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CAMPAIGN 2000

Gore Attacks Bush's Weapons Plan

Defense: Vice president says unilateral arms cuts, suggested by the presumptive GOP nominee, would threaten national security.

May 28, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST POINT, N.Y. — Al Gore accused rival George W. Bush on Saturday 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 presumed 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 "an approach that combines serious unilateral reductions with an attempt to build a massive defensive system would create instability and thus 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 never named Bush in his West Point speech. And later, he insisted 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 that could reverberate through the fall campaign.

The key difference in the arms control debate is the candidates' approach toward the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which bans national missile defenses.

The Clinton administration is testing a limited defense system while trying to convince 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 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty voted down last year by the Senate and said 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 respective 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."

"The ABM Treaty remains the cornerstone of strategic stability in our relationship with Russia," Gore said. " . . . Strategic stability can never be a one-way street. It either exists for both the United States and Russia, or neither. Reductions alone do not guarantee stability. It is how reductions are made and how they interact with defensive systems that make the difference. That is why arms control and strategic modernization have to be built upon planned and negotiated agreements."

Gore's appearance at West Point was not unprecedented: The graduation speaker in 1988 was Vice President George Bush, the governor's father and at that time the GOP presidential nominee-in-waiting.

In his speech, Gore also called for higher military pay and "a new level of cooperation and joint endeavor" among the branches of the armed services and recounted his own experience in the Army, which included a stint as a journalist stationed in Vietnam.

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."

Gore, in text posted on his campaign Web site Saturday, insisted that the administration's handling of the post-Cold War military build-down "has yielded a force that while smaller, is more agile, more powerful, and more effective at countering new strategic threats" than in the past.

The vice president's online statement outlined in general terms his goals for U.S. armed forces, which included "endowing them with the current cutting-edge technology." He said the nation's military "must be fully ready for the 21st century peacekeeping and humanitarian missions that are certain to arise in the coming decades."

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