As we well know, there are many devices in wide usage that Al Gore did not invent - among them the phrase that this or that Bush policy is the "worst ever." Such charges depend for their impact on the absence of interest, knowledge, or active intelligence among the already-persuaded or easily persuadable. Thus, even though evidence of recovery has reduced the frequency of "worst economic performance since Herbert Hoover" charges, the Democrats continue to describe post-Y2K job losses as the worst ever under a sitting president, homing in on that segment of the electorate so unfamiliar with economic matters that they would blame a president for a recession that began prior to his having been elected. Similarly, Gore's recent statements about the decision to remove Saddam Hussein's regime from power seek that segment of the electorate whose ignorance of history is matched only by the hypocrisy and moral dereliction of their would-be leaders.
Though Gore's remarks on Dean’s behalf have been reported widely, rightwing masochists may wish to sample the toweringly condescending, preaching to slow ESL schoolchildren flavor of Gore's stumpish statement directly, and may still be able to find a video at the C-SPAN site (Iraq comments begin at 20:22 of the RealPlayer file). Print quotations cannot convey the growling Gore guttural on words like "matter" ("no minor myaaaater"), off which his plangent pseudo-populist rhythms pivot. For those of us who have been dreading the prospect of a yearlong Dean campaign not least on aesthetic grounds, watching Gore in action is a reminder of just how unpleasant things might have gotten. For the rest of you, here is what Gore said after he and Dean had, in the words of CNN's Jeannie Moos, "spent the day holding hands, looking like twins in their blue ties, unbuttoning in unison":
I realize it’s only one of the issues, but, my friends, this nation has never in our two centuries and more made a worse foreign policy mistake than George W. Bush made in putting our troops into that quagmire in Iraq. It was a horrible judgment, misjudgment, and therefore it is not a minor matter to me that the only major candidate for the nomination of my party that had the good judgment, experience, and good sense to feel and see and articulate the right choice was Howard Dean.
This description of President Bush's Iraq policy outbids even Wesley Clark's claim that it represents America’s "greatest strategic blunder of the post-war era," but the two statements provide similar difficulties for anyone trying to figure out what, if anything, they are really supposed to mean. One problem is that the argument is being made from within the world's pre-eminently successful nation. The old saying meant to express the cynicism underlying politics, diplomacy, and war - "worse than a crime, it was a mistake" - applies less well to the United States than to most nations, for virtually everything that the United States has done in in the world has, in objective terms, sooner or later worked out alright, at least for the US. Our real, unsalvageable foreign policy mistakes have been the ones that ignore or contradict the country's unifying moral vision: the refusal to accept Jewish refugees during the Nazi years or, later on, to take direct action against the death camps; more recent failures to act in Rwanda, or earlier in Yugoslavia; or, more on point, the failure to defend Iraqis who partly at our urging rose up against Saddam in 1991, and who, along with their wives, children, and elders, died in the hundreds of thousands.
The narrowness of the Gore-Dean-Clark strategic vision is as dangerous as its moral blindness is unforgiveable. Thus, equally on point but less exclusively a moral "mistake," the long policy of compromise, complacency, and retreat in the Middle East - from Lebanon, through Somalia, through Saddam's ceasefire violations, through the first WTC attack and the embassy bombings, among many other provocations - arguably did great harm to American interests, inviting escalation up to the events of 9/11/01. The Democrats now loudly promise more of the same, beginning with the handover of responsibility in Iraq to the UN - the kind of simultaneous strategic and moral failure that led a retreating United States to involve itself in WW I, create the League of Nations, but then flee the scene. There have been so many lies and distortions spread around Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia, and other Cold War episodes, that I hesitate to pass judgments, but bringing down Mossadegh in Iran in favor of the Shah may have been another such two-sided blunder, with dire effects on our own interests and on the entire region - beginning thirty years before Ronald Reagan sent Marines to Beirut, and still being endured in the present day.
Democrats like Gore and Dean dispute the relevance of Iraq to the "War on Terror," but this argument is a position, not a fact, regardless of the state of evidence regarding Saddam's connections to Al Qaeda. What seems undeniable to me is that, just as 9/11 represented one of the worst attacks by foreigners on US soil since the War of 1812 (arguably another great American blunder), and bespoke further dangers as great or greater than any the republic has faced since its founding, the strategic response has entailed some of the most ambitious goals that US policy makers have ever set before us, and some of the greatest risks that they have ever taken. In this context, it is far too early to declare the Bush policy either a success or a failure. At this stage even a merely preliminary overall assessment would remain subject to reversal by the next news alert.
How the Democrats' imaginary President Gore or the Republicans' nightmare President Dean would really have responded to the strategic challenges of our times, if either had been in office rather than President Bush, is an unanswerable question, but we can draw the outlines at least of what the Democrats want us to believe they would have done - and I hope to make an examination of this alternative scenario and its larger implications the topic of a future post. In the meantime, on Iraq specifically, it's worth recalling that, a few years ago, Gore was willing to claim that failing to march on Baghdad to finish Gulf War 1 was also a mistake. What's changed for him, other than political convenience? In his endorsement speeches Gore shrugged a concession regarding Saddam - admitting that we were "all better off without him." In other words, he believes that this worst of all mistakes did some real good for "all" of us. Obviously, Gore assesses the costs - either those already incurred or those he's seen in his perfect vision of the future - as too great. If so, then he may be seeking to re-invent JFK's famous call to the defense of freedom as "bear only small burdens, only at a low price." Or maybe his statements are so vacuous, so desperately unserious that they’re offensive - even if Iraq is "only one of the issues."