What If? The Al Gore Presidency (Updated)

Expanding on a comment I left on a post at Outside the Beltway, let’s engage in a little thought experiment just for fun. Something I’ve debated almost endlessly with Dan Nexon of The Duck of Minerva is what would have happened had Al Gore been president in 2001. My own view is that, had Al Gore been president, the attacks on 9/11 would still have taken place, we still would have invaded Afghanistan, and we still would have invaded Iraq. Many political postures would be switched with regular Democrats supporting the wars and regular Republicans opposing them, on similar grounds to those on which the isolationist Republicans of 1940 opposed our entry into the war in Europe.

Whatever your opinion please support them with evidence and, if possible, with citations.

I know that there are lots of people who believe that President Gore would have done nothing but consult opinion polls and engage in Hamlet-like indecision. I don’t believe that.

There’s a host of reasons I believe that President Gore would have been just as likely to invade Iraq as President Bush. They include that the idea of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was the prevailing wisdom on both sides of the aisle prior to 9/11 and prior to the Bush presidency and that the idea of a Saddam Hussein armed with weapons of mass destruction became intolerable after 9/11; that any president capable of being elected would have wanted to hold on to the job and that would have required some sort of action beyond removing the Taliban from Afghanistan (or even finding Osama Bin Laden; that the troops we had stationed in Saudi Arabia were there to contain Saddam Hussein and represented a form of exposure that was seen as too great subsequent to 9/11; and any number of other reasons.

The argument against it, I think, is that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld functioned as inside salesmen on the idea of invading Iraq and a Gore Administration wouldn’t have had analogues.

Note, by the way, that I’m not saying that either Republicans or Democrats have acted as they have for the last seven years purely out of political considerations. I don’t believe that, either. But I do believe that conviction in the benignity of your fellow partisans has a way of coloring one’s interpretation of the facts.

But I’m interested in your opinions and your arguments. What do you think?


I don’t interpret Al Gore’s September 2002 speech as a rejection of the idea of invading Iraq but as a rejection of an invasion of Iraq by the Bush Administration. I think he actually makes a fairly compelling case for why the Gore Admininstration would have invaded Iraq (he just thinks they’d have done a better job).

22 comments… add one
  • I agree completely! It’s also sad that a large part of the response to the Iraq invasion has so much to do with the political party of the office holder. Prior to the invasion, you would have had a very hard time finding a Dem who didn’t think something should be done about Saddam. But, when it turned out to be a Rep. that actually did do something, funny how how quickly they changed they’re tunes.

    The same concept applies to future foreign policy. Reality has a way of smacking a presidential candidate upside the head once they actually occupy the office. So, all the retohric about withdrawing from Iraq, by Clinton, Obama and Edward, will become forgotton hot air should any of them get elected. The horrifying reality of the consenquences of withdrawal would most definitely hit them.

  • Time for another round!

    There are a number of flaws in your argument.

    1) Your claims about the consensus belief concerning Iraq “weapons of mass destruction.” True, many Clinton administration officials–some of which would have been in the Gore Administration or at least had its ear–believed that Iraq had chemical
    agents, some biotoxins, and some nuke-related stuff. But they did *not* believe that these capabilities presented a threat to the United States, and certainly they did not believe that these capabilities presented an imminent threat.

    2) Your claims about analogs. True, some former Clinton officials would have pushed for an invasion of Iraq, but you need some major developments that go far beyond any counter-factual likelihood for that to produce an invasion:

    a) You need people, like Feith, willing to set up alternative intelligence shops to drown out the internal views of the intelligence community about the nature of the threat and the wisdom of the attack;

    b) You need people extremely close to the INC as purveyors and conduits of misinformation about Iraqi capabilities;

    c) You need fairly complete marginalization of opposition voices within the administration;

    d) You need Rumsfeld peddling his “doctrine” for 21st century warfare to lead people to believe that the war can be done on the light and cheap;

    e) Unlike the Bush Team prior to the 2000 election, we have no evidence of the Gore team being actively interested in taking on Iraq in the 2001-2004 period;

    f) You need people *not* predisposed to treat terrorism as a multilateral issue;

    and g) Most of the evidence in favor of the Dems would do something to comes from:
    i) Clinton officials who may or may not have been important, or even in, a Gore Administration; or
    ii) The behavior of post-September 11 Senate Democrats worried about “getting this one wrong” out of both conviction and political motives.

