Like all Americans, I have been wrestling with the question of what our country needs to do to defend itself from the kind of intense, focused and enabled hatred that brought about September 11th, and which at this moment must be presumed to be gathering force for yet another attack. I’m speaking today in an effort to recommend a specific course of action for our country, which I believe would be preferable to the course recommended by President Bush. Specifically, I am deeply concerned that the policy we are presently following with respect to Iraq has the potential to seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism and to weaken our ability to lead the world in this new century.

To begin with, I believe we should focus our efforts first and foremost against those who attacked us on September 11th and have thus far gotten away with it. The vast majority of those who sponsored, planned and implemented the cold-blooded murder of more than 3,000 Americans are still at large, still neither located nor apprehended, much less punished and neutralized. I do not believe that we should allow ourselves to be distracted from this urgent task simply because it is proving to be more difficult and lengthy than predicted. Great nations persevere and then prevail. They do not jump from one unfinished task to another.

We are perfectly capable of staying the course in our war against Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, while simultaneously taking those steps necessary to build an international coalition to join us in taking on Saddam Hussein in a timely fashion. I don’t think that we should allow anything to diminish our focus on avenging the 3,000 Americans who were murdered and dismantling the network of terrorists who we know to be responsible for it. The fact that we don’t know where they are should not cause us to focus instead on some other enemy whose location may be easier to identify.

Nevertheless, President Bush is telling us that the most urgent requirement of the moment—right now—is not to redouble our efforts against Al Qaeda, not to stabilize the nation of Afghanistan after driving his host government from power, but instead to shift our focus and concentrate on immediately launching a new war against Saddam Hussein. And he is proclaiming a new, uniquely American right to preemptively attack whomsoever he may deem represents a potential future threat.

…Nevertheless, Iraq does pose a serious threat to the stability of the Persian Gulf and we should organize an international coalition to eliminate his access to weapons of mass destruction. Iraq’s search for weapons of mass destruction has proven impossible to completely deter and we should assume that it will continue for as long as Saddam is in power.

Moreover, no international law can prevent the United States from taking actions to protect its vital interests when it is manifestly clear that there is a choice to be made between law and survival. I believe, however, that such a choice is not presented in the case of Iraq. Indeed, should we decide to proceed, that action can be justified within the framework of international law rather than outside it. In fact, though a new UN resolution may be helpful in building international consensus, the existing resolutions from 1991 are sufficient from a legal standpoint.

We also need to look at the relationship between our national goal of regime change in Iraq and our goal of victory in the war against terror. In the case of Iraq, it would be more difficult for the United States to succeed alone, but still possible. By contrast, the war against terror manifestly requires broad and continuous international cooperation. Our ability to secure this kind of cooperation can be severely damaged by unilateral action against Iraq. …

I was one of the few Democrats in the US 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.

It is worth noting, however, that the conditions in 1991 when that resolution was debated in Congress were very different from the conditions this year. Then, Saddam had sent his armies across an international border to invade Kuwait and annex its territory. This year, 11 years later, there is no such invasion; instead we are prepared to cross an international border to change the government of Iraq. However justified our proposed action may be, this change in role nevertheless has consequences for world opinion and can affect the war against terrorism if we proceed unilaterally.

Secondly, in 1991, the first President Bush patiently and skillfully built a broad international coalition. His task was easier than that which confronts his son, in part because of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Nevertheless, every Arab nation except Jordan supported our military efforts and some of them supplied troops. Our allies in Europe and Asia supported the coalition without exception. Yet this year, by contrast, many of our allies in Europe and Asia are thus far opposed to what President Bush is doing and the few who support us condition their support on the passage of a new UN resolution.

Third, in 1991, a strong United Nations resolution was in place before the Congressional debate ever began; this year, although we have residual authority based on resolutions dating back to the first war in Iraq, we have nevertheless begun to seek a new United Nations resolution and have thus far failed to secure one.

Fourth, the coalition assembled in 1991 paid all of the significant costs of the war, while this time, the American taxpayers will be asked to shoulder hundreds of billions of dollars in costs on our own.

Fifth, President George H. W. Bush purposely waited until after the midterm elections of 1990 to push for a vote at the beginning of the new Congress in January of 1991. President George W. Bush, by contrast, pushed for a vote in this Congress immediately before the election.

