Smart Bomb?

Were it not for the butterfly ballots in Palm Beach
County and the Democratic Party's failure to insist on a statewide recount of the
Florida vote, the crisis that has engulfed America since September 11 would be
unfolding in a vastly different political landscape. Both houses of Congress
would still be controlled by Republicans. Attorney General John Ashcroft would
likely be in retirement. Tom Ridge, head of the new Office of Homeland Security,
and Tommy Thompson, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services,
would be, respectively, the governors of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And, of
course, the U.S. commander in chief would hail not from Texas but from Tennessee.

For the narrow majority of voters in the 2000 election who selected Al Gore
to be their president, everything about such a scenario would seem to be welcome.
The nation's fate would, after all, be in the hands of an experienced Democrat
with ample knowledge of foreign affairs. Gore's inner circle would undoubtedly
have included more liberal internationalists and fewer right-wing unilateralists
preoccupied with missile defense. The war on terrorism, it follows, would have
been conducted with greater sensitivity to classic liberal concerns, such as
safeguarding civil liberties at home as well as ensuring that military force
abroad is used judiciously and within reasonable legal and moral constraints.

The only problem with such a scenario is that it doesn't hold up under
scrutiny. Although we cannot know for certain how a Gore administration would
have responded to the terrorist attacks, the election campaign of the former vice
president and his running mate, Joseph Lieberman--along with the intense pressure
they would have felt from the right--suggests that, if anything, Gore and company
would have shown less caution and restraint than the Bush administration has in
deploying military force. On some war-related issues, such as civil liberties,
the differences between Al Gore and George W. Bush would likely have been
marginal.

This is not to suggest that, in light of September 11, Ralph Nader was right.
On major domestic issues, Gore and his appointees would have advanced policies
much more congenial to liberals. Unlike Bush, Gore would not have used the
terrorist attacks as an excuse to promote a grossly unfair economic stimulus plan
that awards hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to large corporations
while offering nothing to the bottom three-fourths of society. Nor would Gore
have delayed passage of an airline security bill for more than two months by
insisting that airport screening be left in the hands of private companies.
Although it is impossible to predict the makeup of Gore's cabinet, there's a good
chance that the nation would have been spared Tommy Thompson's bungling of the
anthrax scare (first Thompson downplayed the danger, and then he assured the
public that a mere $1.5 billion would be enough to upgrade the nation's
dilapidated public-health system) as well as John Ashcroft's curious use of the
Justice Department's resources in the aftermath of September 11. (A few weeks
after the attacks, Ashcroft sent federal agents to raid a center that offered
medical marijuana to cancer and AIDS patients in California; more recently, his
attention has shifted to overturning Oregon's assisted-suicide law.)

Commander-in-Chief Gore

But while a Gore/Lieberman administration would have avoided
such gaffes and ideological excesses on the domestic front, its approach in other
respects may have been no more prudent--and perhaps less so. For all his
gun-slinging rhetoric about capturing Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," Bush
waited four weeks before bombing Afghanistan, refused to send in large numbers of
U.S. ground forces, and has thus far avoided widening the war to Iraq. He has
done all of this while arousing little opposition from the more hawkish wing of
his own party and little second-guessing from the media.

Would the same treatment have been extended to Gore? He would have been
savaged, suggests a former Gore adviser speaking on background, for taking the
same approach. While nobody can say for certain whether pressure from the right
would have propelled Gore to deploy military force more aggressively and on a
wider number of fronts than Bush has, there is broad agreement that such pressure
would have been far greater with a Democrat in office--particularly with regard
to Iraq. "With a Democratic president, I think the Republicans would have been
calling for blood, saying it was the wimpish Clinton administration that left us
with this Iraq problem," says former Carter administration official Gary Sick, a
historian of U.S. foreign policy and the Middle East at Columbia University. "Of
course, the irony is that it was Bush's father who didn't finish the job during
the Gulf War."

