If you read only the headlines about Al Gore’s speech on Iraq, one would have to think that he has suddenly been catapulted to the head of the antiwar movement and also acquired a backbone, along with some principles. The Los Angeles Times averred that “Gore Assails Bush’s Stance on Iraq“: further North, Carla Marinucci, the San Francisco Chronicle‘s political editor, gushed that the speech was “one of the most forceful Democratic condemnations of President Bush’s foreign policy,” and in Washington, D.C., Bill Press, on MSNBC’s Buchanan & Press, declared that Al had taken a “brave stance”; even Pat seemed to concur. “Gore Gives Warning on Iraq,” the front page Washington Post headline blared, and the story claimed that “Al Gore sharply challenged President Bush on Iraq,” describing the speech as “one of the most forceful critiques to date by any leading Democrat.”
But that isn’t saying much, now is it? And that is precisely the problem. The Democrats have been veritable church mice on the war question, with a few hints that they might try to outflank him on the right. Sure, the Gore speech was “forceful” compared to Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt, who both fulsomely support the war but are desperately seeking some way to change the subject to domestic issues. So anything critical, however mild and opportunistic, is blown way out of proportion by left-liberal Democrats disappointed in their party’s leadership. I hate to be the one to tell them that they’re hallucinating but somebody has to.
For if we look at what Gore actually said, rather than what people believe he said, the result is that he comes out as a warmonger lite, who disagrees with the methods but not the goals of the would-be world-conquerors in Washington. He also evades the real issues, in spite of his promise at the outset to “recommend a specific course of action for our country.” It is to me inexplicable that Gore could have bloviated for a full hour without once mentioning weapons inspections, or the prospect of negotiations.
Which is not to say that he failed to make any valid or even useful points. He did aver that the war on Iraq is a “distraction,” and that the timing is not right. But this is hardly a critique, “forceful” or otherwise, of the notion that this is a just war. Nor is it a challenge to the peculiar notion inherent in the President’s weird idea that this is a war of “self-defense” that the Persian Gulf is as strategically necessary to American security as the Gulf of Mexico.
There is a peculiar rhythm to Gore’s remarks that might be described as “one step forward, two steps back.” No sooner does he make a declarative statement then he backs away, in the very next paragraph, contradicting his previous words so blatantly that the effect is conceptual nullification. “First things first,” he says, characterizing the Bush policy as “jump[ing] from one unfinished task to another” with the clear implication that Bush 43 is following through on the unfinished conquest that should have been completed long ago by his father.
This, of course, is precisely what the neoconservative critics of mainline Republican foreign policy have been saying all along. Now that they have finally succeeded in turning the son against the policies of the father, it is hard to see what Gore’s real objection may be, other than that it should have happened a lot sooner. Well, if so, then why not now? Gore’s Republican critics are thus spared the necessity of attacking him on this, since he does such an excellent job of it himself. For no sooner does he raise this mild “it’s a distraction” criticism of Bush’s war policy, then he changes his mind and declares that it is indeed possible to carry on a two-front war:
“We are perfectly capable of staying the course in our war against Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist network, while simultaneously taking those steps necessary to build an international coalition to join us in taking on Saddam Hussein in a timely fashion.”
Talking out of both sides of his mouth, Gore veers drunkenly from one position to another, trying them on for size, tentative and nervous, like a very bad actor in rehearsal (and we all know for what). The purely partisan tone of his rhetoric which naturally went over well on that San Francisco platform rings a bit hollow on the national stage. After all, “the timing of this sudden burst of urgency” is suspicious, as Gore sees it: but doesn’t this assume that, “in this high political season, ” the prospect of such a war is wildly popular? Polls differ, but the trend is definitely on the side of caution; and if the letters to Congress are any indication, this war is going to be hugely unpopular even before the shooting starts.
Gore, the consummate opportunist, wants to position himself to ride the crest of the inevitable reaction to a disastrous and fateful decision all the while hedging his bets. In the run-up to the 2000 election, he campaigned on a platform calling for Saddam’s overthrow, and personally met with and championed the cause of the Iraqi National Congress the same group the Bushies have anointed as their future Iraqi satraps. Last February, he called for “a final reckoning” with Saddam Hussein and described Iraq as a “virulent threat in a class by itself” a stance that would certainly seem to justify the Bushian doctrine of preemption, at least in this case.
