As Al Gore steps into the national spotlight because of the Academy Awards and his global-warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” it’s worth remembering that in fall 2002 Gore sought to warn the American people about another “inconvenient truth,” the folly of invading Iraq.
The former Vice President did so at a time when it was considered madness or almost treason to object to George W. Bush’s war plans. But Gore was one of a small number of national political figures who took that risk and paid a price, subjected to widespread ridicule and disdain from the Washington news media.
On Sept, 23, 2002, in a speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Gore laid out a series of concerns and differences that he had with Bush’s policy of “preemptive war” and specifically Bush’s decision to refashion the “war on terror” into an imminent invasion of Iraq.
Gore, who had supported the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, criticized Bush’s failure to enlist the international community as his father had. Gore also warned about the negative impact that alienating other nations was having on the broader war against terrorists.
“I am deeply concerned that the course of action that we are presently embarking upon with respect to Iraq has the potential to seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism and to weaken our ability to lead the world in this new century,” Gore said. “To put first things first, I believe that we ought to be focusing our efforts first and foremost against those who attacked us on Sept. 11. …
“Great nations persevere and then prevail. They do not jump from one unfinished task to another. We should remain focused on the war against terrorism.”
Instead of keeping after al-Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan, Bush had chosen to start a new war against Iraq as the first example of his policy of preemption, Gore said.
“He is telling us that our most urgent task right now is to shift our focus and concentrate on immediately launching a new war against Saddam Hussein,” Gore said. “And the President is proclaiming a new uniquely American right to preemptively attack whomsoever he may deem represents a potential future threat.”
Gore also objected to the timing of the vote on war with Iraq.
“President Bush is demanding, in this high political season, that Congress speedily affirm that he has the necessary authority to proceed immediately against Iraq and, for that matter, under the language of his resolution, against any other nation in the region regardless of subsequent developments or emerging circumstances,” Gore said.
The former Vice President staked out a position with subtle but important differences from Bush’s broad assertion that the United States has the right to override international law on the President’s command. Gore argued that U.S. unilateral power should be used sparingly, only in extreme situations.
“There’s no international law that can prevent the United States from taking action to protect our vital interests when it is manifestly clear that there’s a choice to be made between law and our survival,” Gore said. “Indeed, international law itself recognizes that such choices stay within the purview of all nations. I believe, however, that such a choice is not presented in the case of Iraq.”
Lost Good Will
Gore bemoaned, too, that Bush’s actions had dissipated the international good will that surrounded the United States after the 9/11 attacks.
“That has been squandered in a year’s time and replaced with great anxiety all around the world, not primarily about what the terrorist networks are going to do, but about what we’re going to do,” Gore said. “Now, my point is not that they’re right to feel that way, but that they do feel that way.”
Gore also took aim at Bush’s unilateral assertion of his right to imprison American citizens without trial or legal representation simply by labeling them “enemy combatants.”
“The very idea that an American citizen can be imprisoned without recourse to judicial process or remedy, and that this can be done on the sole say-so of the President of the United States or those acting in his name, is beyond the pale and un-American, and ought to be stopped,” Gore said.
Gore raised, too, practical concerns about the dangers that might follow the overthrow of Hussein, if chaos in Iraq followed. Gore cited the deteriorating political condition in Afghanistan where the new central government exerted real control only in parts of Kabul while ceding effective power to warlords in the countryside.
“What if, in the aftermath of a war against Iraq, we faced a situation like that, because we’ve washed our hands of it?” Gore asked. “What if the al-Qaeda members infiltrated across the borders of Iraq the way they are in Afghanistan? …
“Now, I just think that if we end the war in Iraq the way we ended the war in Afghanistan, we could very well be much worse off than we are today.”
Angry Bush Backers
While it may have been understandable why Bush’s supporters would be upset over Gore’s address – radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh said he was unable to get to sleep after listening to it – their subsequent reaction was more attuned to obscuring Gore’s arguments than addressing what he actually said.
