If the Democrats had won in 2000, would American foreign policy after 9/11 have taken an alternative path?by Joshua Kurlantzick / March 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
At noon on a Sunday in Washington, the US president stepped before the world’s press. Two hours before, in Baghdad, the head of coalition forces had announced the capture of Saddam Hussein, in hiding since the overthrow of his government eight months earlier. On the podium, the president grinned and called Saddam’s capture a victory for the Iraqi people. Just offstage, the hawkish but low-key vice-president was congratulated by his advisers.
On the Sunday television talk shows, meanwhile, political analysts debated the impact of Saddam’s capture on domestic politics. Some contended that it would be a great boon to the president’s party. Others were not sure. After all, although former Texas governor George W Bush had embarked on some strange misadventures since losing narrowly in 2000 and 2004 – growing a handlebar moustache, taking reporters on week-long tours of the west Texas sagebrush – he had recently started to return to the political stage, positioning himself as a viable challenger to the Democratic candidate in 2008.
A President Gore supporting an invasion of Iraq? Not possible, surely. The left wing of the Democratic party – and many Europeans – would certainly like to think not. Yet until recently, Gore was probably the most hawkish senior Democrat, supporting aid to the Contras in the 1980s, military intervention in the Balkans in the early 1990s and even national missile defence in the late 1990s. Gore supported the 1991 Gulf war, even though 70 per cent of Democratic senators and representatives opposed it. He also pushed Clinton to take a tougher line against Saddam. And Gore’s prospective vice-president, Joe Lieberman, joined with many leading Republicans in the late 1990s to pressure the Clinton administration to launch a pre-emptive strike against Saddam.
Certainly, if Gore had won in 2000 his domestic policies would have been drastically different from those of Bush. Gore’s views on environmental regulation, the deficit and healthcare would clearly have ruled out the regulatory rollback, huge tax cuts and privatisation of government health services that Bush has embraced. But on foreign policy there is less of a red state/blue state divide in America: most foreign issues do not resonate with the public, and since 9/11 ordinary Americans have deferred to the president and the foreign policy establishment. For a combination of reasons, over the past five years much of that establishment, whether Republican or Democrat, has come to view America’s place in the world in a similar way. Both parties embrace US hegemony and military supremacy, and support the aggressive use of that power to promote US national interests by reshaping the world around American values.
But although liberal and conservative poles of US foreign policy are becoming harder to distinguish from each other, they are not identical. Some of the substance of Gore’s foreign policy might have been similar to Bush’s, but its delivery and style would have been sharply different. In contrast to top Bush officials, Gore and his close advisers are convinced that American moral authority, not just force, is crucial to US leadership. They believe America must use its power to shape the world, but they also believe this power relies as much on providing an example of democracy, tolerance and the rule of law as it does on the US armed forces. Accordingly, these liberal hawks – including John Kerry, the likely Democratic challenger in 2004 – demonstrate respect for European allies and believe it is imperative that America lead multilateral efforts to solve crises whenever possible. More committed to multilateralism than Bush, Gore might have seen the tragedy of 9/11 as an unparalleled opportunity to reorder global bodies like Nato and the UN, as well as international conventions and laws, to fight a war against global terror and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But while Gore would not have been fixated on the Iraq threat, focusing first on more dangerous problems, ultimately his war on terror would have found its way to Saddam’s Iraq.
Here’s how it might have happened. After triumphing in the presidential election, Gore moved quickly to pass domestic policies he had promoted for decades: a law requiring greater fuel economy for cars, and a bill pushing US healthcare towards a government-managed system. Gore’s domestic policies played well in Europe, and he solidified his popularity there by supporting several international agreements, including the Kyoto protocol and the international criminal court. Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke was a frequent guest at 10 Downing Street and the Palais de ?lys?e.
On 11th September 2001, Gore was touring General Motors’ new plant for emissions-free cars when aircraft slammed into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Gore took counsel from his hawkish national security adviser Leon Fuerth, for decades his closest foreign policy strategist. Fuerth told Gore that America’s national security posture must change. It could no longer rely upon law enforcement alone to track terrorists, or on air power alone to pressure rogue states, or on the status quo in the middle east to preserve US interests. Gore agreed. The president rallied a coalition of nations and gave the Taleban two weeks to hand over the leaders of al Qaeda. When the Taleban did not budge, Nato troops invaded, driving the mullahs from power. Working with European allies, Gore then formed a Nato peacekeeping force, which was installed in Kabul and other major cities, paving the way for an interim administration under Hamid Karzai.