    3) If the Republicans has opposed the war you might very well have had a winning coalition with dovish Democrats, thus dissuading even a pro-war Gore Administration from seeking authorization. This wasn’t an aerial operation in Kosovo & Serbia, but a major invasion and occupation.

    4) Even if the Gore people had decided to do something about Iraq, they would have been unlikely (for some of the reasons previously noted) to divert resources from Afghanistan as early as the spring of 2003. This would have pushed back a possible war until after the 2004 election, by which time it becomes difficult to project the international environment and the outcome of an international push for inspections.

  • Dan, your first statement is not true. Democrats from the Clinton Administration were saying exactly that. From the speech cited above:

    The President should be authorized to take action to deal with Saddam Hussein as being in material breach of the terms of the truce and therefore a continuing threat to the security of the region. To this should be added that his continued pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is potentially a threat to the vital interests of the United States.

    I’ve read statements from numerous other Clinton Administation folks to the same effect. I’ve also seen a compilation video of them which I’m trying to locate.

    I might add that I heard Bill Clinton himself (in an interview I’ve been unable to locate subsequently) say in 2003 that he probably would have invaded Iraq under the circumstances (his recent statements notwithstanding).

    Note that I’m not arguing that everything would have unfolded identically to the ways thing actually did. It might be that a Gore Adminiistration would have done some things better and it might even have been that a Gore Administration would have done some things worse, for example, I think that President Bush’s dampening of potential anti-Muslim reaction in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 is hardly to be faulted.

    Nor am I arguing that invading Iraq was the right thing to do—I opposed it and would have done regardless of who was in the White House.

  • Not Clinton Administration but a good quote nonetheless. From Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, October 10, 2002:

    There has been some debate over how “imminent” a threat Iraq poses. I do believe that Iraq poses an imminent threat, but I also believe that after September 11, that question is increasingly outdated. It is in the nature of these weapons, and the way they are targeted against civilian populations, that documented capability and demonstrated intent may be the only warning we get. To insist on further evidence could put some of our fellow Americans at risk. Can we afford to take that chance? We cannot!

    The President has rightly called Saddam Hussein’s efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction a grave and gathering threat to Americans. The global community has tried but failed to address that threat over the past decade. I have come to the inescapable conclusion that the threat posed to America by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction is so serious that despite the risks — and we should not minimize the risks — we must authorize the President to take the necessary steps to deal with that threat. And so I will vote for the Lieberman/McCain resolution.

  • Dave:

    First, see 2g. You can’t use evidence of statements by people like Rockefeller during the debate over whether to invade Iraq, a debate stemming from the Bush administration’s policy objectives, as direct evidence for your claims. The absence of selective intelligence a strong push by the Bush administration for war, and a host of other factors unlikely to be true of a Gore Administration radically change the context.

    Second, “is potentially a threat to the vital interests of the United States” is pretty carefully parsed language. Nor does it undermine my first point, which concerns estimations of Hussein’s capabilities circa 2002-2003, not his future capabilities. Advocates of your position–and I admit you are the most persuasive I’ve come across–build their case from people saying “we should do something,” “we have vital interests at stake,” someday this might be a problem,” “we do have legal justification,” etc. But you need an administration whose dominant players are gunning for war to translate those estimates into an actual invasion and occupation of Iraq, rather than, for example, increasing coercive pressure short of invasion, a new push for inspections, and so forth.

    (Indeed, if you look at the content of Gore’s speech it seems consistent with 2f. Just saying).

  • The premises for invading Iraq were many. The biggest item was that the international containment regime was falling apart by 2002, fueled in part by rank corruption in the UN’s Oil for Food Program. Around 2002 it became a question of “Shit, or get off the pot” as one of my grandparents liked to say: Either accept that Saddam was going to become a member in good standing with the International Community at large again, or remove him from power. Containment had failed by that point. Please note that none of the above is dependent on anything concerning the attack of 9/11 & its immediate aftermath.

    Still, I doubt Gore would have gotten around to Iraq before the 2004 election season was in full progress, at which point it invading Iraq becomes a moot point. Despite the contempt many have for Rumsfeld’s doctrine on fighting wars with smaller more flexible forces (“light & cheap” only in terms of American lives risked and lost: technology & training for the Rumsfeld Doctirne costs), Rumsfeld’s doctrine bore fruit in Afghanistan. (Also in Iraq in 2003.)

