Ritter on Gore
Last week in “We Must Succeed in Iraq,” I made the following statement: “He’s probably not even wrong that an Al Gore presidency would also have taken us to war with Iraq.” Several readers here objected to Ritter’s conclusion and my reluctant acceptance of it. I debated including that sentence. I have wanted to debate Ritter on this point for months. As I have not had that opportunity, I debated it by myself, but perhaps not formally enough for my argument to have been well-developed.
By election day 2000, I had developed a lot of respect for Gore. I saw a decent hard-working elected official with the heart or soul of a populist. It was one of the few elections in which I voted for someone instead voting for the “lesser of two evils.” Since that election, Gore’s public statements have confirmed my 2000 assessment of the man, Al Gore. That man would be a good, possibly an excellent, POTUS.
However, was that the Al Gore that ran for POTUS in 2000? I would have to say, not really. Not because he’s some sort of flip-flopper or someone that doesn’t know who he is. But because his run for the WH was backed and funded by the Clinton and DLC wing of the Democratic Party. Because he’d spent eight years biting his tongue and not criticizing all the GOP-lite Clinton policies. (On that I would challenge anyone to name a single, important Clinton policy that he fought for that did not originate with the GOP other than allowing gays in the military and even there he only promoted a policy that tried to straddle the right/left divide and actually worsened the situation.) The real Al Gore would not have selected Lieberman as his running mate. Might not have even waged such a bare-knuckled primary battle against Bradley. One that left no room for rapprochement after the primary contest. (In many ways I slightly preferred Bradley to Gore. Mostly it was a toss up between the two except for the very important one of physical stamina. Bradley in the top spot could too easily have become the Democratic version of Dole in the general election.) Gore-Bradley would have kicked Bush-Cheney’s butt. What a shame Bradley preferred to take his bitterness and go home and Gore wasn’t wise enough or free enough to offer a peace pipe.
Had the votes in Florida been counted and Gore moved into the WH, he would still have owed those that facilitated the funding of his race. Even though they left him out there running with one hand tied behind his back. Forced to let his campaign go dark after the primaries because he had to accept federal matching funds. Forced to run on his general election campaign on a shoestring while GWB had no shortage of funds. And that financial disadvantage didn’t end on election day. Bush/Cheney had three times as much money as Gore had to contest Florida. I will probably never be persuaded that Clinton and his co-horts wanted Gore to win anymore than GWB wants to find OBL. Still had Gore beaten the odds and succeeded, that group would have taken credit for it and Gore would not have been in a position to refute them, at least not in the early part of his Presidency. Plus, Gore would have owed the far left nothing, and based on his inability to heal the rift with Bradley, it’s difficult that postulate that he would have done better with the far left. Thus, there would have been only minor changes from the Clinton policies during that phase, and those policies included the policy to topple the Saddam regime.
What I think Ritter dismisses too easily is that a direct conflict/battle with Iraq takes more than such a policy and desire by the President. Until the day the “Unitary Executive” becomes a reality, wars still require some form of approval from Congress. Clinton could never have invaded Iraq because a third of Congress on the right wanted this battle waged by a Republican President. Added to that is the fact that Clinton is much too feckless to have managed to sell a war of choice to the remaining two-thirds of Congress, much less to the American public. Thus he settled for a policy of periodic bombing runs of Iraq and economic sanctions that impoverished and killed an untold number of Iraqis, a high percentage of whom were children.
Would Gore have been similarly constrained?
The other variable that Ritter ignores is the intervening one of 9/11. If it had occurred on Gore’s watch no differently from what happened on GWB‘s watch, Gore’s focus would have been exclusively on al Qaeda, mostly in Afghanistan. I will never believe that Gore would have lied to this country by claiming that Saddam and Iraq were involved in 9/11. I would like to think that Gore would have requested Tenet’s resignation for the 9/11 intelligence failures and replaced him with someone better. Perhaps Gore would have been fortunate enough to have gotten a Secretary of State far more diplomatically skilled and humane than Albright. In any event, Iraq would have been put on the back burner by Gore after 9/11, and who knows what would have changed in Iraq during that period of time.
However, I really doubt that 9/11, as we experienced it, would have happened if Gore had been in the WH. Assuming that the 9/11 attack was perpetrated just as the 9/11 Commission concluded that it was, I would like to think that Gore‘s administration would have been competent and effective enough to have thwarted it. Realistically, they probably couldn’t have done better than to have reduced the scope of it, possibly by as much as limiting the strike to a single plane. What I really think is that 9/11 wasn’t simply an al Qaeda plot, hatched, funded and directed by a creepy guy and his creepy little band that was holed up in Afghanistan. If this is so, there would have been no 9/11 if Gore was in the WH.
So, absent 9/11, how likely is it that a Gore administration would have taken us into direct unilateral conflict with Iraq? What are the odds that the rightwing and the Neo-Cons would have become so thirsty for war that they didn’t want to wait another four or eight years until a GOP was in the WH? The last thing they want is for a DEM POTUS to wage a successful war (and they’re too blind to see that success in Iraq was never in the cards), and therefore, I can’t imagine that the odds would be higher than fifty percent. Then what are the odds that Gore would have remained stuck appeasing the right and giving lip service to the left as Clinton did for eight years? My head wants to say that he would have become the Gore we’ve seen for the past three years, but my gut says, “No way.” Yet, it is impossible that he wouldn’t have gotten partly there. He has too much self esteem laid down early in his life to completely reject his own thoughts, principles, values, etc. that were at odds with those of Clinton. (At some point in 2000 election, the Clinton/DLC gang may have realized this about Gore and may explain why, at best, they seemed indifferent to whether or not Gore won.) Plus unlike all the other recent national political figures, Gore didn’t have some tortured relationship to Vietnam that he would feel some need to compensate for in the future. All of that sure seems to suggest that the odds were low that Gore would have been chasing Saddam with tanks and bombs.
This all leads me to conclude that the Republican Ritter isn’t so different from Nader. Both make credible cases that there is no meaningful difference between the GOP and DEM in certain policy areas. However, their rigid views forces them to overlook obvious and real differences. There were significant differences between GWB and Gore that both Ritter and Nader fail to see, possibly because they both mostly loath Clinton and could never wrap their minds around the fact that Gore did not equal Clinton. GWB told us in 2000 that he wanted to “get Saddam,” so predicting what he would do was very easy. On this issue, Ritter can’t seem to consider that Gore doesn’t equal GWB. We’ll never know how Gore would have managed the Iraq question, but on this one, Ritter is probably wrong, and I erred in saying that he was probably right.