In the wake of the Afghan war, the Gore administration realised that WMD, in the hands of terrorists, were the top threat to the US, and that terrorists were most likely to acquire them from states in the middle east or south Asia. To combat terror and WMD, top Gore adviser Michael O’Hanlon proposed a doctrine of “enlightened nationalism.” This doctrine, O’Hanlon argued in the spring 2003 World Policy Journal, accepts the “critical importance of military power in promoting US security, interests, and values” and holds that these values are central to promoting liberalism around the world – liberalism that ultimately will undermine support for Islamist terrorism. But enlightened nationalism, O’Hanlon said, is “also aware of how this US power is likely to be perceived – and misconstrued – abroad,” and advocates taking every possible step to find allies for actions.
Strategy in hand, Gore, who as vice-president had made himself an expert on international institutions, used world sympathy over 9/11 to reshape many of them. He made a series of momentous speeches in which he called for Nato to create a standing counterterrorism force, with soldiers from many countries, to hunt terrorist cells. He also proposed that international financial institutions make it easier to track illicit funds; that western allies create a system for sharing counterterrorism intelligence modelled on Interpol; and that the UN rewrite the ground rules of the security council, making it easier to authorise the use of force, and creating a permanent UN force for intervening in conflicts. Gore, a famous workaholic, travelled incessantly to Europe and Asia, successfully selling this programme to allies.
Gore then used these revamped international institutions to focus on the two threats both he and Clinton had considered most dangerous even before 9/11: al Qaeda and Pakistan. The Gore White House used the new global intelligence-sharing apparatus, along with the Nato counterterrorist force, to hunt down a high percentage of al Qaeda leaders, though on some crucial missions US forces tracked al Qaeda chiefs alone, rather than relying on Nato troops. Gore also utilised the groundswell of sympathy for America, as well as the growing fear of WMD ending up in the wrong hands, to push a tough resolution through the security council calling for Pakistan to open its nuclear programme to inspections by UN weapons specialists, and either to co-operate with US forces hunting al Qaeda members on the Afghan border or face sanctions from the UN and the IMF, whose by-laws had been rewritten to punish states that harboured members of terror networks.
Moreover, the White House recognised that the status quo in the middle east was no longer tenable – for autocratic states are hotbeds of anti-Americanism and recruiting grounds for al Qaeda. In the 1990s, Lieberman had called for the US to reassess its relationship with Arab autocrats. Now, in an attempt to reduce the hatred in the Arab-Muslim world, the vice-president advocated that America help democratise the middle east, a radical change from the 50-year-old policy of putting stability first. As part of this new middle east policy, the Gore administration reconsidered America’s ties with Saudi Arabia, gave explicit preference to democracies, and promised to take tough action against states harbouring terrorists and producing WMD. At the same time, Gore, following Clinton, gave European allies a high profile role – albeit a largely ceremonial one – in a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Consequently, though public anger grew in Europe at a US policy that favoured the Israelis, it never created a significant rift between Washington and European capitals.
Gore, Lieberman, and their advisers also increasingly focused their attention on Iraq. Shortly after 9/11, leading conservative publications like the Wall Street Journal urged Gore to turn quickly from Afghanistan to Iraq. But though Gore was an Iraq hawk, he did not see Saddam’s WMD programmes, which were largely eviscerated by the 1990s inspections, as a threat on the scale of al Qaeda or Pakistan’s nukes. By 2004, however, with many al Qaeda leaders captured and Pakistan on its way to shaky stability, the Gore administration looked again at Iraq, where it was predisposed to back tough action. Many Gore officials, including CIA chief James Woolsey, who to many people’s surprise returned to the job he had held under Clinton, had believed since the 1990s that Saddam had to be ousted if the middle east were to be transformed and the WMD threat neutralised.
By 2004, US intelligence was suggesting that Saddam was renewing WMD programmes. As a senator and vice-president, Gore had always laid great stress on the opinions of intelligence officials, diplomats, and arms control experts – former US acting ambassador in Baghdad Joe Wilson said Gore used to call him frequently in the run-up to the 1991 Gulf war, soliciting Wilson’s thoughts on whether the US should invade Iraq. Gore listened raptly to these intelligence estimates about Saddam’s WMD. Gore did not believe Iraq was a hotbed of terrorism, though he thought Saddam had some terror training camps. But the administration was persuaded that stopping Saddam’s WMD production was essential to two of America’s three national security goals: halting the spread of WMD and promoting a democratic middle east. Gore and Lieberman believed real pressure on Saddam would force him to allow UN inspectors back into the country, disrupting his WMD production and serving as a lesson to other potential proliferators. Add to that Saddam’s role as the main backer of the Palestinians, the political conflict between moderates and conservatives next door in Iran (which is always influenced by events in Iraq), and the potential impact on Saudi Arabia of a shock to the region – and it seemed clear that heavy pressure on Saddam could also shake most of the significant middle eastern autocracies. Intrusive inspections of both Iraq’s WMD facilities and potential terrorist training camps, broadcast on Iraqi television, would demonstrate Saddam’s weakness and highlight the power of the new Nato and security council forces to reshape the middle east.
