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Gephardt Endorses Ousting Hussein

Politics: The House Democratic leader's support of military force could help Bush get congressional backing if he chooses that course.

June 05, 2002|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), detailing the foreign policy agenda of a possible presidential campaign, on Tuesday backed President Bush's call for the ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein but accused the administration of lacking an "appropriate sense of urgency" in strengthening homeland defenses.

In a speech here, Gephardt explicitly endorsed the use of military force to remove Hussein, as the administration has been considering. "We should use diplomatic tools where we can, but military means when we must to eliminate the threat he poses to the region and our own security," Gephardt said.

Gephardt's comments could help Bush build congressional support for an attack on Iraq if the president chooses that option. Other Democrats considering a 2004 race--including Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina--have also said they would support the use of force against Iraq. Kerry, though, has said he would prefer to first provide more aid to Hussein's foes within Iraq.

Gephardt generally avoided criticizing Bush's initiatives and performance, but he suggested that the president had allowed an "undercurrent of unilateralism" to strain our relations with allies abroad. Gephardt also argued for the creation of a Cabinet agency to direct homeland security.

But mostly, Gephardt confined his differences with Bush to arguing that the administration should push further in directions in which it is already heading on such matters as modernizing the military and reforming foreign aid.

"In addition to all we are doing now, we will need to do more," Gephardt said. "We will need to make our military stronger, our homeland safer and build alliances abroad to serve American interests."

The speech's overall tone was more conciliatory toward Bush than Gephardt's typical comments on economic or social policy. That continued a pattern in which most leading Democrats have sought to minimize their arguments with Bush on terrorism-related concerns while accentuating their differences on domestic issues.

Since the early 1980s, Gephardt has been considered a leader of the Democrats' traditional liberal wing, with particularly close ties to organized labor. But he appears to be moving toward the center as he considers a run for the White House in 2004.

Earlier this year, Gephardt delivered a centrist speech on economic policy to the Democratic Leadership Council, the party's leading moderate group. And in Tuesday's address, Gephardt struck a generally hawkish tone, implicitly endorsing Bush's call for a massive increase in defense spending.

Gephardt's main argument was that, to safeguard the nation against terrorism, the United States needs not only to strengthen its defenses but also to intensify its engagement abroad. He christened that approach "commitment" and presented it as a successor to the strategy of "containment" that guided U.S. foreign policy through the Cold War.

"We must be prepared to deliver the most forceful military response to provocation but also to expand opportunities for peace and prosperity," Gephardt said.

He said his policy of "commitment" would have three priorities:

* Modernizing the military. Gephardt urged the appointment of a bipartisan advisory commission to spur development of technologically advanced "smart" weapons, like the pilotless Predator drones used in Afghanistan.

Gephardt also said he would pursue legislation to increase the size of the nation's 1.4-million member armed forces. And he urged comprehensive reform of the Pentagon's supply and logistics systems, which he said is wasting $20 billion to $30 billion annually.

* Encouraging diplomatic engagement abroad. Gephardt broadly embraced Bush's recent proposal to increase U.S. foreign aid while tying the assistance to economic and political reform in the recipient countries--the so-called Millennium Challenge Account. But he urged Bush to use the initiative to push Arab and Muslim nations to specifically lower trade barriers, encourage a stronger rule of law and expand access to public education.

"We should work with developing nations to help them create universal education systems," Gephardt said, citing recent legislation that offers U.S. foreign aid to provide meals for children whose parents allow them to attend school.

Gephardt also said the administration should "redouble efforts" to strengthen America's international alliances.

* Strengthening homeland security. In his sharpest criticism of Bush, Gephardt said the nation was "moving too slowly to develop a homeland defense plan that is tough enough for this new war."

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