoor draft taking place in America today: people with stop-loss programs where they're told you can't get out of the military; nine out of our 10 active duty divisions committed to Iraq one way or the other, either going, coming or preparing.
So this is the way the president has overextended the United States.
That's why, in my plan, I add two active duty divisions to the United States Army, not for Iraq, but for our general demands across the globe.
I also intend to double the number of special forces so that we can do the job we need to do with respect fighting the terrorists around the world. And if we do that, then we have the ability to be able to respond more rapidly.
But I'll tell you this, as president, if it took American forces to some degree to coalesce the African Union, I'd be prepared to do it because we could never allow another Rwanda.
It's the moral responsibility for us and the world.
LEHRER: Ninety seconds.
BUSH: Back to Iran, just for a second.
It was not my administration that put the sanctions on Iran. That happened long before I arrived in Washington, D.C.
In terms of Darfur, I agree it's genocide. And Colin Powell so stated.
We have committed $200 million worth of aid. We're the leading donor in the world to help the suffering people there. We will commit more over time to help.
We were very much involved at the U.N. on the sanction policy of the Bashir government in the Sudan. Prior to Darfur, Ambassador Jack Danforth had been negotiating a north-south agreement that we would have hoped would have brought peace to the Sudan.
I agree with my opponent that we shouldn't be committing troops. We ought to be working with the African Union to do so -- precisely what we did in Liberia. We helped stabilize the situation with some troops, and when the African Union came, we moved them out.
My hope is that the African Union moves rapidly to help save lives. And fortunately the rainy season will be ending shortly, which will make it easier to get aid there and help the long-suffering people there.
LEHRER: New question, President Bush. Clearly, as we have heard, major policy differences between the two of you. Are there also underlying character issues that you believe, that you believe are serious enough to deny Senator Kerry the job as commander in chief of the United States?
BUSH: That's a loaded question. Well, first of all, I admire Senator Kerry's service to our country. I admire the fact that he is a great dad. I appreciate the fact that his daughters have been so kind to my daughters in what has been a pretty hard experience for, I guess, young girls, seeing their dads out there campaigning.
I admirer the fact that he served for 20 years in the Senate. Although I'm not so sure I admire the record.
I won't hold it against him that he went to Yale. There's nothing wrong with that.
My concerns about the senator is that, in the course of this campaign, I've been listening very carefully to what he says, and he changes positions on the war in Iraq. He changes positions on something as fundamental as what you believe in your core, in your heart of hearts, is right in Iraq.
You cannot lead if you send mixed messages. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our troops. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our allies. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to the Iraqi citizens.
And that's my biggest concern about my opponent. I admire his service. But I just know how this world works, and that in the councils of government, there must be certainty from the U.S. president.
Of course, we change tactics when need to, but we never change our beliefs, the strategic beliefs that are necessary to protect this country in the world.
LEHRER: Ninety second response, Senator.
KERRY: Well, first of all, I appreciate enormously the personal comments the president just made. And I share them with him. I think only if you're doing this -- and he's done it more than I have in terms of the presidency -- can you begin to get a sense of what it means to your families. And it's tough. And so I acknowledge that his daughters -- I've watched them.
I've chuckled a few times at some of their comments.
BUSH: I'm trying to put a leash on them.
KERRY: Well, I know. I've learned not to do that.
And I have great respect and admiration for his wife. I think she's a terrific person...
BUSH: Thank you.
KERRY: ... and a great first lady.
But we do have differences. I'm not going to talk about a difference of character. I don't think that's my job or my business.
But let me talk about something that the president just sort of finished up with. Maybe someone would call it a character trait, maybe somebody wouldn't.
But this issue of certainty. It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong.
It's another to be certain and be right, or to be certain and be moving in the right direction, or be certain about a principle and then learn new facts and take those new facts and put them to use in order to change and get your policy right.
What I worry about with the president is that he's not acknowledging what's on the ground, he's not acknowledging the realities of North Korea, he's not acknowledging the truth of the science of stem-cell research or of global warming and other issues.
