WASHINGTON -- In the Democratic ticket's boldest attack yet on Bush administration policy toward Iraq, Sen. Al Gore said yesterday that President Bush's "coddling" of Saddam Hussein "led directly to a war that should never have taken place."
One of the few Senate Democrats to support Mr. Bush's request to use military force against Iraq last year, Mr. Gore said that hundreds of thousands of American troops had been required to "risk their lives facing a threat that had been built up through U.S. technology and U.S. tax dollars by our own president."
Rejecting Mr. Bush's claim that he had done nothing to enhance Iraq's nuclear, chemical or biological weapons capabilities, the Democratic vice presidential nominee said the administration "apparently violated" federal laws in its determination to "curry favor" with Mr. Hussein by improving economic and political ties with Baghdad.
"To this day George Bush is telling the American people that his decisions did not result in assistance to Saddam Hussein in building up his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons technology. That simply is not true," Mr. Gore said.
In a detailed, 40-minute address billed by the Clinton-Gore campaign as a major policy statement, Mr. Gore portrayed Mr. Bush in unusually harsh and personal terms -- as a geopolitical arsonist whose "poor judgment, moral blindness and bungling policies" made war in the Persian Gulf inevitable.
"George Bush wants the American people to see him as the hero who put out a raging fire. But new evidence now shows that he is the one who set the fire," the senator said.
"He not only struck the match, he poured gasoline on the flames. So give him credit for calling in the fire department, but understand who started the blaze."
For the first time linking the president's handing of Iraq to his role in the Iran-contra scandal, Mr. Gore claimed Mr. Bush had been guilty of "the same basic misjudgment and miscalculation" in each case. Describing what he said was a pattern of toadying up to tyrants, he called on the president to "come clean" with the American people about his involvement.
The sharply worded assault was the Clinton campaign's latest attempt to undermine Mr. Bush's claim to expertise in foreign policy, considered his biggest advantage against the Arkansas governor, who lacks such experience.
Speaking under the auspices of the Center for National Policy, a Democratic think tank, Mr. Gore stuck closely to his text, which was distributed to reporters complete with 56 footnotes. Though he broke no fresh ground, his remarks represented the Democrats' most comprehensive effort to date to pull together in one place the growing array of allegations about the administration's policy toward Iraq.
Mr. Bush has acknowledged the failure of efforts by his administration, and by the Reagan administration during the 1980s, to turn Iraq toward the West by providing U.S. agricultural assistance and the sale of high technology to Mr. Hussein during his long war with Iran.
But Mr. Gore faulted Mr. Bush "for persisting in this effort far, far beyond the point of folly" and accused the administration of trying to "hide the facts from the American people." He also said taxpayers were now being forced, "by Bush's poor decisions to bail out Saddam," to make good on nearly $2 billion in government-guaranteed loans to Iraq that were never repaid.
Specifically, Mr. Gore said that in 1984 Mr. Bush, then vice president, had personally lobbied the head of the Export-Import Bank, "a friend from college days" to reject the opinion of bank economists and provide credits to Iraq. Mr. Bush "personally intervened" again, in 1987, to emphasize the importance of another $200 million loan to Iraq, he said.
Despite Defense Department warnings as early as 1985 that Iraq was diverting U.S. exports toward its nuclear weapons program, Mr. Bush "apparently agreed" with Iraq's ambassador to the United States in 1987 when he protested that the Pentagon was taking too long to approve high-tech export licenses for Iraq, according to Mr. Gore.
After Mr. Bush became president, Mr. Gore said, his administration ignored evidence of Mr. Hussein's nuclear weapons buildup when it agreed in November 1989 to approve an additional $1 billion in loan subsidies to Iraq and in January 1990, when the president signed an order exempting Iraq from a law barring further U.S.-guaranteed loans.