WASHINGTON – Al Gore told young Democrats Thursday that he supports the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein but questioned whether the invasion of Iraq is a good idea at this time, especially when the future stability of Afghanistan remains in question.
"I think the principle of 'first things first' does apply and has to be followed if we are to have any chance of success," the former vice president said in a visit to Capitol Hill he described as his first since leaving office.
Gore, the 2000 Democratic nominee for president, made the comments to a group called 21st Century Democrats at the Dirksen building near the Capitol, where many senators have their offices.
In a low-key discussion with more than 500 young Democrats who packed into the spacious conference room, Gore mixed jokes with his criticism of the Bush administration's economic plans and foreign policy. He criticized the president for frequently threatening to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"I certainly question why we would be publicly blustering and announcing an invasion a year or two years in advance," Gore said, noting that some officials had leaked documents spelling out battle strategy.
"What was that all about?" Gore said to laughter.
"These guys are supposed to be good at foreign policy," he said, then added: "I don't think they are."
He praised the president's response in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, but said the administration has made mistakes recently in Afghanistan, notably in not allowing a sufficient number of international peacekeepers to prevent the country from drifting back toward the control of warlords.
Gore said he supported the Persian Gulf war, and noted that Arab countries were united in backing the coalition that led the war. He said allies in Europe and Asia also supported the war against Iraq a decade ago.
"Contrast that with the situation we have today," Gore said, noting that Arab nations have not indicated they support such an effort and allies in other parts of the world have not been recruited to back it.
"I do think the situation our country faces now is fundamentally different than what we faced on the eve of the Gulf war," Gore said. "If the rest of the world does not see what it regards as a sufficient provocation to justify an invasion by the United States, then the diplomatic cost would be extremely high."
Despite his doubts about the timing of an invasion, Gore said he supports the eventual overthrow of Saddam. While he agreed with the war a decade ago, he added: "I felt they made a mistake by not finishing the job."
Bush has talked tough about Iraq, but has not yet fully consulted America's skeptical allies, enlisted political support from Congress or prepared the American public for the risks inherent in a new war. White House officials did not return calls seeking response to Gore's criticism.
During his comments, Gore also said:
--People should compare the current economic problems with the economy when he served as vice president to President Clinton, adding: "We had the strongest economy in history."
--Deficits facing the country are the result of the administration's economic policy and tax cuts, not Sept. 11.
--Questionable practices in corporate accounting can be compared with current practices in federal government accounting.
--He will make a decision by year's end whether to run for president in 2004.