W. Bushs doctrine of "preemptive war" the elimination of foreign
governments he deems a threat to U.S. security interests is quickly developing a
domestic corollary. Any politician who questions Bushs strategy can expect to be
confronted by a rapid-deployment force of pro-Bush operatives who counterattack using
weapons of ridicule and distortion.
In a kind of test run, this army swung onto the offensive immediately after former Vice
President Al Gore on Sept. 23 delivered a comprehensive critique of Bushs radical
departure from decades of American support for international law. Rather than welcome a
vigorous debate on the merits and shortcomings of the so-called "Bush Doctrine,"
conservative commentators treated Gore and others raising questions as dishonest,
unpatriotic and even unhinged.
Bush himself has joined in this politics of preemption with comments such as one at a
campaign speech in New Jersey when he declared the Democratic-controlled Senate "is
not interested in the security of the American people." The goal appears to be the
silencing of domestic debate about Bushs unparalleled assertion of executive
authority to conduct an open-ended series of wars.
Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000 and would have won the White House if
all legally cast votes were counted in Florida, was slapped around by Beltway political
analysts. He was hit from all angles, variously portrayed as seeking cheap political gain
and committing political suicide.
Helped by the fact that Gores speech received spotty television coverage
MSNBC carried excerpts live and C-SPAN replayed the speech later that night
pro-Bush commentators were free to distort Gores words and then dismiss his
arguments as "lies" largely because few Americans actually heard what he said.
[Gores speech is described in detail below. To watch the speech in its entirety on
C-SPAN's website, click
Some epithets came directly from Bush partisans. Republican National Committee
spokesman Jim Dyke called Gore a "political hack." An administration source told
the Washington Post that Gore was simply "irrelevant," a theme that would be
repeated often in the days after Gores speech. [Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2002]
Other slurs were fired off by battalions of conservative opinion-makers from their
strategic high ground on the editorial pages of major newspapers, on talk radio and on
television chat shows.
"Gores speech was one no decent politician could have delivered," wrote
Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly. "It was dishonest, cheap, low. It was
hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts
bereft of anything other than taunts and jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies. It
was breathtakingly hypocritical, a naked political assault delivered in tones of moral
condescension from a man pretending to be superior to mere politics. It was wretched. It
was vile. It was contemptible." [Washington Post, Sept. 25, 2002]
"A pudding with no theme but much poison," declared another Post columnist,
Charles Krauthammer. "It was a disgrace a series of cheap shots strung
together without logic or coherence." [Washington Post, Sept. 27, 2002] At Salon.com,
Andrew Sullivan entitled his piece about Gores "The Opportunist" and
characterized Gore as "bitter."
While some depicted Gores motivation as "opportunism," columnist
William Bennett mocked Gore for the opposite, sealing his political doom and banishing
himself "from the mainstream of public opinion." In an Op-Ed piece for the Wall
Street Journal, entitled "Al Gores Political Suicide," Bennett said Gore
had "made himself irrelevant by his inconsistency" and had engaged in "an
act of self-immolation" by daring to criticize Bushs policy.
"Now we have reason to be grateful once again that Al Gore is not the man in the
White House, and never will be," Bennett wrote. [WSJ, Sept. 26, 2002]
When the conservative pundits addressed Gores actual speech, his words were
bizarrely parsed or selectively edited to allow reprising of the news medias
favorite "Lyin Al" canard from the presidential campaign.
Kelly, for instance, resumed his editorial harangue with the argument that Gore was
lying when the former vice president said "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."
To Kelly, this comment was "reprehensible" and "a lie." Kelly
continued, "The men who implemented the cold-blooded murder of more
than 3,000 Americans are dead; they died in the act of murder on Sept. 11. Gore can
look this up." Kelly added that most of the rest are in prison or on the run.
Yet, Kellys remarks were obtuse even by his standards. Gore clearly was talking
about the likes of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, who indeed have not been located.
Plus, the Bush administration itself has expressed frustration at the failure of Afghan
and Pakistani forces to cut off escape routes for al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders during last
winters U.S. military offensive.
The administration also has cited the resurgence of the al-Qaeda terrorist threat,
fearing that its operatives are preparing new rounds of terrorist attacks from bases
scattered through dozens of countries. In September, Attorney General John Ashcroft and
Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge recognized this problem by raising the terrorist threat
warning in the U.S. from yellow to orange.
But when Gore makes similar points, he is dismissed as a liar. That then opened the
door for smirking TV pundits to reprise other bogus examples of Gores
"lies," including the news medias invented quote about Gore supposedly
saying he "invented the Internet." [For details about how the national press
corps exaggerated Gores alleged exaggerations during the campaign, see
Gore vs. the Media."]