And certainty sometimes can get you in trouble.
LEHRER: Thirty seconds.
BUSH: Well, I think -- listen, I fully agree that one should shift tactics, and we will, in Iraq. Our commanders have got all the flexibility to do what is necessary to succeed.
But what I won't do is change my core values because of politics or because of pressure.
And it is one of the things I've learned in the White House, is that there's enormous pressure on the president, and he cannot wilt under that pressure. Otherwise, the world won't be better off.
LEHRER: Thirty seconds.
KERRY: I have no intention of wilting. I've never wilted in my life. And I've never wavered in my life.
I know exactly what we need to do in Iraq, and my position has been consistent: Saddam Hussein is a threat. He needed to be disarmed. We needed to go to the U.N. The president needed the authority to use force in order to be able to get him to do something, because he never did it without the threat of force.
But we didn't need to rush to war without a plan to win the peace.
LEHRER: New question, two minutes, Senator Kerry.
If you are elected president, what will you take to that office thinking is the single most serious threat to the national security to the United States?
KERRY: Nuclear proliferation. Nuclear proliferation. There's some 600-plus tons of unsecured material still in the former Soviet Union and Russia. At the rate that the president is currently securing it, it'll take 13 years to get it.
I did a lot of work on this. I wrote a book about it several years ago -- six, seven years ago -- called "The New War," which saw the difficulties of this international criminal network. And back then, we intercepted a suitcase in a Middle Eastern country with nuclear materials in it. And the black market sale price was about $250 million.
Now, there are terrorists trying to get their hands on that stuff today.
And this president, I regret to say, has secured less nuclear material in the last two years since 9/11 than we did in the two years preceding 9/11.
We have to do this job. And to do the job, you can't cut the money for it. The president actually cut the money for it. You have to put the money into it and the funding and the leadership.
And part of that leadership is sending the right message to places like North Korea.
Right now the president is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to research bunker-busting nuclear weapons. The United States is pursuing a new set of nuclear weapons. It doesn't make sense.
You talk about mixed messages. We're telling other people, "You can't have nuclear weapons," but we're pursuing a new nuclear weapon that we might even contemplate using.
Not this president. I'm going to shut that program down, and we're going to make it clear to the world we're serious about containing nuclear proliferation.
And we're going to get the job of containing all of that nuclear material in Russia done in four years. And we're going to build the strongest international network to prevent nuclear proliferation.
This is the scale of what President Kennedy set out to do with the nuclear test ban treaty. It's our generation's equivalent. And I intend to get it done.
LEHRER: Ninety seconds, Mr. President.
BUSH: Actually, we've decreased funding for dealing with nuclear proliferation about 35 percent since I've been the president. Secondly, we've set up what's called the -- well, first of all, I agree with my opponent that the biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network. And that's why proliferation is one of the centerpieces of a multi-prong strategy to make the country safer.
My administration started what's called the Proliferation Security Initiative. Over 60 nations involved with disrupting the trans-shipment of information and/or weapons of mass destruction materials.
And we've been effective. We busted the A.Q. Khan network. This was a proliferator out of Pakistan that was selling secrets to places like North Korea and Libya. We convinced Libya to disarm.
It's a central part of dealing with weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.
I'll tell you another way to help protect America in the long run is to continue with missile defenses. And we've got a robust research and development program that has been ongoing during my administration. We'll be implementing a missile-defense system relatively quickly.
And that is another way to help deal with the threats that we face in the 21st century.
My opponent opposed the missile defenses.
LEHRER: Just for this one-minute discussion here, just for whatever seconds it takes: So it's correct to say, that if somebody is listening to this, that both of you agree, if you're reelected, Mr. President, and if you are elected, the single most serious threat you believe, both of you believe, is nuclear proliferation?
BUSH: In the hands of a terrorist enemy.
KERRY: Weapons of mass destruction, nuclear proliferation.