    The problem with Rumsfeld’s Doctrine is that while it is an excellent policy for fighting a war, it does not apply to occupations that often follow wars. The problems with this were somewhat allayed in Afghanistan because of the cooperation of the Northern Alliance. But in order to invade Iraq in 2003, we would have needed to have been substantially done with major operations in Afghanistan by the middle of 2002. Personally I don’t think the Gore Administration would have acted as quickly in attacking AND invading Afghanistan. Did the Dems have anyone who was likely to advocate and win approval for the kind of plan that was used in Afghanistan in 2001?

    I imagine a Gore Administration would have waited for a larger build up of forces before invading Afghanistan, along with the concommitant loss of time. That loss would have affected any plans for attacking Iraq later.

  • Your responses 2, 3, and 4 are statements of opinion not amenable to refutation. It they were restated as “the following are necessary prerequisites for war… and supported by evidence, they’d be convincing.

  • Icepick: I’m counting both North and South. Opinion in both varied over time but there were definitely points at which the War had overwhelming support both in the North and South.

  • Further I doubt that the Republican Party would have retreated into isolationism in the face of a Gore Presidency. It’s true that we had become less and less interested in nation building (in fact, Bush ran against the idea in 2000), but that does not mean isolationism. Following the attacks on 9/11 the Republican Party on the whole would have been in a very warlike mood regardless of who occupied the White House. I imagine that partisan politics would have driven them to take an even more warlike stance under a Gore Presidency than they did under Bush.

    In recent decades the Republican Party has been far more willing to use force than the Democratic Party has, and I don’t see why that would have changed just because Gore was elected President.

  • Dave, concerning the US Civil War, the South didn’t really want to fight it at all, and significant parts of the Northern States didn’t want to either. Both sides decided at various times, though, that war was necessary. That’s a different thing altogether.

  • Larry Link

    You can speculate until the cows come home…the fact is Gore was not elected..”cough’ cough’, Bush was elected, and with that and his actions..Bush has shown a very bright and revealing light on the ugly dark side of the Right.

    And no speculation you can come up with will alter that truth.

  • “Your responses 2, 3, and 4 are statements of opinion not amenable to refutation. ”

    I’m not sure I follow you.

    Most of the material discussed in point 2 involves publicly known features of the decision-making process that led the US to invade Iraq. My claim is that these features would not have been present in a Gore administration. If you want to either refute the accuracy of my empirical claims or my conjecture, that’s fine, but you need to, IMHO, engage with them in a more substantive way.

    2g is a claim about counter-factual validity that goes to the heart of much of the evidence that Gore (or similarly situated hypothetical Democrat, or even Republican) would have pushed for an invasion of Iraq following the September 11 attacks. My claim, and I really think this is a crucial issue that proponents of that hypothesis need to address, is that quoting from pro-war Democrats during the 2002-2003 debate over the war does not provide adequate evidence for what their positions would have been in a non-Bush administration. It tells us what their positions were in the environment of actual 2002-2003, not hypothetical Gore administration 2002-2003. At the very least, we’re dealing with a whole host of interaction terms here that need to be carefully parsed. At maximum, the evidence cited is actually an effect of the causal variable (Bush Administration) that we’re trying to unravel.

    3 and 4 are both speculative, I agree, but they get at two issues. First, whether support for the war would have actually, as you suggest, “flipped” to the Democratic side [there’s some good evidence for your claim, though, if one looks carefully about the partisan breakdown in support for the war from 2002-2005]. Second, the puzzling behavior of the Bush administration in “rushing” to go to war with Iraq, and whether that would have been repeated in another scenario. Indeed, I’d argue that if Powell had been a more effective and willing factional player in the White House, the invasion would have been, at the least, delayed even in a Bush administration.

  • I don’t think so. I think you’re claiming that the points you mention are sufficient to preclude our having gone to war. You haven’t proven that they are sufficient, indeed, you’ve presented no evidence along those lines at all. Either they’re sufficient individually or in combination or they’re interesting but not particularly relevant.

    In your comment above on 2g I think you’re making an assumption that I do not make: that Democratic Senators were misled. They may well have been mistaken but I’m skeptical that they were misled. As I’ve suggested in the post and my other comments I think they were mostly just following the prevailing wisdom.

    I think the Snopes article on statements by leading Democratic politicians in 1998 in context tends to support my belief. If they held the positions stated in 1998 and they held the positions stated in 2002 is it unlikely that they held the same positions in 2000?

