The Magazine

The Democrats' Tantrum

Oct 7, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 04 • By DAVID TELL, FOR THE EDITORS
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Furthermore, Bush has never once "taunted" Democrats--or ventured any other sort of public speculation--over what might happen if they opposed him on Iraq-related legislation. Nor has the Republican National Committee ever run a single ad remotely like the ones Al Gore decries. True to form, Gore appears very deliberately to have made this stuff up. Much the way he has invented yet another group of "far right" bogeymen. Can it have escaped Gore's attention that the man who was not so long ago his own handpicked vice-presidential running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, now supports the same Iraq policy Bush has purportedly "calculated" for exclusive appeal to the "far right"? Surely Gore has noticed, too, that what exists of a genuine "far right" in American politics--in league with the equally marginal "far left"--actually opposes the Bush administration's stated Iraq objectives.

Now, it is hardly news, and would otherwise hardly be worth mentioning, that a Democratic Senate majority leader has laid an entirely synthesized "outrage" at the feet of a Republican president. And certainly none of us will fall over dead to discover that Al Gore has told a lie. But there is something else and more important to say about the current controversy over war and politics. And oddly enough, though it would seem an obvious point, almost nobody (our friends at the New Republic are a notable and honorable exception) has so far thought or dared to say it out loud.

It happens to be true that President Bush has "politicized" the question of overthrowing Saddam: not by the underhanded means Messrs. Daschle and Gore allege, but merely by raising the subject to begin with. And it is perfectly appropriate that Bush has invited "political" debate about the issue directly in advance of a federal election, the decision to embark on a war being the gravest and most consequential one a democratic nation can ever make. And yes, of course, it would also be perfectly appropriate, and not at all "unpatriotic," for the Democratic party, were it convinced that Bush had misapprehended the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, responsibly and aggressively to dispute the president's analysis. Or, failing that, to oppose the war outright. This magazine, though we view continued Ba'ath party rule in Baghdad as an intolerable and irremediable danger, and therefore consider war inevitable, would welcome that debate. And we think American voters are entitled to hear it now--and formally participate, by their November ballots, in its outcome.

Here's the thing though: There is no such meaningful debate in the United States at present. And not because the Republican party has suppressed it, but because the Democratic party has feared and failed to mount it. Have a closer look at Al Gore's speech last week to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, which now serves--if not by virtue of its author's stature, then simply by default--as the "best" and most "systematic" Democratic argument "against" the Bush administration's proposed course of action in the Persian Gulf. It is clear from this document that Gore holds the president's policies in abject contempt. But it is not at all clear why that might be.

On the one hand, Gore is "deeply concerned" that a war with Iraq would stretch the Pentagon thin and thus "seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism" still underway. On the other hand, Gore thinks we are "perfectly capable of staying the course" against Osama bin Laden "while simultaneously taking those steps necessary to build an international coalition to join us in taking on Saddam Hussein in a timely fashion." Which might well entail a war, since Iraq "does pose a serious threat" that is "impossible to completely deter" and "will continue for as long as Saddam is in power."

On the other hand again, however, "the rule of law will quickly be replaced by the reign of fear" should President Bush claim a "uniquely American right to preemptively attack whomsoever he may deem represents a potential future threat." The United States must proceed multilaterally, through the United Nations, Gore insists; the president must make "every effort to obtain a fresh demand from the Security Council for prompt, unconditional compliance by Iraq within a definite period of time." Gore does not explain how this, the one "specific" policy recommendation contained in his speech, is the slightest bit inconsistent with what Bush is doing already. Nor does Gore explain why an American attack on Iraq must await the passage of new U.N. resolutions, given that he freely admits, almost in the same breath, that "existing resolutions from 1991 are sufficient from a legal standpoint" to justify unilateral military initiatives.