The pressure to escalate the military campaign would not, however, have come
solely from outside the White House. Since September 11, no member of the Senate
has voiced more hawkish views about the scope of the war than Joseph Lieberman,
the man who would have been Gore's vice president. In numerous speeches and
newspaper articles, Lieberman has argued that Saddam Hussein's "special hatred
for America" calls for aggressive action to topple the Iraqi dictator--a
perspective in line with that of Paul Wolfowitz, Bush's deputy secretary of
defense. Such statements prompted the conservative strategist William Kristol, a
well-known hawk, to tell the Los Angeles Times that Lieberman's views are
"closer to us than parts of the Bush administration." Kristol was referring, of
course, to Colin Powell, who has persuaded Bush, at least for now, that
broadening the war to Iraq would provoke enormous anger throughout the Islamic
world and fracture the coalition currently supporting America's intervention in
Afghanistan.

Like Lieberman, Gore is no dove. He was one of the few Democratic senators to
vote in favor of the 1991 resolution authorizing the Gulf War; and he emerged
during the past decade as an aggressive advocate of military intervention in
places like Haiti and Kosovo (although, like Clinton, Gore stood in silence when
intervention was most clearly needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe: the
1994 genocide in Rwanda). Back in 1988, during his failed bid for the Democratic
presidential nomination, Gore tried to distinguish himself from his liberal
opponents by highlighting his support for the Reagan administration's invasion of
Grenada and his unilateral opposition to a nuclear freeze. More recently, during
the 2000 campaign, it was Bush, not Gore, who voiced caution about U.S. military
intervention abroad. Given all of this, the question is not whether prominent
members of a Gore/Lieberman administration would have considered broadening the
war to Iraq, but whether anyone of Colin Powell's stature would have been present
to argue the opposite view.

Gore would likely have named his longtime aide Leon Fuerth as national
security adviser, former ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke as
secretary of state, and a centrist figure such as former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn
as secretary of defense. Other possibilities for the latter post include former
CIA Director James Woolsey and Paul Wolfowitz, who is admired by Martin Peretz,
one of Gore's closest friends.

Offsetting this reality is the fact that, compared to Bush, Gore
has vast knowledge of and experience with foreign policy. In principle, he would
have entered the White House much better prepared to handle such a crisis. But
would Gore's superior command of the facts have made him a decidedly more
effective leader?

While the answer might seem obvious to liberals who shudder every time Bush
attempts to pronounce the name of a foreign official, the question is difficult
to answer. The way politicians respond to crises is inherently unpredictable
(witness the suddenly Churchillian figure of Rudy Giuliani). Moreover, the role
of the president is as much symbolic as it is substantive during most
foreign-policy crises. While the hard thinking within the Bush administration has
clearly fallen to the likes of Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld,
Bush's popularity ratings suggest that he is managing the role of figurehead
effectively. Of course, given how clueless and tongue-tied he often appears when
asked to explain what is actually happening, public confidence may eventually
erode.

On the other hand, for all his erudition, Gore's notoriously wooden manner
would have presented problems of its own, quite possibly preventing him from
projecting the empathy and humanness that are crucial during times of widespread
national anxiety. His sense of being the most knowledgeable person in the room
may have inhibited his ability to delegate authority. And several Democrats have
privately expressed skepticism about whether Gore would have assembled as
experienced a team of advisers as Bush has.

Gore's Multilateralism

In one respect, Gore would have had a distinct advantage.
The terrorist attacks have, after all, forced the Bush administration to abandon
its unilateralism and embrace a range of policies--a more cooperative approach
toward Russia and China, a constructive relationship with the United Nations, an
openness to "nation building"--that most conservatives scorned prior to September
11. To the extent that Bush's unilateralism fueled resentment of America during
his first nine months in office (as it undoubtedly did), and to the extent that
Gore would have adopted a more multilateralist approach (as he surely would
have), one can argue that Gore would have been better positioned to elicit
sympathy and cooperation from other countries. This might not matter in the
short-term, but it will as time passes and the war on terrorism grows more
protracted.

