Gore Ignites Iraq Debate

James Zogby’s Column

The Administration’s pressure on Congress to rush headlong into passing a “war resolution” authorizing the use of force against Iraq was dealt a blow last week.  The blow was delivered by none other than President Bush’s past, and possibly future, challenger, Al Gore. 

In a forceful speech, delivered as Congress was beginning its deliberations, Gore did what no leading political figure had done to date.  He directly challenged the President’s intentions, his strategy, and his rationale and timing for moving toward war. 

For weeks, the pressure on Congress had been growing.  The Administration had all but silenced August’s critics.  Inside Washington, it had become conventional wisdom that a war was inevitable.  Congress, instead of debating the wisdom of a war, appeared to be preparing to give the President a resolution of support.  The only issues to be resolved included: the exact language, the timing and the extent of power granted to the White House in such a resolution. 

While some Democrats have resisted the pressure, expressing concerns over the need for a war, the White House and some Republican spokespersons countered with pointed attacks questioning the leadership of these “doves.” 

The Democratic leadership, which had hoped that this year’s election would focus on matters involving the economy, heath care and social security, appeared resigned to the fact that the President had won the domestic debate about Iraq.  Fearing that they would have no option but to give him some form of a resolution authorizing force, they hoped to do it quickly believing that they could then refocus the national discussion on the domestic concerns of the American voters. 

About 30 Democratic members of Congress have introduced an alternative anti-war resolution, and a few vocal critics of the President have spoken out challenging both the war and, what they described as “the timid response” of their leadership.  But none of these efforts created major news and, therefore, did nothing to alter the course of the debate. 

And then Al Gore delivered his challenge to the President.

To say that the speech took Washington by surprise would be an understatement.  The day Gore was to deliver his remarks, for example, one political pundit (who had worked closely with Gore in the Clinton Administration) predicted that Gore would “play it safe”, tout his hawkish credentials and support Bush.  Others not believing that Gore would buck the prevailing political current, assumed much the same.

The speech, however, took the Administration head on.  Gore opened his remarks noting that a war with 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.”

Despite the complications that had arisen in the U.S. efforts to dismantle al Qa’ida, Gore continued, “great nation’s persevere and then prevail.  They do not jump from one unfinished task to another.  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.”

Gore then goes on to challenge the Administration’s newly announced strategy of  “preemption.”  He warns that, “If other nations assert the same right then the rule of law will quickly be replaced by the reign of fear – – any nation that perceives circumstances that could eventually lead to an imminent threat would be justified under this approach in taking military action against another nation. An unspoken part of this new doctrine appears to be that we claim this right for ourselves – – and only for ourselves. It is, in that sense, part of a broader strategy to replace ideas like deterrence and containment with what some in the administration ‘dominance.’  This is because President Bush is presenting us with a proposition that contains within itself one of the most fateful decisions in our history: a decision to abandon what we have thought was America’s mission in the world – – a world in which nations are guided by a common ethic codified in the form of international law – – if we want to survive.” 

A major focus of Gore’s remarks compare the current Administration’s campaign against Iraq with the 1990-91 effort to liberate Kuwait.  In the earlier confrontation, which Gore supported: Kuwait had been invaded and occupied (in this confrontation, it is the U.S. that will be invading); a coalition was built (the current Bush Administration has not done so); a UN resolution had been passed in 1991 before the U.S. Congress debated the matter (not so this time around); the U.S. coalition partners paid the significant costs of the war (this time the U.S. will bear the costs alone); and in 1990-91 then President Bush “waited until after the mid-term elections of 1990 to push for a vote at the beginning of the new Congress in January of 1991” (this time the “President is publicly taunting Democrats with the political consequences of a ‘no’ vote – – even as the Republican National Committee runs pre-packaged advertising based on the same theme.”).

As challenging as all of these arguments are, Gore goes further, criticizing the Administration’s violation of civil rights in the context of the war on terrorism and accuses them of squandering post 9/11 international “sympathy, good will and solidarity,” converting it into “anger and apprehension” aimed at U.S. behavior. 

Gore’s detractors on the far right immediately launched into a counter attack against the former Vice President.  But in stepping forward, as he did, Gore has reopened a national debate on Iraq policy that the Administration had sought to silence.

The day after Gore’s speech Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle delivered an emotion-filled address decrying the Administration’s efforts to “politicize” the discussion of national security and war.  On the same day, Senator Robert Byrd jumped into the fray reiterating comments he made earlier noting that Bush’s “plans to invade Iraq are a conscious effort to distract public attention from growing problems at home. 

“The Administration, all of a sudden, wants to go to war with Iraq.  The [political] polls are dropping, the domestic situation has problemsé.Back in August, the President had no plansé. All of a sudden this country is going war.  Are politicians talking about the domestic situation, the stock market, weaknesses in the economy, jobs that are being lost, housing problems? No.” 

The next day, Senator Edward Kennedy followed suit with his own critical assessment of the march to war. 

The debate is by no means over.  Some, in the Administration are deadly serious about moving forward, even if the U.S. goes to war alone.  But, for now, at least, Congress appears to have been empowered to have a serious discussion about the timing, the rationale and the consequences of the Administration’s approach.   

In doing so Congress reflects the drift in the mood of the American people.  A recent Zogby International poll found that a majority of Americans would oppose a war against Iraq if such an effort failed to secure “significant UN or international support,” if it involved U.S. ground troops and if it meant the loss of U.S. military personnel or Iraqi civilian lives. 

Most Americans, however, continue to see the Iraqi regime as a danger and do not trust its intentions.  They appear to be pleased that the U.S. has taken the matter to the UN and that U.S. pressure has resulted in the Iraqis agreement to “unfettered” weapons inspections.  Should the Iraqis back away from that agreement or overplay their hand, both the public mood and the political debate in the United States could once again turn.  If that occurs, then all bets are off.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.