Limbaugh & Hume
As Bob Somerby, editor of The Daily Howler,
has pointed out, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and Fox News Brit Hume led the
way on another front, accusing Gore of lying about his position on the Persian Gulf War in
1991. That claim was advanced by snipping off a portion of Gores Sept. 23 remarks to
create a phony contradiction with a statement he made in 1991.
On Fox News "Special Report" on Sept. 24, Hume played a clip of
Gores Sept. 23 speech in which Gore, who had voted in the U.S. Senate to support
President George H.W. Bushs intervention to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait, said
"I felt betrayed by the first Bush administrations hasty departure from the
Then, Hume played a comment by Gore on April 18, 1991, in which Gore defended the first
President Bushs decision not to march to Baghdad and added, "It was universally
accepted that our objective was to push Iraq out of Kuwait, and it was further understood
that when this was accomplished, combat should stop."
Juxtaposed, these two statements were made to appear as contradictions, another Gore
"lie." Humes panel of pundits jumped at the opportunity to draw that
Hume asked, "How do we explain that, as against what he said yesterday?"
"Its inexplicable," said Bill Sammon of the Washington Times.
"Its puzzling why he would flip-flop on something so easily checkable."
"He invented the Internet," smirked pundit Morton Kondracke. "Hes
got a bad memory."
But as Somerby pointed out at The Daily Howler, Hume had created Gores
"contradiction" by omitting a key phrase from Gores Sept. 23 speech,
relating to which battlefield Gore was referring. The fuller Gore quote read, "I felt
betrayed by the first Bush administrations 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."
Gore made similar points in April 1991, when he criticized the elder Bush for leaving
the anti-Hussein forces in the lurch. Gore said Bushs handling of the post-war
insurrections "revives the most bitter memories of humankinds worst
moments." [NYT, April 13, 1991, as cited by Somerby in his column on Sept. 26, 2002] It is clear to any
honest, careful reader that Gores two comments were about different parts of the
So, the national news media was at it again, twisting Gores words to advance the
depiction of Al Gore as dishonest. By contrast, during Campaign 2000, the Bush-Cheney
campaign was allowed to utter whopper after whopper with the media barely noticing. [See
Bush-Cheney," October 16, 2000]
Still, the leit motif running through the attacks against Gore and other
Democratic critics of George W. Bushs "preemptive" wars was that a
thorough debate will not be allowed. Rather than confront arguments on their merits,
Bushs supporters simply tried to drum Gore and other skeptics out of what passes for
respectable political society.
Bush personally has joined these efforts. Indeed, his political adviser Karl Rove
appears to have masterminded a plan to inject the Iraq war debate into the congressional
campaigns both to distract voters from the sinking economy and portray Democrats as
unpatriotic. One theory holds that the primary target of Bushs war talk is not
Saddam Husseins government in Baghdad but "regime change" in the U.S.
Senate, which if captured will give the Republicans total control of the U.S. government.
In a speech in Trenton, N.J., on Sept. 23, Bush escalated his rhetoric in attacking
Democrats who opposed his demand for sweeping power to circumvent civil service rules in a
bill to create a vast Homeland Security Department. "The Senate is more interested in
special interests in Washington, and not interested in the security of the American
people," Bush declared.
Bushs assertion that the Democratic-controlled Senate was "not interested in
the security of the American people" pushed the normally mild-mannered Senate
Majority Leader Tom Daschle into a rage. He demanded an apology in the name of many
Democrats who had fought for their country. In the U.S. Senate, Democratic Sen. Daniel
Inouye of Hawaii lost an arm in World War II and Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia lost both
legs and one arm in Vietnam. Many other Democratic leaders served the country in war,
including Gore who was a military journalist in Vietnam and Daschle who served as an
intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command during the Vietnam War.
Contrarily, both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney avoided national military
service in Vietnam, Bush by joining the Texas Air National Guard and Cheney by taking
advantage of five separate draft deferments.
Bush refused to apologize and the press corps turned on Daschle for his
supposedly intemperate behavior. While Bushs comments were presumed to represent his
penchant for speaking bluntly, Daschles protest was analyzed for its political
calculation or for its irrationality. Rev. Sun Myung Moons newspaper, The Washington
Times, pictured the South Dakota Democrat as headless in an editorial cartoon. Reprising
the other media refrain of Lyin Al, another Washington Times cartoon drew Gore as
Another media explanation for the curious behavior of Daschle, Gore and other Democrats
was that they were intent on a self-destructive nostalgia trip back to their youth when
they had criticized the Vietnam War. "A good many Democratic Party cadre cut their
teeth as anti-war protesters marching against Vietnam," wrote Wall Street Journal
columnist Robert L. Bartley. "The anti-war movement is dead, but it hangs around the
neck of the Democratic Party." [WSJ, Sept. 30, 2003]
So, instead of examining the substance of the criticism from Gore and others,
conservative pundits have chosen to ascribe dark political motives and lob accusations.