Like Bush, Gore is also throwing out the principle of deterrence:
“Iraq does pose a serious threat to the stability of the Persian Gulf and we should organize an international coalition to eliminate his access to weapons of mass destruction. Iraq’s search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to completely deter and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam is in power. Moreover, no international law can prevent the United States from taking actions to protect its vital interests, when it is manifestly clear that there is a choice to be made between law and survival.”
In short, he agrees with Bush that a broken-down tenth-rate power like Iraq poses a threat that cannot be deterred and that it is only a matter of convenience and timing before we exercise our imperial prerogative, with the pro forma blessing of the UN, of course. International law? The U.S. is above it, the hyper-power that hovers over the world in search of targets. And so the foreign policy “debate” in this country proceeds along a very narrow spectrum: Iraq now, or Iraq next year? Such are the predicaments of empire .
Speaking of which, Gore’s use of the term is surprising:
“Regarding other countries, the Administration’s disdain for the views of others is well documented and need not be reviewed here. It is more important to note the consequences of an emerging national strategy that not only celebrates American strengths, but appears to be glorifying the notion of dominance. If what America represents to the world is leadership in a commonwealth of equals, then our friends are legion; if what we represent to the world is empire, then it is our enemies who will be legion.”
Did he lift that from Pat Buchanan’s book, A Republic, Not an Empire? It sure sounds like it. Or maybe he’s stealing from this column omigod, please, not that! Anything but that! I must confess to a feeling of overwhelming relief upon reading a bit further, as he takes two or perhaps even three steps back from his previously staunch anti-imperialist stance:
“Moreover, if we quickly succeed in a war against the weakened and depleted fourth rate military of Iraq and then quickly abandon that nation as President Bush has abandoned Afghanistan after quickly defeating a fifth rate military there, the resulting chaos could easily pose a far greater danger to the United States than we presently face from Saddam. We know that he has stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country.”
We must stay in Iraq, if we go, indefinitely: that is opposition to empire, Gore-style. As he conjures up a vision of a chaotic Middle East sorely in need of American overseers, the patrician Gore disdains the democratic pretensions of the Republicans:
“If we end the war in Iraq, the way we ended the war in Afghanistan, we could easily be worse off than we are today. When Secretary Rumsfield was asked recently about what our responsibility for restabilising Iraq would be in an aftermath of an invasion, he said, ‘that’s for the Iraqis to come together and decide.'”
But not in Al Gore’s universe. Apparently that’s not part of the “nation-building” process that both Gore and right-wing hawks like Rich Lowry see as a necessary adjunct to American policy.
But of course “nation-building” is empire-building; it is the ultimate exercise of the imperial prerogative to build a nation which normally evolves over time from scratch. The British did it (or tried it) in the Middle East, and we are to be left with their troublesome legacy the burden of upholding and protecting the borders of Iraq as drawn by the British Foreign Office in the early years of the twentieth century.
So, go ahead and conquer Iraq, says Gore: just make sure you get the United Nations Security Council to okay it. And as for the doctrine of preemption, it “remains to be discussed subsequently in view of its gravity.” In other words: let’s talk about it: maybe we can make a deal
I will leave it to others to comb through the various strands that make up the following bit of Gore’s oration, and discern some meaning other than basic agreement with the Bush administration’s position:
“There is a case to be made that further delay only works to Saddam Hussein’s advantage, and that the clock should be seen to have been running on the issue of compliance for a decade: therefore not needing to be reset again to the starting point. But to the extent that we have any concern for international support, whether for its political or material value, hurrying the process will be costly. Even those who now agree that Saddam Hussein must go, may divide deeply over the wisdom of presenting the United States as impatient for war.”
On the one hand this, on the other hand that: the mere sight of so much weaving and bobbing is apt to make anyone dizzy, which is perhaps why so many in the audience mistook this hemming and hawing for real opposition to Bush’s war drive. Nothing else explains the odd “spin” this speech has been given, although one wonders what they thought when Gore expressed the opinion that the Senate resolution approving military action should be voted for, albeit with certain modifications. It’s true he wants to limit a U.S. invasion to just Iraq for now but somehow I find it hard to be very grateful for this generous concession.