After winning a second term, Gore spent late 2004 building a coalition to pressure Saddam. He used his close ties with European leaders to obtain a UN resolution demanding that Saddam allow a permanent, presence of inspectors. Saddam agreed, and for a time international inspectors returned to Iraq. Many US conservatives argued that this was not enough and called for the US army to march to Baghdad. Gore disagreed. He was comfortable with the intrusive inspections – keeping Iraq in a box while Nato continued to battle al Qaeda. Ultimately, the inspectors found little in the way of WMD, but they continued their inspections, publicly humiliating Saddam.
The Iraqi dictator soon began resorting to his old games, not understanding that the world – and US policy – had changed after 9/11. He limited the inspectors’ mobility, and ultimately booted them out of the country. Gore responded swiftly. Since he had made it easier for the security council to authorise force, and since he had cultivated close relations with key allies, he convinced the council to pass a resolution authorising Nato troops to invade if Saddam refused to let inspectors back in without conditions. Saddam duly refused, and coalition troops invaded in July 2005, taking Baghdad within weeks. After Iraqis’ initial jubilation, resistance to the occupation developed, but Nato was able to rely on a range of nations to staff the occupation, spreading the cost, the risk and the casualties. The involvement of Muslim nations, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh, helped to lessen Iraqi anger. There was some in-fighting among Iraqis over who would govern the country in the future, yet by early 2006 the US had captured Saddam and set a timetable for writing a constitution, holding elections and withdrawing. Given Gore’s success, Bush decided not to run again for president. (Some evidence of WMD programmes was found in Iraq after the war but most of the intelligence proved faulty. There were a few resignations in the intelligence services but the lack of WMD did not become a big political issue.)
This imaginary but plausible scenario arises from the real blurring of earlier divisions in the foreign policy elite and the emergence of a new consensus in the late 1990s. From the aftermath of Vietnam until the late 1990s, US foreign policymaking was divided between isolationists and interventionists. On the right, the isolationist wing was comprised of Republicans, typified by the early 1990s congressional leaders, who believed that, with the cold war won, America should focus most of its attention on domestic issues. On the left, Democratic isolationists saw Vietnam as a lesson that US power was inexorably tainted – that when the US employed force it invariably left the people of the affected countries in worse shape than before. Opposing the isolationists were interventionists: both traditional national security hawks like Henry Kissinger or Donald Rumsfeld, who believed the US must be willing to fight to protect its vital interests – trade, natural resources, shipping lanes, and so on – and Woodrow Wilson-style foreign policy moralists. The Republican moralists, such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who became known as neoconservatives, argued that US power should be used to promote democratisation worldwide, because even if democratisation initially fostered instability, it would ultimately create a community of democracies that was best for US interests. The liberal moralists, such as Richard Holbrooke and Al Gore, believed that their party colleagues were wrong: just because the US had not triumphed in Vietnam, there was nothing shameful about the use of US power. Like Perle and Wolfowitz, they believed that America had a mission to utilise its power to export its values and to reshape autocracies. Yet they were more sensitive than the neoconservatives to the need to find allies for these missions, and more focused on failed states and other transnational threats than on nations that threatened the US, such as Iraq. As Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser, wrote in Foreign Affairs in late 2000, “One of our biggest challenges now is to manage the resentment our power sometimes generates… The disproportionate power America enjoys today is more likely to be accepted by other nations if we use it for something more than self-protection.”
By the end of Bill Clinton’s second term, the isolationist-interventionist divide was receding. Leading isolationists on the right – Pat Buchanan, Dick Armey – were increasingly irrelevant in national politics. Instead, people like Wolfowitz who had cut their teeth in low-ranking positions in the Reagan administration, where they watched what they viewed as the triumph of American values over the Soviet Union, increasingly dominated Republican foreign policy circles. These neocons were usually young and well organised, and their tough rhetoric made sense for a party in opposition that did not have to worry about implementing policies. The neocons thus gained control of parts of the conservative establishment, including the Weekly Standard and other influential magazines, and top think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute. Republican foreign policy moralists nabbed top jobs on Capitol Hill, and won big grants from conservative foundations.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1990s, evangelical Christians became an increasingly powerful component of the Republican base. Polls showed that significant percentages of evangelicals supported many of the neoconservatives’ Wilsonian goals, including promoting American values around the globe and reshaping the middle east. Evangelicals also became among the staunchest supporters of Israel.