But again, the test or the difference between us, the president has had four years to try to do something about it, and North Korea has got more weapons; Iran is moving toward weapons. And at his pace, it will take 13 years to secure those weapons in Russia.
I'm going to do it in four years, and I'm going to immediately set out to have bilateral talks with North Korea.
LEHRER: Your response to that?
BUSH: Again, I can't tell you how big a mistake I think that is, to have bilateral talks with North Korea. It's precisely what Kim Jong Il wants. It will cause the six-party talks to evaporate. It will mean that China no longer is involved in convincing, along with us, for Kim Jong Il to get rid of his weapons. It's a big mistake to do that.
We must have China's leverage on Kim Jong Il, besides ourselves.
And if you enter bilateral talks, they'll be happy to walk away from the table. I don't think that'll work.
LEHRER: All right. Mr. President, this is the last question. And two minutes. It's a new subject -- new question, and it has to do with President Putin and Russia. Did you misjudge him or are you -- do you feel that what he is doing in the name of antiterrorism by changing some democratic processes is OK?
BUSH: No, I don't think it's OK, and said so publicly. I think that there needs to be checks and balances in a democracy, and made that very clear that by consolidating power in the central government, he's sending a signal to the Western world and United States that perhaps he doesn't believe in checks and balances, and I told him that.
I mean, he's also a strong ally in the war on terror. He is -- listen, they went through a horrible situation in Beslan, where these terrorists gunned down young school kids. That's the nature of the enemy, by the way. That's why we need to be firm and resolve in bringing them to justice.
That's precisely what Vladimir Putin understands, as well.
I've got a good relation with Vladimir. And it's important that we do have a good relation, because that enables me to better comment to him, and to better to discuss with him, some of the decisions he makes. I found that, in this world, that it's important to establish good personal relationships with people so that when you have disagreements, you're able to disagree in a way that is effective.
And so I've told him my opinion.
I look forward to discussing it more with him, as time goes on. Russia is a country in transition. Vladimir is going to have to make some hard choices. And I think it's very important for the American president, as well as other Western leaders, to remind him of the great benefits of democracy, that democracy will best help the people realize their hopes and aspirations and dreams. And I will continue working with him over the next four years.
LEHRER: Ninety seconds, Senator Kerry.
KERRY: Well, let me just say quickly that I've had an extraordinary experience of watching up close and personal that transition in Russia, because I was there right after the transformation. And I was probably one of the first senators, along with Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire, a former senator, go down into the KGB underneath Treblinka Square and see reams of files with names in them.
It sort of brought home the transition to democracy that Russia was trying to make.
I regret what's happened in these past months. And I think it goes beyond just the response to terror. Mr. Putin now controls all the television stations. His political opposition is being put in jail.
And I think it's very important to the United States, obviously, to have a working relationship that is good. This is a very important country to us. We want a partnership.
But we always have to stand up for democracy. As George Will said the other day, "Freedom on the march; not in Russia right now."
Now, I'd like to come back for a quick moment, if I can, to that issue about China and the talks. Because that's one of the most critical issues here: North Korea.
Just because the president says it can't be done, that you'd lose China, doesn't mean it can't be done. I mean, this is the president who said "There were weapons of mass destruction," said "Mission accomplished," said we could fight the war on the cheap -- none of which were true.
We could have bilateral talks with Kim Jong Il. And we can get those weapons at the same time as we get China. Because China has an interest in the outcome, too.
LEHRER: Thirty seconds, Mr. President.
BUSH: You know my opinion on North Korea. I can't say it any more plainly.
LEHRER: Well, but when he used the word "truth" again...
BUSH: Pardon me?
LEHRER: ... talking about the truth of the matter. He used the word "truth" again. Did that raise any hackles with you?
BUSH: Oh, I'm a pretty calm guy. I don't take it personally.
LEHRER: OK. All right.
BUSH: You know, we looked at the same intelligence and came to the same conclusion: that Saddam Hussein was a grave threat.
