Al Gore said last night that the time had come for a "final reckoning" with Iraq, describing the country as a "virulent threat in a class by itself" and suggesting that the United States should consider ways to oust President Saddam Hussein.
In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Mr. Gore generally praised President Bush's performance since Sept. 11, but raised questions about how Mr. Bush had worked with other nations in the war in Afghanistan and against Al Qaeda.
The former Democratic vice president, in the first of what aides said would be four speeches intended to set the agenda for the 2002 Congressional elections — and perhaps for another White House bid by Mr. Gore — went to great lengths to avoid being portrayed as criticizing a sitting president during a war.
Nevertheless, his speech marked the first time that Mr. Gore has even hinted at the different ways in which he might have responded to the Sept. 11 attacks had he not lost the presidency to Mr. Bush in November 2000.
In particular, Mr. Gore said the president had not paid enough attention to cultivating the kind of multi- nation effort that Mr. Gore argued was essential to countering a threat of terrorism, instead relying on a unilateral approach.
"The administration in which I served looked at the challenges we faced in the world and said we wished to tackle these with others, if possible; alone, if we must," Mr. Gore said. "This administration sometimes seems inclined to stand that on its head, so that the message is, with others, if we must; by ourselves, if possible.
"The coalition so skillfully assembled by the president is one that may dissipate as rapidly as it coalesced, unless we make an investment in its permanence, beginning with a more evident respect on our part for the views and interests of its members," he said.
Mr. Gore, speaking four miles from the ruins of the World Trade Center, applauded Mr. Bush for singling out Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address. But Mr. Gore argued that there were underlying forces in the Islamic world that were encouraging anti-American sentiment and breeding terrorism that the United States needed to urgently address.
"There is another axis of evil in the world: poverty and ignorance; disease and environmental disorder; corruption and political oppression," he said. "We may well put down terror in its present manifestations. But if we do not attend to the larger fundamentals as well, then the ground is fertile and has been seeded for the next generation of those born to hate the United States of America."
Mr. Gore's speech last night pointed to what aides said would be a new higher-profile chapter in his political life, as he seeks to emerge from the shadows of his defeat and a war that largely froze political activity for nearly five months. "A lot of people have let me know they wished that I had been speaking out on public affairs long before now," Mr. Gore said to a generally friendly audience.
Still, Mr. Gore clearly found himself in a difficult situation as he tried to distinguish himself from an extraordinarily popular president, without seeming to be critical of him during a time of crisis.
The former vice president, who now has a gray beard, drew rolling laugher from the crowd with a series of self-deprecating jokes.
"I am Al Gore," he said with practiced stiffness. "I used to be the next president of the United States."
Mr. Gore's speech lasted exactly 30 minutes. It was written with the assistance of Leon Fuerth, who was Mr. Gore's chief foreign policy aide in the White House.
In advocating that the administration consider whether the time had come to try to remove Mr. Hussein, Mr. Gore seemed to be in line with Mr.Bush's emerging policy.
But if Mr. Gore found himself on the same side as the White House about what to do now about Mr. Hussein, he was sharply critical of the way Mr. Bush's father had handled the matter during the 1991 war against Iraq. Mr. Gore noted that, back then, Mr. Hussein "was allowed to survive his defeat as the result of a calculation we all had reason to deeply regret for the ensuing decade — and still do."
"So this time, if we resort to force, we must absolutely get it right," he said.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company