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Gore challenges Bush Iraqi policy

Questions the timing of a military strike

From John Mercurio
CNN Washington Bureau

Former Vice President Al Gore arrives at a San Francisco hotel with his wife, Tipper, to deliver a speech on Iraq.
Former Vice President Al Gore arrives at a San Francisco hotel with his wife, Tipper, to deliver a speech on Iraq.

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(CNN) -- Re-entering America's foreign policy debate, former Vice President Al Gore warned Monday that President Bush's doctrine allowing for a "pre-emptive" strike against Iraq could create a global "reign of fear."

In his first major speech on the situation in Iraq since February, Gore said he's "deeply concerned" that Bush's stated willingness to proceed without backing from an international coalition "has the potential to seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism and to weaken our ability to lead the world in this new century."

"Great nations persevere and then prevail. They do not jump from one unfinished task to another," Gore said during a 55-minute speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. "We are perfectly capable of staying the course in our war against Osama bin Laden" while simultaneously building an international coalition against the Iraqi president.

The once and possibly future presidential candidate said Bush has mishandled a rare opportunity to build upon the widespread goodwill that existed across the world after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

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Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said any unilateral action the U.S. might take against Saddam Hussein could distract from the war on terrorism. CNN's Candy Crowley reports (September 24)
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"In just one year, the president has somehow squandered the international outpouring of sympathy, goodwill and solidarity that followed" September 11 "and converted it into anger and apprehension aimed much more at the United States than at the terrorist network -- much as we managed to squander in one year's time the largest budget surpluses in history and convert them into massive fiscal deficits," he said.

While backing Bush's overall goal of ousting Saddam and eliminating Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, Gore questioned the timing of a military strike, as envisioned in the proposed resolution he's sent to Capitol Hill.

"President Bush now asserts that we will take pre-emptive action even if we think the threat we perceive is not imminent. If other nations assert the same right then the rule of law will quickly be replaced by the reign of fear -- any nation that perceives circumstances that could eventually lead to an imminent threat would be justified under this approach in taking military action against another nation," Gore said.

"An unspoken part of this new doctrine appears to be that we claim this right for ourselves -- and only for ourselves," he said.

'Hawk' on foreign policy issues

The Democrat went to some lengths, however, to emphasize his credentials as a "hawk" on foreign policy issues, especially Iraq. He noted that he was "one of the few Democrats in the Senate" in 1991 who crossed party lines and supported the war resolution introduced by the current president's father.

Gore is well aware of the political pitfalls of openly questioning military action. His own father, the late Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, a vocal critic of the Vietnam War, lost his re-election bid in 1970, largely because of his position on the war.

But Gore said the circumstances existing in 1991 "were very different" from the conditions this year as Congress prepares to debate a new resolution the current president has proposed.

In 1991, for example, Hussein invaded a sovereign country and annexed its territory. "This year, instead, we are prepared to cross an international border to change the government of Iraq," Gore said.

Also in 1991, he said, the former President Bush "patiently and skillfully" built a broad coalition that featured every Arab nation except Jordan, including some governments that supplied troops. "This year, many of our allies in Europe and Asian are thus far opposed," he said.

Gore also said that unlike in 1991, when most of the financial burden was shouldered by coalition partners, U.S. taxpayers likely would need to spend "hundreds of billions of dollars" on a new war.

War and politics

Gore stopped short of criticizing Bush for using the war to score political gains, a point other Democrats have expressed over the past several weeks as they gear up for the November 5 mid-term elections.

But Gore said Bush should nonetheless work to dispel that perception, which he said is widely held within the international community and is hindering Bush's efforts to build support. He noted the successful re-election bid this week of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has vowed that Germany will not engage in military action in Iraq.

"Rather than making efforts to dispel concern at home and abroad about the role of politics in the timing of his policy, the president is on the campaign trail, often publicly taunting Democrats with the political consequences of a "no" vote [on the resolution] even as the Republican National Committee runs pre-packaged advertising based on the same theme," he said.

Republicans were quick to dismiss Gore's remarks as overtly political.

"It seemed to be a speech more appropriate for a political hack than a presidential candidate by someone who clearly fails to recognize leadership. It was a contradiction within a contradiction," said RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt.

Gore's last major foreign policy address was February 12, to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. During that speech, Gore said Iraq "represents a virulent threat in a class by itself ... As far as I am concerned, a final reckoning with that government should be on the table. ... The real question is not the principle of the thing, but of making sure that this time we will finish the matter on our own terms."

Gore recently has intensified his profile on both domestic and foreign policy issues as he prepares to decide whether to seek a rematch with Bush in 2004. The former vice president told the enthusiastic crowd that he would decide in December whether to challenge Bush again. He is expected to announce his decision early next year.

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