When George W Bush took office, he initially positioned himself as modestly isolationist. Yet Bush was elected in part because of the evangelical vote, and his close allies from his father’s administration were largely the younger interventionists, rather than the less moralistic advisers like Brent Scowcroft. Many middle-ranking political appointees in the department of defence and the office of the vice-president came from the AEI and other neocon bastions. Vice-President Dick Cheney was considered a traditional isolationist, but this was a mistaken impression. During the first Bush administration (as Franklin Foer and Spencer Ackerman wrote in the New Republic), Cheney pushed the president to promote rapid democratisation in the former Soviet Union, despite the potentially destabilising consequences.
On the Democratic side, the moralists also began to gain the upper hand during the 1990s. As with the conservatives, memories of Vietnam and the idea that US power was forever tainted, began to fade for liberals. An older generation of policy specialists at Democratic power centres – the Brookings Institution, the Washington Post – gave way to O’Hanlon, Holbrooke, Anthony Lake and others, who were influenced by the shame of US weakness during the 1970s and the rebirth of US power in the 1980s rather than Vietnam. As Gore told the 1988 Democratic convention, “We should not be so burned by the tragedy of Vietnam that we fail to recognise an interest that requires the assertion of force.”
Like the conservative moralists, the liberal interventionists were sufficiently well organised to shape the policy debate within the party. These hawks formed a centrist, pro-trade, pro-defence organisation called the Democratic Leadership Council, which they positioned as a kingmaker in national races, arguing that elections were increasingly decided by swing states dominated by blue-collar, culturally conservative voters who preferred politicians to be tough on national security. A recent article in the council’s magazine by DLC founder Al From argued that Democrats need to win voters in the 2004 election by “pledging to make America safe… strengthening our domestic defences and pursuing a strategy of tough-minded internationalism.”
DLC strategy received a boost when Bill Clinton won the 1992 election, taking several southern and western swing states. A foreign policy novice who harboured some moralist tendencies, Clinton realised that he had to appear tough to counter criticism of his inexperience and appointed interventionists throughout his administration. Madeleine Albright, a Czech refugee who saw recent east European history as a victory for American values, became UN ambassador and then secretary of state. Holbrooke became chief Balkans negotiator and then UN ambassador. James Steinberg, a hawk on the Balkans, became deputy national security adviser. Following Washington tradition, when these interventionists left government, they ascended to leading positions in the think tank world, ensuring that moralists dominated Democratic policy shops. Steinberg took the top foreign policy job at the Brookings Institution, where several other Clinton officials also migrated.
Clinton’s second term and the early days of the Bush administration pushed the Democratic foreign policy establishment towards greater interventionism. As Harvard professor Samantha Power has noted, the wars in the Balkans and Kosovo, in which force was used to topple genocidal regimes, and then to rebuild nations along western democratic norms, demonstrated to many liberals that US power could, after all, be a force for good – even when the use of that power benefited US interests as well. In addition, the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process convinced many Democrats (as well as many conservatives) that only a reshaping of the middle east, including the Palestinian Authority, could produce a long-term solution. Hawkish Democratic publications, such as the New Republic, dropped their unqualified support for the Oslo peace process. Democratic hawks like Lieberman did the same. Meanwhile, the emergence in the late 1990s of al Qaeda, which fed off a rotten status quo, only strengthened the interventionist moralists.
As US domestic politics became more divided and shrill, culminating in the Jerry Springer-esque Clinton impeachment, the foreign policy establishment became more united. In fact, many experienced foreign policy officials say that Republican and Democratic thinkers have more interaction now than at any time in a decade. Non-governmental groups like the committee that produced the 1999 Armitage Report, proposing a new policy towards North Korea; and the Project for the New American Century, which drafted a letter to Clinton in 1998 calling for him to abandon containment of Saddam, won support from both Democratic and Republican thinkers. With the DLC partly taming the isolationist left and the fading of the Buchananite right, the positions of liberal and conservative think tank experts and congressional staffers became closer, and personal relationships were formed. In addition, in the 1990s, hawkish conservatives in Washington, who did not want the size of the US military to decrease after the end of the cold war, accepted that a primary future use of the armed forces would be in humanitarian interventions – the types of missions touted by interventionist liberals. Consequently, the pro-military, conservative Senator John McCain could make common cause with the liberal Madeleine Albright, in support of the use of force in the Balkans and other places.
