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Democrats Can't Duck This Fundamental Shift in Policy
Published on Thursday, October 3, 2002 in the Guardian/UK
Democrats Can't Duck This Fundamental Shift in Policy
Al Gore has been vilified for attacking the rush to war. But for once he was right
by Joe Klein
 

The default position on Al Gore appears to be ridicule. He opens his mouth and is immediately assumed to be cynical, tactical, self-serving, self-pitying, awkward, embarrassing, unintentionally hilarious or all of the above. Much of this comes from Republicans, who seem afflicted by near-psychotic rhetorical twitching whenever the man who won the popular vote in 2000 makes a public appearance. Last week, for example, an amoeba from the Republican national committee stepped out and said that Gore's criticism of the Bush administration's rush to war in Iraq was "more appropriate for a political hack than a presidential candidate". But the press has been equally dismissive (often with cause: Gore is an oafish politician), and so have many of his fellow Democrats.

A few months ago, Gore told some of his supporters he'd made a mistake in the 2000 campaign by paying too much attention to "polls, tactics and all the rest - I should have let it rip, poured out my heart and my vision, and let the chips fall where they may". These quite sensible remarks occasioned a small tornado of disdain from the press and politicos. James Carville and others said, inaccurately, that Gore was blaming his consultants. He wasn't. He was blaming himself. It was, in fact, an altogether admirable pronouncement. Would that more politicians were able to distance themselves from their witch-doctors.

Gore's Iraq speech was rather inconvenient for Democrats, especially for those in Congress running for re-election, who have "decided" to take Iraq off the table as quickly as possible so they can go home and talk about prescription drug benefits for senior citizens and other issues that poll well. Indeed, it is now assumed that most Democrats will stow their doubts and better instincts, and rush a vote in favor of a slightly modified war resolution next week. They will do this merely because their political consultants are convinced Iraq is a "bad" issue for them.

The unanimity of this conviction among consultants (and the willingness of commentators to buy into it) should give us pause. It is especially noxious because the issues they want Democrats to run on - pandering to the elderly on drugs, demagoging on pensions and blaming George Bush for the business cycle - are minuscule compared with the decisions about to be taken by the Bush administration. This is not merely about Iraq: the White House is proposing a radical new military and diplomatic doctrine for the US - the right to intervene, unilaterally and pre-emptively, whenever we see fit. This has actually been put into writing, into words so simple, the president has said, that "the boys in Lubbock can understand it". And the Democrats don't want to talk about it?

Gore's speech wasn't a masterpiece. It seemed hastily composed and rewritten (he has an unfortunate habit of putting in sweaty all-nighters before a major address). The tone was resentful and it was filled with sloppy, contradictory thinking. An argument can be made that there was politics involved - that Gore was positioning himself for 2004, currying favor with Democratic activists, who tend to be more dovish than most Americans. But raising an important issue for tactical effect is quite different from ignoring an issue for tactical convenience. Gore performed an essential public service. He nudged a necessary debate. He was followed to the podium, several days later, by Senator Ted Kennedy, who delivered a more eloquent and tightly argued version of the same message (and, yesterday in Blackpool, by a somewhat more cautious Bill Clinton).

Furthermore, Gore made a crucial distinction: a war against Iraq and the campaign against terrorism are not identical. Indeed, an immediate attack (in January, one assumes) on Saddam Hussein could complicate the larger cause. A successful war against Iraq raises at least three nettlesome questions. Will it increase or decrease the threat of a biological or chemical attack on the US? Will it increase or decrease the stability of the region? Will it increase or decrease the number of young Muslims who believe the propaganda about America's satanic role in the world?

Almost every American politician I've spoken to - Democrat and Republican - has grave doubts about at least some of the details of the operation we seem to be hurtling toward. There are fierce divisions within the Pentagon over strategy and purpose. After all, for the past 20 years it has been America's tacit policy to keep Saddam in power because his removal was likely to destabilize the region. It is quite probable that the next government in Iraq will not be perceived by its neighbors as the avatar of democracy and religious tolerance, but as an American client state. The notion that pummeling Baghdad will usher an Islamic enlightenment is laughable.

There are other problems. As the American military pieces are slowly wheeled into place for the campaign, Iraq's chemical and biological labs are likely to be shut down, the germs and gases that are transportable put in suitcases, and then sold or given away to the very people we fear. It is entirely possible that Saddam will attempt to build a coalition of his own with a pre-emptive chemical or biological attack on Israel. Ariel Sharon has said he will retaliate, which could precipitate a wider war. At the very least, Saddam would have the satisfaction of knowing that he'd be remembered in history as the man who incinerated Tel Aviv.

These are only the most obvious questions. Perhaps the president and his advisers have planned for these contingencies, and for the dozens of other profound issues raised by this proposed course of action. Perhaps they have devised the strategies that will assure the desired result - the removal of Saddam - with a minimum of disruption. Perhaps they have answers they can't share with us now. But the recent history of American foreign policy - not just in this administration, but in the previous one as well - has not been marked by careful planning, long-range thinking or attention to detail.

The rush to war, the tendency of conservatives (and their propagandists) to go berserk whenever legitimate questions are raised, the giddy moral certainty in the air, the fact that we are not talking about one quick war against a psychopath but about a fundamental shift in American policy that may shape the world for the next 50 years - all this should cause us to pause, slow down, and talk this over.

Gore's speech was a start. And more, it was a gauntlet wisely thrown. Those politicians - Democrat and Republican - who neglect these crucial issues now, for whatever reasons, should be taken at face value. Apparently, they have nothing of interest to say on an issue of overwhelming importance, a course of action that could have a profound impact on the future of the US and the UN, and on the stability of the region. And they should have no call on our attentions, sympathies or support in the future.

Joe Klein is author of The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton and Primary Colors.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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