But there is one issue that complicates the picture: Israel. As Tony Judt
noted recently in The New York Review of Books, while it is obvious that
Osama bin Laden has cynically exploited the plight of the Palestinians for his
own twisted purposes, it is disingenuous to believe that America's unwavering
support for Israel is not a major source of anti-U.S. sentiment throughout the
Islamic world. "Arabs and other Muslims from Rabat to Jakarta have watched Israel
build settlements in occupied territory in defiance of UN resolutions and
international law," notes Judt. "They've been shown footage of the Israeli army
destroying houses and land.... When bin Laden claims that he is striking back
for the Palestinians, too, he renders the Palestinian cause no service--but he
doesn't lose friends, either."

Few people in the Islamic world likely believe that the Bush administration
has been evenhanded in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nevertheless, one can make a strong case that Bush has been tougher on Israel
than have most Democrats. On several occasions, Colin Powell has pointedly
criticized Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for sending tanks into the West
Bank to reoccupy Palestinian territory. Bush recently appeared before the United
Nations to express support for a Palestinian state, while Powell delivered a
speech calling for a two-state solution and an end to Israel's occupation.
Though Washington continues to support Israel--not least with billions of dollars
in foreign aid--one wonders if a Gore/Lieberman administration would have taken
any of these steps toward peace and fairness. Throughout his career, Gore has
been extremely close to the Israel lobby. While campaigning for the New York
primary in 1988, Gore famously chided his Democratic opponents--and even, at one
point, the Reagan administration--for being too pro-Arab.

Homeland Security

The war on terrorism is, of course, being fought at home as
well as abroad. How would Gore have approached the challenge of enhancing public
safety--and bringing terrorists to justice--while preserving basic constitutional
values? In recent weeks, liberals have expressed outrage over the Bush
administration's ongoing detention of hundreds of suspects whose identities
remain unknown. Many are equally incensed by the administration's decision to
wiretap conversations between prisoners and their lawyers and to try suspected
terrorists in military tribunals.

The use of secret evidence against suspected terrorists, however, is
nothing new. In fact, it began under the Clinton administration, which, following
the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, authorized the Immigration and
Naturalization Service to round up dozens of Arab immigrants and detain them on
the basis of secret evidence, sometimes for as long as four years. The
Clinton/Gore administration maintained this Kafkaesque practice even after judges
overturned several cases in which the government's allegations proved completely
unfounded--and despite the fact that civil courts have proved more than capable
of handling terrorism cases. (The Classified Information Procedures Act of 1974
allows prosecutors to introduce classified evidence in such cases; the only
condition is that defendants are given summaries of the evidence.)

Nor would Gore's presence have necessarily altered the terms of the USA
Patriot Act, the antiterror legislation that Congress enacted in October. Among
other things, the law broadens the government's power to conduct wiretaps and
enables the Justice Department to detain immigrants for years at a time without
any judicial proceeding. Whatever one makes of these provisions, a coalition of
Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress supported them, just as a
bipartisan coalition supported the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act
of 1996, which was introduced and signed into law by President Clinton. A strong
case can be made that the 1996 law, which radically restricted the right of all
prisoners to challenge their convictions under habeas corpus, represented a
greater assault on constitutional freedom--under far less trying
circumstances--than did the recent bill.

As on the foreign-policy front, moreover, Gore probably would have faced
added pressure from Republicans to undertake a sweeping crackdown--and perhaps
would have endured more finger-pointing about why September 11 was ever allowed
to happen in the first place. "With Gore, I think we would have been hearing much
more about the massive, catastrophic intelligence failure that led to September
11," says historian Gary Sick. "The reality is that he was part of the previous
eight years and if somebody wanted to point a finger, they could point it at
him."

Given the record, says David Cole, a law professor and civil-liberties
expert at Georgetown University, "there is no reason to believe the FBI or INS
would have been more restrained with Gore in office." He adds: "The reality is
that, whether under a Republican or Democratic administration, law enforcement
seeks as much power and discretion as it can get. And in times of fear, it can
get a lot."