And I don't hold it against him that he said grave threat. I'm not going to go around the country saying he didn't tell the truth, when he looked at the same intelligence I did.
KERRY: It was a threat. That's not the issue. The issue is what you do about it.
The president said he was going to build a true coalition, exhaust the remedies of the U.N. and go to war as a last resort.
Those words really have to mean something. And, unfortunately, he didn't go to war as a last resort.
Now we have this incredible mess in Iraq -- $200 billion. It's not what the American people thought they were getting when they voted.
LEHRER: All right, that brings us to closing statements.
And, again, as determined by a coin toss, Senator Kerry, you go first, and you have two minutes.
KERRY: Thank you, Jim, very much.
Thank you very much to the university, again.
Thank you, Mr. President.
My fellow Americans, as I've said at the very beginning of this debate, both President Bush and I love this country very much. There's no doubt, I think, about that.
But we have a different set of convictions about how we make our country stronger here at home and respected again in the world.
I know that for many of you sitting at home, parents of kids in Iraq, you want to know who's the person who could be a commander in chief who could get your kids home and get the job done and win the peace.
And for all the rest of the parents in America who are wondering about their kids going to the school or anywhere else in the world, what kind of world they're going to grow up in, let me look you in the eye and say to you: I defended this country as a young man at war, and I will defend it as president of the United States.
But I have a difference with this president. I believe when we're strongest when we reach out and lead the world and build strong alliances.
I have a plan for Iraq. I believe we can be successful. I'm not talking about leaving. I'm talking about winning. And we need a fresh start, a new credibility, a president who can bring allies to our side.
I also have a plan to win the war on terror, funding homeland security, strengthening our military, cutting our finances, reaching out to the world, again building strong alliances.
I believe America's best days are ahead of us because I believe that the future belongs to freedom, not to fear.
That's the country that I'm going to fight for. And I ask you to give me the opportunity to make you proud. I ask you to give me the opportunity to lead this great nation, so that we can be stronger here at home, respected again in the world, and have responsible leadership that we deserve.
Thank you. And God bless America.
LEHRER: Mr. President, two minutes.
BUSH: Thank you very much tonight, Jim. Senator.
If America shows uncertainty or weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. That's not going to happen, so long as I'm your president.
The next four years we will continue to strengthen our homeland defenses. We will strengthen our intelligence-gathering services. We will reform our military. The military will be an all-volunteer army.
We will continue to stay on the offense. We will fight the terrorists around the world so we do not have to face them here at home.
We'll continue to build our alliances. I'll never turn over America's national security needs to leaders of other countries, as we continue to build those alliances.
And we'll continue to spread freedom. I believe in the transformational power of liberty. I believe that the free Iraq is in this nation's interests. I believe a free Afghanistan is in this nation's interest.
And I believe both a free Afghanistan and a free Iraq will serve as a powerful example for millions who plead in silence for liberty in the broader Middle East.
We've done a lot of hard work together over the last three and a half years. We've been challenged, and we've risen to those challenges. We've climbed the mighty mountain. I see the valley below, and it's a valley of peace.
By being steadfast and resolute and strong, by keeping our word, by supporting our troops, we can achieve the peace we all want.
I appreciate your listening tonight. I ask for your vote. And may God continue to bless our great land.
LEHRER: And that ends tonight's debate. A reminder, the second presidential debate will be a week from tomorrow, October 8th, from Washington University in St. Louis. Charles Gibson of ABC News will moderate a town hall-type event. Then, on October 13th, from Arizona State University in Tempe, Bob Schieffer of CBS News will moderate an exchange on domestic policy that will be similar in format to tonight's.
Also, this coming Tuesday, at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, the vice presidential candidates, Vice President Cheney and Senator Edwards, will debate with my PBS colleague, Gwen Ifill, moderating.
For now, thank you, Senator Kerry, President Bush.
From Coral Gables, Florida, I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.