WASHINGTON – If diplomacy fails and the Bush administration decides to use force against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, he will have the backing of House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt.
"Saddam Hussein survives by repressing his people and feeding on a cult of victimization," Gephardt told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations. "He is clearly not a victim, and I share President Bush's resolve to confront this menace head-on."
The suggestion of the use of force to change the regime in Iraq is a substantive advancement of Gephardt's and the Democratic Party's position on the rogue state.
Gephardt, named a possible presidential contender in 2004, used the platform to lay out a variety of foreign policy issues and to alternatively praise and prod the Bush administration's conduct in the war against terrorism and homeland security.
"President Bush was right Saturday to say we are fighting a new war and will have to be ready to strike when necessary, not just deter," Gephardt said in reference to the president's weekend commencement address to cadets at West Point. "But on the home front, we are moving too slowly to develop a homeland defense plan that is tough enough for this new war."
Speaking to an audience of former policy makers and pundits who could have a say in credentialing Gephardt's foreign policy bona fides in case of a presidential bid, Gephardt said the president must collaborate more with members of Congress and with the international community. He also took at shot at the unilateralism he accuses the administration of pursuing that was very much a part of criticisms of Bush prior to Sept. 11.
Gephardt said Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge should be made a member of the Cabinet and given authority over a security budget. Such an arrangement would bring Ridge under formal congressional oversight, something the president opposes for now.
Gephardt said Ridge and Bush need to do more for homeland security, including bioterrorism preparedness.
"We need to reorganize our homeland defense agencies in order to maximize the safety of all Americans. Not only does the homeland security director need to be a Cabinet officer — he needs budgetary authority. He needs operational authority. And he must provide a comprehensive plan to the Congress on our national strategy for homeland security. Such a plan should involve all Americans in our civil defense effort," he said.
Gephardt spoke favorably of initiatives to modernize the military and make it more mobile, reflecting the same advocacy promoted by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose main job prior to Sept. 11 was pushing Congress toward that goal.
Adding troops to the armed forces, proposing an overhaul of a logistics and supply system, and offering to support a bipartisan commission to build support for military modernization were some of Gephardt's suggestions.
He also suggested that the intelligence committee hearings into failures to pick up on the Sept. 11 terror plot are something of an attempt to create a tremendous show of activity to mute Democratic calls for an independent commission.
Gephardt commended Bush for helping develop a stronger relationship between NATO and Russia. But he coupled those words with a call for additional funding to safeguard the remaining nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union.
While he said the administration "deserves credit" for the military victory in Afghanistan, Gephardt said it would be shortsighted "if we stop now and withhold support for expanding the international security presence beyond Kabul, as Chairman [Hamid] Karzai has urgently requested."
Gephardt voted against the use of force in the run-up to the 1991 Persian Gulf War but, in his prepared remarks, said he was ready to work with the administration "to build an effective policy to terminate the threat posed by" the Iraqi regime.
"New foreign policy initiatives can help remove one of the legs of Saddam's survival by reducing the desperation of many in the Arab world who see him as a defiant ray of hope," he said.
"At the same time, we should be prepared to remove the other leg with the use of force."
Bush branded Iraq as a member of the "axis of evil" in a speech last winter, and administration officials have not discouraged speculation that the war on terrorism might involve an effort to oust Saddam.
Gephardt also urged the Bush administration to demonstrate leadership in the effort to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
"We cannot expect that the parties to this conflict will resolve it without the active support of the United States," he said.
"We must be steadfast in our support of Israel," he added. "There is no moral equivalence between suicide bombings and defending against them."
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.