The foreshortening of deliberation in the Congress robs the country of the time it needs for careful analysis of what may lie before it. Such consideration is all the more important because of the administration’s failure thus far to lay out an assessment of how it thinks the course of a war will run, even while it has given free rein to persons both within and close to the administration to suggest that this will be an easy conquest. Neither has the administration said much to clarify its idea of what is to follow regime change or of the degree of engagement it is prepared to accept for the United States in Iraq in the months and years after a regime change has taken place.

By shifting from his early focus after September 11th on war against terrorism to war against Iraq, the President has manifestly disposed of the sympathy, goodwill and solidarity compiled by America, and transformed it into a sense of deep misgiving and even hostility. In just one year, the President has somehow squandered the international outpouring of sympathy, goodwill and solidarity that followed the attacks of September 11th and converted it into anger and apprehension aimed much more at the United States than at the terrorist network, much as we manage to squander in one year’s time the largest budget surpluses in history and convert them into massive fiscal deficits. He has compounded this by asserting a new doctrine—of pre-emption.

The doctrine of pre-emption is based on the idea that in the era of proliferating weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and against the background of a sophisticated terrorist threat, the United States cannot wait for proof of a fully established mortal threat, but should rather act at any point to cut that short.

The problem with pre-emption is that in the first instance it is not needed in order to give the United States the means to act in its own defense against terrorism in general or Iraq in particular. But that is a relatively minor issue compared to the longer-term consequences that can be foreseen for this doctrine. To begin with, the doctrine is presented in open-ended terms, which means that if Iraq is the first point of application, it is not necessarily the last. In fact, the very logic of the concept suggests a string of military engagements against a succession of sovereign states: Syria, Libya, North Korea, Iran, etc., wherever the combination exists of an interest in weapons of mass destruction together with an ongoing role as host to or participant in terrorist operations…

The Bush administration may now be realizing that national and international cohesion are strategic assets. But it is a lesson long delayed and clearly not uniformly and consistently accepted by senior members of the Cabinet. From the outset, the administration has operated in a manner calculated to please the portion of its base that occupies the far right, at the expense of solidarity among Americans and between America and her allies…

Last week President Bush added a troubling new element to this debate by proposing a broad new strategic doctrine that goes far beyond issues related to Iraq and would affect the basic relationship between the United States and the rest of the world community. Article 51 of the United Nations charter recognizes the right of any nation to defend itself, including the right in some circumstances to take pre-emptive actions in order to deal with imminent threats. President Bush now asserts that we will take pre-emptive action even if we take the threat we perceive is not imminent…

But is a general doctrine of pre-emption necessary in order to deal with this problem? With respect to weapons of mass destruction, the answer is clearly not. The Clinton administration launched a massive series of air strikes against Iraq for the stated purpose of setting back his capacity to pursue weapons of mass destruction. There was no perceived need for new doctrine or new authorities to do so. The limiting factor was the state of our knowledge concerning the whereabouts of some assets, and a concern for limiting consequences to the civilian populace, which in some instances might well have suffered greatly.

Does Saddam Hussein present an imminent threat, and if he did would the United States be free to act without international permission? If he presents an imminent threat, we would be free to act under generally accepted understandings of article 51 of the UN Charter which reserves for member states the right to act in self-defense.

If Saddam Hussein does not present an imminent threat, then is it justifiable for the administration to be seeking by every means to precipitate a confrontation, to find a cause for war, and to attack? …

At the same time, the concept of pre-emption is accessible to other countries. There are plenty of potential imitators: India-Pakistan, China-Taiwan—not to forget Israel-Iraq or Israel-Iran. Russia has already cited it in anticipation of a possible military push into Georgia, on grounds that this state has not done enough to block the operations of Chechen rebels. What this doctrine does is to destroy the goal of a world in which states consider themselves subject to law, particularly in the matter of standards for the use of violence against each other. That concept would be displaced by the notion that there is no law but the discretion of the President of the United States.

This is an edited version of a speech made by Al Gore, former vice-president of the United States, and defeated Democratic candidate in the 2000 US presidential election. It was delivered in San Francisco, September 23, 2002; the title was “Iraq and the War on Terrorism.”

Al Gore
Albert Arnold Gore Jr. is an American politician and environmentalist who served as the 45th Vice President of the United States from 1993 to 2001. Gore was the Democratic nominee for the 2000 United States presidential election.

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