The Expanding Pentagon

The same is true of another part of the government whose
size and authority has grown dramatically since September 11--namely, the
Pentagon. Despite facing an adversary utterly incapable of defending itself
against America's existing military arsenal, Pentagon contractors are calling on
Congress to fund expensive new weapons systems that are not needed to fight
terrorism and that may soon raise military spending beyond even the highest
levels during the Cold War. Already, Lockheed Martin Corporation has received the
green light to build a new generation of fighter planes that will cost an
estimated $250 billion over the next decade--even though America does not face a
single enemy with an advanced air force and the Pentagon is already pouring
billions into construction of the F-22 fighter jet (also built by Lockheed and
originally designed to counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War).

Would Al Gore have exercised restraint? William Hartung, director of the
Arms Trade Resource Center at the World Policy Institute, notes that it was Gore
who pledged during the 2000 election campaign to increase the military budget by
$100 billion over 10 years (Bush promised a smaller, $45-billion increase over
the same period). While Bush discussed the possibility of skipping a generation
of fighter planes, Gore warned that doing so might endanger national security.
Again, the pattern can be traced back to the late 1980s, when Gore criticized the
field of Democratic presidential candidates for opposing "every single weapons
system that has ever been proposed"--despite the fact that Gore himself voted to
reduce Reagan's defense budget in the early 1980s. "The conventional weapons
programs would be very secure under Gore," says Hartung.

The same is true of missile defense. Few things have seemed as illogical as
the Bush administration's insistence that September 11 makes a missile-defense
shield as necessary and urgent as ever. The fact that such a shield would be
useless against any imaginable attack carried out by a terrorist on U.S.
soil--and that the long-standing obsession with Star Wars has clearly diverted
attention from more tangible security threats--seems not to have registered.

Nevertheless, while it's true that a Gore administration would not have made
the militarization of space the centerpiece of its pre-September 11 foreign
policy, the reality is that, even today, missile defense enjoys bipartisan
support in Washington. "Aside from the rhetoric, Gore's program would have been
remarkably similar to Bush's," says Joe Cirincione, an expert on missile defense
and nuclear proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Though Gore probably would have sought to revise rather than abandon the 1972
Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, says Cirincione, the fear of being branded soft on
defense would likely have led him to fund missile-defense testing at roughly the
same level as during the Clinton administration ($5 billion per year, compared
with $8 billion under Bush). Cirincione, who spent nine years working in the
House Armed Services Committee, believes that Gore may well have been less bold
than Bush in pushing for reductions in the Russian and U.S. nuclear arsenals. (In
late November, Bush and Russian president Vladimir Putin reached a verbal
agreement to cut the number of warheads on both sides by two-thirds.) "Military
reform and arms control often fare better under Republican presidents who are not
afraid of being labeled weak on defense," says Cirincione. "Gore would have had
less room to maneuver."

None of this is to say that America is better off with Bush in
the White House. As noted, Gore's presence would have made a substantial
difference on countless domestic issues. In a recession, a Gore/Lieberman
administration would almost certainly have advocated some combination of tax
rebates for low-wage workers and expanded unemployment benefits as well as
federal investment in areas such as public health and civil defense. Were Gore in
office, vastly more money would have been available for such needs, since the
massive tax cut passed earlier this year would never have happened.

Furthermore, Gore would not have exploited the crisis atmosphere in order
to advance other elements of the far right's agenda, such as the rollback of
environmental protections. Capitalizing on the fact that few people are paying
attention, Bush's Bureau of Land Management recently reversed a regulation
allowing federal officials to block mining operations that cause "substantial,
irreparable harm" to the environment. The administration has seized on concern
about America's oil dependency and advocated drilling in the Alaskan wildlife
refuge, even though doing so will have little impact on the nation's long-term
energy needs.

But while it's important to recognize these differences, it's also important
not to exaggerate them or to ignore factors that might have led Gore, arguably
the most risk-averse politician of his generation, to do what is expedient rather
than what he believes is right. This instinct is, after all, part of the reason
why he chose not to call for a statewide recount of the Florida vote and, thus,
why he is watching the current crisis from the sidelines.

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