Last month, in an update to an otherwise-favorable item about Al Gore’s recent speech on Iraq to San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club (“Gore Is Consistent on Iraq“), Chatterbox accused Gore of misrepresenting his position back in 1991 on the question of whether U.S. forces should have ousted Saddam Hussein. In recent weeks, others have argued that Gore’s Iraq speech did not misrepresent Gore’s 1991 position. This prompted a re-examination of the facts by Chatterbox, who will now concede that the matter was more complicated than Chatterbox previously knew. Gore’s language may have been slippery, but it’s unfair to conclude that he lied.
The alleged misrepresentation occurred in a passage of the speech aimed at establishing that Gore, though opposed to unilateral military action right now against Iraq, was a strong supporter of the 1991 Gulf War:
I was one of the few Democrats in the U.S. Senate who supported the war resolution in 1991. And I felt betrayed by the first Bush administration’s hasty departure from the battlefield, even as Saddam began to renew his persecution of the Kurds of the North and the Shiites of the South—groups we had encouraged to rise up against Saddam.
The overall message—that Gore’s dovish views today should command attention because he was previously an Iraq hawk—was indisputably correct. Gore really did support the Gulf War, and he was one of only 10 Senate Democrats to vote for the war resolution. The trouble arose with Gore’s claim that he “felt betrayed” by Bush’s “hasty departure from the battlefield.” Here is a Senate floor statement Gore made in April 1991 that, far from expressing any sense of betrayal, actually defends Bush pere’s decision not to take the war all the way to Baghdad (the source, unsurprisingly, is a Republican National Committee attack memo):
In my opinion, Madam President, and I want to state this clearly, President Bush should not be blamed for Saddam Hussein’s survival to this point. There was throughout the war a clear consensus that the United States should not include the conquest of Iraq among its objectives. On the contrary, it was universally accepted that our objective was to push Iraq out of Kuwait, and it was further understood that when this was accomplished, combat should stop. That is also why, after it became apparent that Iraqi forces were being routed, pressure mounted rapidly here and abroad to proclaim a cease-fire. If it was a mistake to believe Saddam Hussein would be a prompt political casualty of the war … then that was a mistake widely shared throughout our country.
That certainly seemed to make Gore a liar. But Gore partisan (and former college roommate) Bob Somerby took exception in his political Weblog, the Daily Howler, to that conclusion:
Did Gore criticize Bush in 1991? Yes, he unmistakably did. He defended Bush’s decision to leave Saddam in place, but criticized his failure to protect the Kurds when Saddam began to persecute them (many others made this complaint). Here, for example, is a story segment from the 4/13/91New York Times: “The difficulty for President Bush is that before he can extricate himself from Iraq, his postwar policy may become the centerpiece issue at the outset of the 1992 Presidential campaign season. One possible Democratic contender who supported Mr. Bush’s decision to go to war, Senator Al Gore of Tennessee, said today that Mr. Bush’s handling of the postwar insurrection in Iraq ‘revives the most bitter memories of humankind’s worst moments.’ “That sounds like a criticism to us—and, of course, that “postwar insurrection” was the matter involving the Shiites and the Kurds. In short, Gore’s statement on Monday was perfectly accurate.
Somerby’s argument was picked up by the leftist Weblog the Consortium and prompted an uncharacteristically coherent debate in the Chatterbox Fray. To Chatterbox’s great surprise, Somerby and Co. turn out to be more right than wrong.
The question of whether Gore lied turns on the meaning of the phrase “hasty departure from the battlefield,” which on further inspection is more ambiguous than Chatterbox previously understood. If Gore meant that he “felt betrayed” at the time of the cease-fire on Feb. 28, 1991, that’s a lie. A Gore who had “felt betrayed” would have objected publicly at the war’s end. But a scouring of news databases for that week shows that he didn’t. Gore’s rueful Congressional Record statement, quoted above, indicates that Gore initially supported the cease-fire; otherwise, he couldn’t have said there was “universal” agreement that the war should end when Iraq left Kuwait. Score one for the RNC.
An alternative reading of “hasty departure,” however, absolves Gore. If Gore referred to the uninterrupted troop withdrawal that continued in the weeks after the cease-fire, even after it became apparent that the ongoing U.S. troop withdrawal was allowing Saddam to slaughter the Kurds, then it’s correct to say that Gore “felt betrayed.” Gore’s specific beef with Bush père was that he wouldn’t force the Iraqis to halt Iraqi gunships flying in violation of the cease-fire terms. “We should put out the word,” Gore said on CNN’s Crossfire on April 3, 1991. “You fly, the helicopters will be shot down.” Score one for Somerby.
A split decision goes to Gore, so Chatterbox withdraws the accusation that he lied.
Postscript:In retrospect, the most intriguing thing in that April 1991 New York Times piece dug up by Somerby isn’t the part about Gore. It’s the part where then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney defends the decision to end the war. “If you’re going to go in and try to topple Saddam Hussein,” Cheney said, “you have to go to Baghdad. Once you’ve got Baghdad, it’s not clear what you do with it. It’s not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that’s currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Baathists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists? How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military when it’s there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?”
Today these questions no longer interest Vice President Cheney, but they’re addressed at length by James Fallows in the November Atlantic.