Rather than welcome a vigorous debate on the merits and shortcomings of the so-called “Bush Doctrine,” right-wing and mainstream commentators treated Gore as dishonest, unpatriotic and even unhinged. Gore was slapped around by Beltway political analysts, hit from all angles, variously portrayed as seeking cheap political gain and committing political suicide.
Helped by the fact that Gore’s speech received spotty television coverage – MSNBC carried excerpts live and C-SPAN replayed the speech later that night – pro-Bush commentators were free to distort Gore’s words and then dismiss his arguments as “lies” largely because few Americans actually heard what he had said.
Some epithets came directly from Bush partisans. Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke called Gore a “political hack.”
An administration source told The Washington Post that Gore was simply “irrelevant,” a theme that would be repeated often in the days after Gore’s speech. [Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2002]
Other barrages came from right-wing opinion-makers from leading editorial pages, on talk radio and on television chat shows.
“Gore’s speech was one no decent politician could have delivered,” wrote Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly. “It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts – bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It was vile. It was contemptible.” [Washington Post, Sept. 25, 2002]
“A pudding with no theme but much poison,” declared another Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer. “It was a disgrace – a series of cheap shots strung together without logic or coherence.” [Washington Post, Sept. 27, 2002]
At Salon.com, Andrew Sullivan entitled his piece about Gore’s speech “The Opportunist” and characterized Gore as “bitter.”
While some depicted Gore’s motivation as political “opportunism,” columnist William Bennett mocked Gore for sealing his political doom and banishing himself “from the mainstream of public opinion.”
In an Op-Ed piece for The Wall Street Journal, entitled “Al Gore’s Political Suicide,” Bennett said Gore had “made himself irrelevant by his inconsistency” and had engaged in “an act of self-immolation” by daring to criticize Bush’s policy. “Now we have reason to be grateful once again that Al Gore is not the man in the White House, and never will be,” Bennett wrote. [Wall Street Journal, Sept. 26, 2002]
When the conservative pundits addressed Gore’s actual speech, his words were bizarrely parsed or selectively edited to allow reprising of the news media’s favorite “Lyin’ Al” canard from the presidential campaign.
Kelly, for instance, resumed his editorial harangue with the argument that Gore was lying when the former Vice President said “the vast majority of those who sponsored, planned and implemented the cold-blooded murder of more than 3,000 Americans are still at large, still neither located nor apprehended, much less punished and neutralized.”
To Kelly, this comment was “reprehensible” and “a lie.” Kelly continued, “The men who ‘implemented’ the ‘cold-blooded murder of more than 3,000 Americans’ are dead; they died in the act of murder on Sept. 11. Gore can look this up.”
Kelly added that most of the rest were in prison or on the run. Yet, Kelly’s remarks were obtuse even by his standards. Gore clearly was talking about the likes of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who indeed had not been located or captured – and still remain at large.
Plus, the Bush administration itself had expressed frustration at the failure of Afghan and Pakistani forces to cut off escape routes for al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders during the military offensive at Tora Bora in December 2001.
But when Gore made similar points, he was dismissed as a liar. That then opened the door for smirking TV pundits to reprise other bogus examples of Gore’s “lies,” including the invented quote about Gore supposedly saying he “invented the Internet.”
Still, the underlying theme running through the attacks against Gore and other critics of Bush’s “preemptive war” policy was that a thorough debate would not be tolerated. Rather than confront arguments on their merits, Bush’s supporters simply drummed Gore and fellow skeptics out of Washington’s respectable political society.
More than four years later, Gore’s Iraq War warnings sound both prescient and obvious. What might be more remarkable is how few major political figures dared to speak out, as Gore did, when their cautionary advice might have saved many thousands of lives and spared the United States possibly the worst national security disaster in its history.
[The above story derives, in part, from a contemporaneous Consortiumnews.com article by Sam Parry, entitled “Politics of Preemption.”]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It’s also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth.’