WEST POINT, N.Y. - Al Gore accused rival George W. Bush yesterday of threatening progress toward lasting peace by calling for unilateral arms cuts and a missile defense system, proposals the vice president said would "hinder, rather than help, arms control."
In a commencement speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point - and, more pointedly, in remarks to reporters aboard Air Force Two - the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee assailed Bush's new arms policy as a dangerous break from 40-plus years of strategic thinking.
Addressing graduates and their loved ones in the academy's sun-washed football stadium, Gore said that "an approach that combines serious unilateral reductions with an attempt to build a massive defensive system would create instability and undermine our security."
Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker responded to Gore's address by criticizing him on the missile-defense issue. "It's unfortunate that Vice President Gore feels that it's not important to protect America with a ballistic missile defense system," Tucker said.
Gore did not name Bush in his West Point speech. And later, he insisted that his remarks adhered to the long-standing policy that service academy speeches should be nonpolitical. The distinction, however, was easily lost.
Last week, Bush unveiled a defense proposal clearly targeted in Gore's speech. The presumptive GOP nominee called for deep cuts in the nation's nuclear arsenal - even if Russia fails to match them - along with deployment of an antiballistic missile system capable of protecting all 50 states from attack by rogue nations or accidental launches.
Along with Bush's recent proposal to partially privatize Social Security, arms control has emerged as a central distinction between the two candidates.
The key difference in the arms control debate is the candidates' approach to the 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which bans national missile defenses.
The Clinton administration is testing a limited defense system while trying to persuade Russia to accept amendments to the ABM Treaty that would permit deployment, once the workable technology is developed. Bush, in contrast, has said he would abrogate the pact, if necessary, to build a more elaborate system of missile defenses.
Speaking to reporters Friday night as he traveled to West Point aboard Air Force Two, Gore offered a scathing critique of Bush's approach toward arms control. He noted that the Texas governor opposed the nuclear test ban treaty voted down last year by the Senate and said that that sentiment, combined with his attitude toward the ABM Treaty, was "a formula ... for a reignited arms race."
"Reductions have to be carried out in a way that reduces the risk of confrontation," Gore said. "If you're not careful, you could have fewer missiles and a more dangerous world."
Gore was far more oblique in his West Point speech, in keeping with the nominally nonpartisan nature of his appearance.
Standing before the graduating class of 944 cadets, Gore hailed the progress the United States and Russia have made toward reducing their nuclear arsenals.
President Clinton will travel to Moscow this week to meet with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, and Gore said the administration hopes to "continue on a course of deeper reductions. But it is critical we have the right approach in doing so."
In his speech, Gore also called for higher military pay, "a new level of cooperation and joint endeavor" between the branches of the armed services and recounted his own experience in the Army, which included a stint as a journalist stationed in Vietnam.
"I know what it's like to serve our country in changing and even uncertain times," Gore said.
Despite Gore's service record, the Bush campaign hopes to tie him to policies it claims have harmed the military. In a statement released before Gore's speech, Bush spokeswoman Tucker contended that under Clinton the U.S. military has become "underpaid, undertrained and overextended."