WASHINGTON - Al Gore thrust himself into the debate over Iraq yesterday with a blazing indictment of President Bush's policies, warning that they could weaken the global war on terrorism and undermine American leadership around the world.
The former vice president, who has been muted in his criticism of his 2000 rival, had been expected to join other potential Democratic presidential candidates in lining up behind Bush's request to use force against Iraq.
Gore did say Congress should authorize Bush to act against Iraq. But he allied himself with some of his party's most liberal voices in opposing a unilateral U.S. invasion.
At least two other potential Democratic contenders, Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and John Edwards of North Carolina, have endorsed unilateral action. Democratic leaders in Congress, eager to work out a compromise with the White House on an Iraq resolution, have avoided the sweeping denunciations that Gore delivered.
Acting with uncharacteristic boldness, Gore seized the initiative at a time when many in his party are being accused of tamping down their criticism of Bush's Iraq policy.
Gore bluntly accused the Bush administration of abandoning Afghanistan before completing the task of defeating al-Qaida, comparing it to the U.S. decision to quit the fight against Iraq under the first President Bush 11 years ago.
He argued that Bush was seeking political gain in calling for an Iraq vote before the November elections, a request that Democratic leaders have said they'll meet.
The administration has asked Congress to authorize the use of "all means that [Bush] deems to be appropriate, including force" to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
But Gore said Congress needs to give Bush much narrower authority and predicted dire long-term consequences if the administration is allowed to carry out a foreign policy that "appears to be glorifying the notion of [American] dominance."
The White House reacted mildly last night to Gore's free-wheeling critique.
"The president has unified America, and America has rallied behind his call for action. He is going to continue to lead and unify even if splits start emerging within the Democratic Party and its presidential candidates," said Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman.
In his speech, Gore said the Iraq resolution proposed by the White House would create the precedent for pre-emptive action "anywhere, anytime, this or any future president" wants it.
"If what we represent to the world is empire, then it is our enemies who will be legion," Gore warned.
A number of congressional Democrats have in recent days voiced similar concerns about Bush's request for broad authority to carry out his plans in Iraq
"The majority of [Democrats] want to stand with the president in going to the United Nations, urging their involvement, inspections, enforcement, but there's great concern about an open-ended, unlimited course of action," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat. "We would lose our coalition, and ... it would weaken our ability to fight the war on terrorism."
Speaking in San Francisco, where the United Nations charter was signed in 1945, Gore said the administration would abandon more than half a century of multinational action to avert warfare among nations. Bush would replace it with a system in which "there is no law but the discretion of the president of the United States," he said.
Gore also belittled Bush's performance on the economy, accusing his administration of squandering history's largest budget surplus, dragging its feet on homeland defense and assaulting fundamental constitutional rights in the way it has imprisoned American citizens with suspected ties to terrorism.
"In just one year, the president has somehow squandered the international outpouring of sympathy, goodwill and solidarity that followed the attacks of Sept. 11 and converted it into anger and apprehension aimed much more at the United States than at the terrorist network," Gore told the Commonwealth Club.
A copy of his speech, which Gore described as an alternative to Bush's proposed course, was made available by Gore's office.
Gore acknowledged that Iraq poses a "serious threat" to the Persian Gulf region and said the United States should organize an international coalition to eliminate Hussein's access to weapons of mass destruction.
In 1991, Gore was one of 10 Democratic senators who backed the first President Bush's request for a resolution authorizing an attack on Iraq. Yesterday, Gore said he "felt betrayed by the first Bush administration's hasty departure from the battlefield," which left Hussein in power.
Gore has said he would announce in December whether he will seek the 2004 presidential nomination.
By speaking out now against Bush's plans, he stands to help himself among the more liberal Democratic voters who dominate key primary states. But his strategy also contains risks and could backfire if the United States succeeds in Iraq with none of the dangers Gore warned against.
Gore was particularly harsh in criticizing Bush's doctrine of "pre-emption," in which the president has said the United States could act unilaterally against another nation for threatening American interests, even if that threat is not imminent.
"If other nations assert the same right, then the rule of law will quickly be replaced by the reign of fear," Gore said.
He said Congress should take no action that could be seen as ratifying Bush's policy of pre-emptive action until the policy can be debated more fully.
Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are working with Bush to reach bipartisan consensus on a resolution that would give the president the power to move against Iraq.
Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is advocating a congressional resolution that would authorize force against Iraq, but only pursuant to a new United Nations measure setting a deadline by which Saddam Hussein would have to comply with weapons inspections.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said Bush's resolution is "overly broad" and would give him "carte blanche" to do anything he wants to in the region. "Does Saddam Hussein have the nuclear weapons - not does he plan to have them, but does he have them now? We have to ask these questions," Mikulski said.