  • By the way, my motivation is not in any way to justify the Bush Administration. I opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 (for somewhat different reasons). The reasons that I opposed both are pretty apparent if you just look around you.

    No, my opinion is that Democrats and Republicans are more similar than either like to think, that both frequently follow the prevailing wisdom, and that the prevailing wisdom on Iraq was wrong.

    As I see it I’m defending our system in a bass-ackwards sort of way. They’re all screwed up. I don’t think that any political party has a monopoly on stupidity.

  • Dave: I don’t think many of these quotations are decisive, since they include some of the most ardent opponents of the war, such as Ted Kennedy. Again, there is a *big difference* between saying he’s got stuff, he’s our enemy, etc. etc. and saying “we need to invade now.” I also don’t think, for what it is worth, that the WMD threat was a sufficient motivation for the Bush Administration to invade: the motivation for the invasion probably involved a number of reasons that came together–creating a reliable client, a “hail mary” attempt to transform the rules of the game in the Middle East, trying to encourage bandwagoning with the United States, showcasing the Rumsfeld doctrine, getting even with Hussein, and so forth. Most of these rationales would not have been present in a Gore Administration, and the countervailing arguments would’ve been more important to the Gore people than they were to the Bush people.

    (I don’t view this as primarily a normative issue. I was ambivalent on the war, and I don’t support getting out now. But I do find it an interesting one to argue about; it has some analytic, and not just political, implications.)

  • My own position is one that most, I think, consider paradoxical. I thought that the domestic politics of the invasion was all wrong. It was obvious to me that, following an invasion, there would be a resistance with lots of Americans killed and that in order to establish the level of security that was necessary we’d need to stay a long time. I didn’t see the American people as having signed on for that, I thought that we’d run out of steam long before it would be prudent to leave, and I didn’t want to see the political division I was convinced would ensue. Things rarely turn out the way I’d like.

    I thought that, had we been willing to spend at the level that we’d end up spending in pacifying Iraq and make the other sacrifices in lives and prestige that the invasion would entail, we could have isolated Saddam without invading.

    But we’re there now and I think the only way to secure a minimally acceptable outcome is to keep plugging until we achieve that. It’s cynical to put it this way but there is some level of casualties that the American people are willing to accept indefinitely. Since in a force the size of the one in Iraq something like 120 casualties will occur per year in peacetime stateside the number is something over 10 per month. I’m not sure what that is but we’re probably beginning to approach it in Iraq.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I agree with Dave. Pollack in The Threatening Storm described Gore as one the most aggressive Iraqi hawks in the Clinton administration. When Saddam threw out the inspectors in 97, Gore was “one of the most vocal of supporters of using military force.” After the Iraqi Liberation Act was passed, agreements obtained from Gulf States and American and British planes were in the air, heading towards Iraq, he is described as “livid” that the UN made a deal with Saddam to let the inspectors back in. Elsewhere, its suggested that Gore remained the most interested in regime change as he looked forward to a potential Gore presidency.

    One key to understanding Gore I believe is to consider his approach to global warming. Given a range of uncertain risks that include the danger of catastrophic harm, he favors decisive, immediate action to inaction and doesn’t seem to be concerned terribly about costs. If we apply that to the problem of Saddam and WMD, the results are apparent.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Continuing the thought experiment. There were two forms of military action that Iraq hawks in the Clinton administration favored. First, they wanted to keep ratcheting up punitive air/missile strikes for failing to comply with the UN mandates. They were unhappy with how Saddam was able to game the system and favored prompt unilateral action before falling into the UN trap. Second, they had devised plans for a small military force to depose Saddam once they settled on regime change as the only real solution. However, they did not trust Chalabi.

    After 9/11, pictures of Muslims being bombed from the air to punish Saddam would have had higher costs and an unsuccessful military coup would have been disastrous (think Carter’s mission to free the hostages). I think its very likely that these hawks would have drifted in Pollack’s direction of full invasion.

    One thing to keep in mind in this hypo: If Gore won, 9/11 would have been solely the Democrats’ fault. The finger-pointing between Bush and Clinton wouldn’t exist. Independents wouldn’t be able to conclude that the problems existed in both administrations. Gore would have owned 9/11.