While perhaps effective politically, that approach prevents a full debate on the risks and
benefits of Bushs new doctrine.
With that doctrine, the United States faces two historic foreign policy choices: what
to do about Iraq and what will a policy of preemptive military strikes mean to
Americas constitutional framework and the nations relationship to the rest of
The White House spelled out Bushs preemptive policy in a Sept. 20 report on
"national security strategy" to Congress. In justifying the departure from
traditional U.S. policy, the White House said, "the only path to peace and security
is the path of action." The report states, "We must be prepared to stop rogue
states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass
destruction against the United States and our allies and friends."
At first blush, there is some logic to the change given the unpredictable nature of
rogue states and terrorist networks. But important questions are left unanswered,
including such basic ones as what defines an imminent threat.
The report points out that in the past, countries could measure threats by the build-up
of forces along borders. But the new doctrine calls for the U.S. "to adapt the
concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of todays
adversaries." The report offers no definition for how to gauge these threats,
presumably leaving such judgments to the discretion of the president.
As currently defined, preemption not only requires the U.S. government to analyze
another countrys capabilities but to read the minds of that countrys leaders
and to assess possible intentions and motives. Like some worldwide version of predictive
crime, as in the movie "Minority Report," these evaluations then become the
basis for "defensive" action before any offensive action occurs.
Sen. Robert Byrd, known for his scholarship on constitutional issues, argued in a
Senate floor speech on Oct. 3 that the Bush Doctrine represents a rewriting of the U.S.
Constitution and augurs a new era of international chaos.
The West Virginia Democrat said Bushs resolution seeking broad powers to wage war
in the Middle East was "a product of presidential hubris. This resolution is
breathtaking, breathtaking in its scope. It redefines the nature of defense. It
reinterprets the Constitution to suit the will of the executive branch. This Constitution,
which I hold in my hand, is amended without going through the constitutional process of
amending this Constitution."
Byrd said Bushs policy of preemptive war represented "an unprecedented and
unfounded interpretation of the presidents authority under the Constitution of the
United States, not to mention the fact that it stands the Charter of the United Nations on
Other countries, Byrd noted, can be expected to cite the U.S. precedent in justifying
strikes at their enemies which might be considered potential threats sometime in the
A Spiral of War
Indeed, by definition, preemption would beget preemption. If one country explores the
possibility of taking preemptive military action, as the U.S. has against Iraq, the logic
of preemption would permit a country like Iraq to attack first, preemptively. If this new
rule applied to all countries, it would usher in a cycle of military conflicts that would
be self-sustaining and never-ending.
Of course, that is not what the Bush Doctrine envisions. It asserts the notion that the
United States stands alone above other nations in its right to assess the intentions of
other countries and attack preemptively. Yet how the Bush administration plans to put the
genie of preemption back into the bottle once its been released is not explained.
George W. Bush also makes a questionable argument when he asserts that the dangers now
facing the United States are unprecedented, thus justifying an unprecedented response.
During the Cold War, the U.S. government faced down direct threats to its existence with
the Soviet Union and China possessing nuclear weapons. Still, presidents from Harry Truman
through the first President Bush managed the threat without recourse to invading and
disarming the Soviet Union and China.
In some ways the Bush Doctrine resembles the position of military hawks at the time of
the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. They favored an invasion of Cuba to remove missiles
delivered by the Soviet Union, but the hawks were thwarted by President John F. Kennedy
who chose a non-violent blockade and negotiations to eliminate the Cuban missile threat
and reduce tensions.
Now, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush has chosen to opt for military
preemption against countries that might become threats to U.S. security. After Iraq, the
policy of preemptive war would presumably justify U.S. conflicts with many countries
including Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, China and North Korea. Each of these countries, to
varying degrees, rejects U.S. hegemony and represents potential security threats.
Al Gore raised a series of similar questions in his Sept. 23 speech, the one that was
then characterized as crazy, opportunistic and self-immolating. But just what did Al Gore
actually say that merited that new round of personal calumny?
Speaking to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Gore laid out a series of concerns
and differences that he has with Bushs policy of "preemption" and
specifically the decision to refashion the war on terror into an immediate war with Iraq.
