Gore's gamble

September 25, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- With the Democratic Party virtually tongue-tied on Iraq, it has fallen to former Vice President Al Gore, seldom heralded for taking the dangerous path in his political career, to give loud voice to the simmering doubt in the land about President Bush's war plans.

Mr. Gore's lusty assault in a San Francisco speech Monday challenged not only the wisdom of Mr. Bush's targeting of Iraq but also the president's broader new doctrine of pre-emption against countries he may perceive as purveyors of weapons of mass destruction.

Beyond charging Mr. Bush with being "distracted" from the war on terrorism, Mr. Gore warned that international cooperation in that war "can be severely damaged by unilateral action against Iraq," threatened by Mr. Bush if other nations don't join him. In a reminder that al-Qaida has not been eradicated, Mr. Gore said: "Great nations persevere and then prevail. They do not jump from one unfinished task to another."

Also, pointedly referring to the new Bush doctrine spelled out last week in his national security strategy report to Congress, Mr. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign opponent charged him with "proclaiming a new, uniquely American right to pre-emptively attack whomever he may deem represents a potential future threat."

Mr. Gore warned that under this doctrine Iraq would be only the first target, "not necessarily the last. ... The very logic of the concept suggests a string of military engagements against a succession of sovereign states: Syria, Libya, North Korea, Iran," wherever weapons of mass destruction are sought and terrorists harbored.

If Congress approves Mr. Bush's war resolution on Iraq, he warned, "it is simultaneously creating the precedent for pre-emptive action anywhere, anytime this or any future president so decides."

In taking up a battle from which other leaders in his party had so conspicuously shied away, Mr. Gore has provided the most persuasive indication since his 2000 presidential defeat that he is gearing up for another campaign for the Democratic nomination and a rematch with Mr. Bush.

Earlier, he had encountered public criticism from his 2000 running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, for ruffling corporate feathers with his campaign slogan, "They're for the powerful, we're for the people," which took on new resonance with widespread revelations of corporate corruption and greed.

Now Mr. Gore has added a clear foreign-policy message to that domestic one with which to draw another sharp distinction with Mr. Bush. Together, these positions could go a long way to making Democrats forget their gripes against the previously cautious man who narrowly missed the presidency in 2000.

For now at least, Mr. Gore's voice is again dominant in a party that otherwise has been struggling to find a clear and forceful one against the popular Republican incumbent. The question is whether it will provide a spark to ignite real Democratic opposition to Mr. Bush's threat, if necessary, to go it alone against Iraq.

Only Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts among the prospective 2004 presidential candidates had been out front in questioning the Bush policy prior to Mr. Gore's broadside. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, another 2004 prospect, has bought into the idea that the best way to bring this fall's congressional campaign back to domestic issues more favorable to Democrats is to give Mr. Bush his war resolution quickly, and take Iraq off the table before November.

Mr. Gore clearly disagrees. His forceful speech is a political gamble on his part, inviting Republican allegations of disloyalty and softness. But it does put him at the head of a parade of dissent that has been slowly gathering in Democratic ranks over invading Iraq.

In terms of Mr. Gore's further presidential ambitions, much will depend on the outcome of the Bush war policy. If the president invades Iraq, brings down Saddam Hussein and establishes stability in the region, the former vice president will be out on a limb. But if that policy opens the Pandora's box that Mr. Gore fears, his timorous foes for the 2004 nomination will be left holding it.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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