  • President Gore would have entered office with two primary experiences with Iraq:

    1) The 1994 “war scare” where the Clinton administration checked Saddam’s moving several Republican Guard divisions near the Kuwaiti border with our own counterdeployments.

    2) Secondly, Operation Desert Fox, an EBO campaign that the Clinton administration shut off because the regime was starting to teeter into state failure and we were wholly unprepared to deal with those consequences yet very concerned about Saddam’s rising profile, evasion of sanctions and potential WMD programs.

    I think it is reasonable, that a Gore administration would have been more cognizant of post-occupation problems of invading Iraq but in the aftermath of 9/11, also deeply concerned about tamping down all potential threats in the region. There are other choices beyond invasion or do nothing that would have come in to play here, some that are very significant in military and foreign policy terms.

  • Scott Crichlow Link

    I think Nexon is right, primarily because I have a hard time seeing where the policy communities pushing for war would’ve been in a Democratic administration, how they would’ve overcome many voices against such an action that would’ve been present in a Gore administration, and I think a great deal more attention would’ve been given to post-war problems that would naturally arise.

    But there are 2 basic points about the nature of this thread that I find rather strange. First, some of you seem to be taking general orientations towards hawkishness or a concern about Iraq/Saddam Hussein and then taking the implications to the furthest point one can imagine. Even if Gore did want to tighten the screws on Saddam Hussein, surely there are other policy options his White House could’ve pursued short of launching the sort of war we did in March 2003.

    But beyond that no one is discussing any other matter that was going on in the world then, and there are several other things that could’ve taken priority in a Gore White House, thereby sucking time and resources from a possible with in Iraq. For example, it seems entirely plausible to me that in 2002 a Gore administration would’ve been more focused on the North Korean nuclear program than on the Iraqi “threat”. And if that was where their attention moved, I’d find it unlikely they would’ve moved forward with a major military strike against Iraq at the same time.

  • Well, I’m late to this thread, but a few comments:

    First of all, Zenpundit notes the 1994 “war scare.” This was actually not a scare. After OIF we found out that Saddam fully intended to invade Kuwait again and was only deterred by a rapid deployment of US forces when the preparations were detected.

    In light of that and Saddam’s history, it’s a pretty fair bet we’d probably have to go to war and remove him at some point. Had the sanctions regime collapsed, as it was beginning to before OIF, it was only a matter of time before Saddam did something requiring military action. I think a lot of the underlying reasoning for taking him out is that sooner or later we’d have to do it anyway and ultimately it’s better to do it when he’s weak and on our terms.

    Anyway, I’m going to disagree with Dave and suggest that a President Gore would not have invaded baring some definitive casis belli by Iraq. More likely, imo, would have been military operations aimed at weakening him, promoting his overthrow, and even attempt at decapitation strikes.

    I say this because Clinton considered an invasion in 1998 after inspectors were kicked out. CENTCOM under General Zinni had drawn up an OPLAN for an invasion. There was also concern about what might happen if Saddam died and the country plunged into chaos requiring a large US intervention. This was the OPLAN that Rummy later threw out – an OPLAN that called for a large invasion force and, most importantly, a large post-invasion (called phase IV) force. It’s where Gen. Shinseki got his “300,000” number in his famous testimony before Congress. One reason that Rummy threw that plan out is we simply did not have the forces to implement it after the drawdown of the 1990’s. We could “surge” 300k troops, but only for a year, or maybe two and only by calling up most of our reserves and guard.

    ISTM Gore would have been at least aware of the prior CENTCOM plan and the high political cost (in terms of reserve support) that would have been required to implement it. With a different set of more rational military advisers, it seems unlikely that Gore would approve an invasion where we didn’t have sufficient forces for the important phase IV operations. Just my 2 cents.

  • Kevin Small Link

    Nope no way would we have launched a Magor land invasion of Iraq with a Gore presidency,the progressive part of the Democratic Party would have(and I feel rightfully so) had his ear more ,and he would basically have to go against his party on the biggest issue any President faces sending our troops to WAR,the evidence was too loosey goosey,plus the war hawks in the coservative part of congress would not have had Gores ear as much as they did Bush(who as we know when Clinton handed the keys over to W on Inauguration Day he told W this list is who I feel is Americas greatest foreign threats,no1 on Clinton’s list OBL,W replied I’d put Saddam at the top of my list,that tells you everything you need to know right there,9/11 was an excuse to finish what Daddy HW didn’t ten years prior)

Leave a Comment