Gore Is Consistent on Iraq

A close look at the evidence.

Conservatives are pasting Al Gore for flip-flopping on Iraq. In the Wall Street Journal editorial page’s “Best of the Web” column, James Taranto quips that the Gore who argued against war with Iraq yesterday at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club must be an “imposter,” because previously Gore favored ousting Saddam Hussein. Andrew Sullivan writes on his Web log that Gore’s new stance demonstrates that “[h]e’ll say whatever he thinks will get him power or attention or votes.” Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke told the Washington Post, “the whole speech was a contradiction within a contradiction,” and made Gore sound “more like a political hack than a presidential candidate.” Even the liberal New York Times, whose convictions about war with Iraq are hard to distinguish from those expressed in Gore’s speech, said (in a news story by Dean Murphy) that the speech indicated “a shift in positioning.”

In fact, though, Gore’s new stance on Iraq is easy to reconcile with his previous one. Let’s review the evidence.

Exhibit A: Gore to the Iraqi National Congress, June 28, 2000.
News source: BBC.
Money quote: “There can be no peace for the Middle East so long as Saddam is in a position to brutalize his people and threaten his neighbors.”
Money paraphrase: Gore stated that the U.S. remains committed to Saddam’s overthrow.
Why this doesn’t contradict Gore’s Commonwealth Club speech: The comments to the Iraqi National Congress predate Sept. 11. The Commonwealth Club speech states the obvious point that U.S. security needs were altered on Sept. 11 by our urgent need to destroy al-Qaida. Also, even in 2000, Gore wasn’t saying the United States should immediately commit troops to overthrowing Saddam.

Exhibit B: Goreto the Council on Foreign Relations, Feb. 12, 2002.
News source: The speech text itself.
Money quotes:

1)    “There are still governments that could bring us great harm. And there is a clear case that one of these governments in particular represents a virulent threat in a class by itself: Iraq.”2)    “As far as I am concerned, a final reckoning with that government should be on the table. To my way of thinking, the real question is not the principle of the thing, but of making sure that this time we will finish the matter on our terms.”

Why this doesn’t contradict Gore’s Commonwealth Club speech: Because Gore’s Council on Foreign Relations speech went on to say,

[F]inishing it on our terms means more than a change of regime in Iraq. It means thinking through the consequences of action there on our other vital interests, including the survival in office of Pakistan’s leader; avoiding a huge escalation of violence in the Middle East; provision for the security and interests of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States; having a workable plan for preventing the disintegration of Iraq into chaos; and sustaining critically important support within the present coalition.

The implication was that if these other things couldn’t be done, the United States shouldn’t go to war with Iraq.

Exhibit C: Gore’s 1991 vote in support of the Gulf War.
Why this doesn’t contradict Gore’s Commonwealth Club speech: Because Saddam had just invaded another country, and because the U.S. military action was multilateral. As Gore points out in the Commonwealth Club speech, neither of these is true today.

Exhibit D: Gore’s Commonwealth Club speech.
Money quotes:

1)    “I am deeply concerned that the policy we are presently following 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.”

2)    “By shifting from his early focus after September 11th on war against terrorism to war against Iraq, the President has manifestly disposed of the sympathy, good will and solidarity compiled by America and transformed it into a sense of deep misgiving and even hostility.”3)    “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.”

Why this doesn’t contradict Gore’s previous statements about Iraq: Because Gore also said:

1)    “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. I believe, however, that such a choice is not presented in the case of Iraq.”2)    “During one of the campaign debates in 2000 when then Governor Bush was asked if America should engage in any sort of ‘nation building’ in the aftermath of a war in which we have involved our troops, he stated gave the purist expression of what is now a Bush doctrine: ‘I don’t think so. I think what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations. Maybe I’m missing something here. We’re going to have a kind of nation building corps in America? Absolutely not.’ The events of the last 85 years provide ample evidence that our approach to winning the peace that follows war is almost as important as winning the war itself.”

In other words, Bush’s obvious reluctance to rebuild a post-Saddam Iraq renders military action there too dangerous.

Conservative motives for attacking Gore’s Commonwealth Club speech couldn’t be more transparent: He may end up the Democratic nominee for president in 2004. But Chatterbox also sees a deeper need for conservatives, who tend to be Iraq hawks, to deny that it’s possible to take a hard line against Iraq and still think the time and circumstances of Bush’s war plans make no sense.

[Update, Sept. 25: Despite Chatterbox’s best efforts, the condemnation of Gore as a flip-flopper intensified today. The New York Times’ Adam Nagourney wrote that Gore’s skepticism “would seem at odds with his frequent efforts to present himself as one of the few Democrats who voted to give President Bush’s father the authority to oust Mr. Hussein more than 10 years ago. With so many Democratic presidential contenders sounding like Mr. Gore, he has moved to the other side of the line.” Andrew Sullivan expanded on yesterday’s anti-Gore diatribe for Salon. In a characteristically dyspeptic  Washington Post column, Michael Kelly wrote that Gore’s speech “was one no decent politician could have delivered. 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.” (Among these lies, Kelly states, is Gore’s claim that the U.S. is still at war with al-Qaida. According to Kelly–who obviously never read this Chatterbox item–that war is over, and we won.) None of these people, however, offered evidence of Gore’s inconsistency beyond what Chatterbox examined, and found wanting, yesterday.

A Republican National Committee attack memo  about Gore’s speech does find one Gore inconsistency, but it’s one that has little bearing on the matter at hand. In the Commonwealth Club speech, Gore said he “felt betrayed” when Bush pere ended the Gulf War without deposing Saddam. Apparently, that claim isn’t true. In April 1991 Gore said on the Senate floor that Bush “should not be blamed” for Saddam’s survival because it was “universally accepted” that “combat should stop” once Iraq was pushed out of Kuwait. These are obviously not the words of somebody who feels betrayed. The other snippets dug up by the RNC, however, fail to demonstrate any further inconsistency.]