Gore, who supported the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, was not opposing efforts to oust
Saddam Hussein, though the media coverage obscured that point. Rather, the Tennessee
Democrat expressed concern over Bushs approach to the task. One of Gore's criticisms
focused on Bushs failure to enlist the international community as his father did in
1990. Gore warned about the negative impact alienating other nations is having on the
broader war against terror.
"I am deeply concerned that the course of action that we are presently embarking
upon 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,"
Gore said. "To put first things first, I believe that we ought to be focusing our
efforts first and foremost against those who attacked us on Sept. 11.
"Great nations persevere and then prevail. They do not jump from one unfinished
task to another. We should remain focused on the war against terrorism."
Gore centered his criticism largely on the pace and the strategy, not the goal of
driving Hussein from power. "I believe 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," Gore said. "If youre going after Jesse
James, you ought to organize the posse first, especially if youre in the middle of a
gunfight with somebody whos out after you."
Instead of keeping after al Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan, Bush has chosen to jump
to a new war against Iraq as the first example of his policy of preemption, Gore said.
"He is telling us that our most urgent task right now is to shift our focus and
concentrate on immediately launching a new war against Saddam Hussein," Gore said.
"And the president is proclaiming a new uniquely American right to preemptively
attack whomsoever he may deem represents a potential future threat."
Gore also objected to the timing for a war that isnt triggered by a specific
Iraqi action, but rather Bushs determination that Iraq may pose a threat sometime in
the future. "President Bush is demanding, in this high political season, that
Congress speedily affirm that he has the necessary authority to proceed immediately
against Iraq and, for that matter, under the language of his resolution, against any other
nation in the region regardless of subsequent developments or emerging
circumstances," Gore said.
The former vice president staked out a position with subtle but important differences
from Bushs broad assertion that the U.S. has the right to override international law
on his command. Gore argued that U.S. unilateral power should be used sparingly, only in
"Theres no international law that can prevent the United States from taking
action to protect our vital interests when it is manifestly clear that theres a
choice to be made between law and our survival," Gore said. "Indeed,
international law itself recognizes that such choices stay within the purview of all
nations. I believe, however, that such a choice is not presented in the case of Iraq.
"Indeed, should we decide to proceed, our action can be justified within the
framework of international law rather than requiring us to go outside the framework of
international law. In fact, even though a new United Nations resolution might be helpful
in the effort to forge an international consensus, I think its abundantly clear that
the existing U.N. resolutions, passed 11 years ago, are completely sufficient from a legal
standpoint, so long as it is clear that Saddam Hussein is in breach of the agreements made
at the conclusion of the Persian Gulf War."
Gores central point was that Bush had unnecessarily alienated the international
community over Iraq, thus making the war against terrorism more difficult. "Our
ability to secure that kind of multilateral cooperation in the war against terrorism can
be severely damaged in the way we go about undertaking unilateral action against
Iraq," Gore said.
Gore also contrasted the younger Bushs approach now with his fathers in
1991. "Iraq had crossed an international border, invaded a neighboring sovereign
nation and annexed its territory," Gore said. "Now, by contrast, in 2002, there
has been no invasion. We are proposing to cross an international border. And, however
justified it may be, we have to recognize that this profound difference in the
circumstances now compared to what existed in 1991 has profound implications for the way
the rest of the world views what we are doing, and that in turn will have implications for
our ability to succeed in our war against terrorism."
Gore noted, too, that the senior Bush confronted Iraq with the support of a broad
international coalition of nations, including every Arab nation except Jordan. Now, Gore
said, many allies around the world are opposed to Bushs course of action. The senior
Bush also waited until after midterm elections to push for a vote by Congress, while his
son has demanded a vote in the weeks before the elections.
"Rather than making efforts to dispel these concerns at home and abroad about the
role of politics in the timing of policy, the president is on the campaign trail two or
three days a week, often publicly taunting Democrats with the political consequences of a
no vote," Gore said. "The Republican National Committee is running pre-packaged
advertising based on the same theme.
"All of this apparently in keeping with a political strategy clearly described in
a White House aides misplaced computer disk which advised Republican operatives that
their principal game plan for success in the election a few weeks away was to, quote,
focus on the war. Vice President Cheney, meanwhile, has indignantly described
suggestions of any such thing as reprehensible and then the following week took his
discussion of the war to the Rush Limbaugh Show."
Good Will Lost
In his speech, Gore bemoaned the fact that Bushs actions have dissipated the
international good will that surrounded the United States in the days after the Sept. 11
attacks. "That has been squandered in a years time and replaced with great
anxiety all around the world, not primarily about what the terrorist networks are going to
do, but about what were going to do," Gore said. "Now, my point is not
that theyre right to feel that way, but that they do feel that way."