Then came 9/11. All the interventionist momentum that had been building responded to the force of this transformative event. Suddenly an American public, no longer uninterested in the rest of the world, was snapping up books on the history of Islam, willing to take casualties to fight terrorism, and trusting the foreign policy establishment to define the new war. (In opinion polls, roughly half of Americans say that national security is now the most important issue.) The moral clarity of the interventionists offered a compelling response to these public fears.
Only weeks after 9/11, Bush officials were already arguing that winning the war on terror required the kind of global reshaping not seen since the first years of the cold war. Wolfowitz proposed attacking Afghanistan and Iraq to unleash a wave of change throughout the Arab-Muslim world. Neoconservative hawks began to pressure Arab nations to open their political and economic systems. The defence policy board, which advises Rumsfeld, held a famous briefing in which a middle east expert, Laurent Murawiec, portrayed Saudi Arabia as an enemy of America that should be forced to reform. Bush appointed Elliott Abrams, a prominent neoconservative (and former Iran-Contra figure), as senior director for near east and north African affairs at the national security council. Abrams promoted a road map for Israeli-Palestinian progress that centred on the Palestinians embracing western democratic values by empowering a prime minister and undercutting Yasser Arafat. The Bush administration attacked Afghanistan, and then committed itself to helping reconstruct the war-shattered country. And the quick victory over the Taleban made the interventionist approach more popular with the public. In March 2003, Bush sanctioned the invasion of Iraq. Later that year, in a landmark speech, he enshrined democratisation as the foundation of US foreign policy.
Both wars enjoyed the support of Democratic heavy hitters in congress, including Senators Lieberman, Joseph Biden and John Kerry; Kerry himself made a big deal of backing the Iraq war resolution. Gore himself strongly backed Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan and praised the idea of applying pressure on Iraq to force Saddam to come clean on WMD. Lieberman helped to shepherd the Iraq war resolution through congress. Fuerth, Gore’s foreign policy adviser for decades, suggested that the US should “destroy the Iraqi regime, root and branch” if Saddam did not open his WMD programmes to the world.
In the course of the Democratic presidential primaries this year, several candidates emphasised that the Democrats had always believed in building multilateral alliances to spread US values. Wesley Clark qualified his earlier support for the Iraq conflict, and the editorial page of the New York Times sharply criticised the Iraq occupation. But the fact that the Iraq aftermath, which has involved the bloodiest counterinsurgency since Vietnam, has not significantly altered the stance of the US foreign policy establishment is evidence of how strongly the elites have embraced American interventionism.
Virtually the entire conservative establishment remains solidly behind the Iraq occupation. For months, the Weekly Standard has called on Rumsfeld to rotate more troops to Baghdad, while leading Republican lawmakers have introduced bills that would expand the size of the army. And unlike Vietnam, few leading liberals have pushed the White House to pull out of Iraq. None of the main Democratic presidential candidates, including Kerry, has suggested that Iraq demonstrates that the US should be less engaged abroad, that America should not use its power to reshape the world, or that the US should cut its defence budget. In fact, several Democratic presidential candidates have called on Bush to lean harder on Saudi Arabia. Nearly all of them rely upon foreign policy counsel from hawkish veterans of the Clinton administration. The Centre for American Progress, a new liberal think tank founded by John Podesta, Clinton’s former chief of staff, recently held a conference on foreign policy. No speaker offered the kind of anti-establishment critique commonly heard during the Vietnam war. Instead, Sandy Berger and others offered only relatively technical criticisms of Bush’s foreign policy.
Today, the US is more unpopular abroad than at any time since the nation’s founding. Recent studies by the Pew Global Attitudes project, which has surveyed people in 20 different countries, have shown that in Indonesia, for instance, 83 per cent of the population have a negative view of the US; polls in Europe show that in many EU countries, President Bush is the most unpopular world leader. During travels across Asia over the past year, when I asked ordinary people about Bush, I often learned how to swear in a new language.
In large part, this damaging fall in foreigners’ opinion of America – particularly in Russia, France and Germany – could have been avoided if the Bush administration had tempered its policies with some respect for allies and recognised that US moral authority, not just strategic interest, is what convinces other nations to stand shoulder to shoulder with Washington. Feeling slighted and insulted, many foreigners hope Bush will lose in November.
Yet the idea that a Democratic president would overhaul the substance of US foreign policy is a fantasy. The Bush administration’s foreign policies have not been hijacked by a cabal of extremists, as one might think from reading Al-Ahram or the Guardian. In fact, although a President Gore might have used 9/11 to reshape the world’s institutions and so fight terror multilaterally, he would not have shied away from the aggressive use of US military power.