OP-ED COLUMNIST

A Speech That's No Joke

By BOB HERBERT
Published: May 28, 2004

It has always been easy to make fun of Al Gore. But if there's any truth to the thunderous criticism he's turned loose on the Bush administration this week, it's time to dispense with the jokes and listen seriously to what the man is saying.

If Mr. Gore is right, the nation is faced with a crisis of leadership that is perilously close to an emergency.

If he's wrong, then all the folks who have made the easy jokes at his expense can consider themselves vindicated.

The war in Iraq, said Mr. Gore, in an interview on Wednesday, "is the worst strategic fiasco in the history of the United States. It is an unfolding catastrophe without any comparison."

In an echo of the growing chorus of criticism here and around the world, he said the war has not only damaged "our strategic interests" and isolated the U.S. from its allies, it has also made the country more - not less - vulnerable to terror.

In a widely covered speech earlier in the day, Mr. Gore said that Iraq had not become, as President Bush has asserted, " `the central front in the war on terror.' " But he said it has become, unfortunately, "the central recruiting office for terrorists."

The speech was extraordinary - blunt, colorful and delivered with the kind of passion you seldom see in politics anymore. The former vice president described Mr. Bush as incompetent and untrustworthy, and said his policies had endangered the nation.

The president, said Mr. Gore, had "planted the seeds of war, and harvested a whirlwind."

In the view of Mr. Gore (and many others), the essential problem has been the triumph in the Bush crowd of ideology over reality. The true believers knew everything better than everybody else, and the arrogance born of that certainty led, step by tragic step, to the war with no exit doors that we are locked in today.

That arrogance gave rise to the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war, the contempt for international agreements like the Geneva Conventions, the dismissal of concerns by some of the highest-ranking military professionals about the way a war in Iraq should be fought and the willingness of top administration figures to blow smoke in the eyes of ordinary Americans who were traumatized by Sept. 11 and worried about the possibility of further terrorist attacks.

"The same preference for ideology over reality has turned trillion-dollar surpluses into multitrillion-dollar deficits," said Mr. Gore. "And that same approach has led to the locking up of American citizens without recourse to lawyers or access to courts or even a right of their families to know they're being held in secret."

These and other matters are transforming the United States into a country that is more warlike, more brutal, less free, less just, less admirable and much less appealing than the nation that existed when Mr. Bush stepped into the presidency in January 2001.

Those who disagree with Mr. Gore should challenge him on his facts. Those who agree must look for ways to defend the honor and perhaps the very identity of the United States as we've known it.

The least serious part of Mr. Gore's speech was the part that got the most attention, his call for top officials of the Bush administration to resign. As an attention-getter, it worked.

But this was a speech in which the former vice president said: "What makes the United States special in the history of nations is our commitment to the rule of law and our carefully constructed system of checks and balances. Our natural distrust of concentrated power and our devotion to openness and democracy are what have led us as a people to consistently choose good over evil in our collective aspirations, more than the people of any other nation."

This is a time to remember the principles that made this a great nation, and to reaffirm them. I don't know what will happen in the election in November. What I know is that the nation is facing a crisis now. The Bush administration needs to step back from the abyss its ideology has dragged us to.

It may be that the president never understood what made the U.S. great. In that case, he'd be among those who could benefit most from a reading of Mr. Gore's speech. If he followed that up with a look at the Bill of Rights (it would only take a few minutes), he'd have a better understanding of what this country, at its best, is about.  

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com