Then, the former vice president addressed his broader concerns about Bushs
"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," Gore said.
"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
none of them very popular in the United States, of course, but the implication is that
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 doctrine will
"It also means that if the Congress approves the Iraq resolution just proposed by
the administration, it would be simultaneously creating the precedent for preemptive
action anywhere, any time this or any future president, as a single individual, albeit
head of state, decides that it is time."
As much as the international community is unnerved by Bushs asserted power, Gore
said, the position is strongly supported by Bushs political base. "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 all of us as
Americans and solidarity between our country and our allies," Gore said.
Gore also took aim at Bushs unilateral assertion of his right to imprison
American citizens without trial or legal representation simply by labeling them
"The very idea that an American citizen can be imprisoned without recourse to
judicial process or remedy, and that this can be done on the sole say-so of the president
of the United States or those acting in his name, is beyond the pale and un-American, and
ought to be stopped," Gore said.
"Now, regarding other countries, the administrations disdain for the views
of others is well documented, and need not be reviewed here. It is more important to note
the consequences of an emerging national strategy that not only celebrates American
strength, but actually appears to glorify the notion of dominance. The word itself has
been used in the counsels of the administration.
"If what America represents to the world is leadership in a commonwealth of
equals, then our friends are legions. If what we represent to the world is an empire, then
it is our enemies who will be legion. At this fateful juncture in our history, it is vital
that we see clearly who are our enemies, and that we intend to deal with them. It is also
important, however, that in the process we preserve not only ourselves as individuals, but
our nature as a people dedicated to the rule of law."
Chaos in Iraq
Gore also raised practical concerns about the dangers that might follow the overthrow
of Hussein, if chaos in Iraq follows. Gore cited the deteriorating political condition in
Afghanistan where the new central government can extend its control only to areas of the
capital and has ceded effective power to warlords in the countryside.
"What if, in the aftermath of a war against Iraq, we faced a situation like that,
because weve washed our hands of it?" Gore asked. "What would then happen
to all of those stored reserves of biological weapons all around the country? What if the
al-Qaeda members infiltrated across the borders of Iraq the way they are in Afghanistan?
Then the question wouldnt be, Is Saddam Hussein going to share these weapons
with a terrorist group? The terrorist groups would have an enhanced ability to just
walk in there and get them.
"Now, I just think that if we end the war in Iraq the way we ended the war in
Afghanistan, we could very well be much worse off than we are today."
Gore also raised questions about the international chaos that could be unleashed by the
Bush Doctrine of "preemptive" wars against countries that may become threats to
U.S. national security sometime in the future. Gore noted that the United States survived
dangerous times during the Cold War by operating through a strategy of collective defense
and multilateral organizations, such as NATO and the United Nations.
"Through all the dangerous years that followed, when we understood that the
defense of freedom required the readiness to put the existence of the nation itself into
the balance, we never abandoned our belief that what we were struggling to achieve was not
bounded by our own physical security, but extended to unmet hopes of humankind," Gore
said, according to a text of his speech.
"The issue before us is whether we now face circumstances so dire and so novel
that we must choose one objective over the other," Gore said. "Even those who
now agree that Saddam Hussein must go, may divide deeply over the wisdom of presenting the
United States as impatient for war.
"At the same time, the concept of preemption 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.
"I believe we can effectively defend ourselves abroad and at home without dimming
our principles. Indeed, I believe that our success in defending ourselves depends
precisely on not giving up what we stand for."
While it may be understandable why Bushs supporters would be upset over
Gores address Rush Limbaugh said he was unable to get to sleep after
listening to it their subsequent reaction was more attuned to obscuring Gores
arguments than addressing what he actually said. [That is why we have quoted from the
speech at some length, so the readers can judge Gores words themselves.]
Perhaps it should not be a surprise that as the Bush administration sets the United
States on a course to become a modern-day Rome that many traditional notions of democracy,
including the value of vigorous debate and the rule of law, also would require revision.
In effect, Bush and his supporters already have created a domestic flip side to the
coin of worldwide "preemptive" war. They judge even serious critics to be
outside the acceptable public debate, which then turns almost exclusively to the means of
fighting war displayed in 3-D graphics and night-vision video rather than on
a thoughtful debate of the justifications and the principles behind going to war.
As many in ancient Rome learned two millennia ago, it is difficult if not impossible to
maintain a republic within an empire.
[Readers: the last five paragraphs of Gores speech cited above are taken from the
prepared text because the transcript of the actual speech as published on the Washington
Posts Web site was cut off by an end to the audio feed.]