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Scoop Analysis: Clark On Al Gore - Who Was Right?

Who is telling the truth about Al Gore's position on Iraq? In the now famous comments which landed Helen Clark in hot water in Washington, she was quoted as saying she thought the war on Iraq probably wouldn't have happened if the Democratic candidate Al Gore had become US president. Was she right or wrong? Nick Turner unravels the facts.

Clark On Al Gore - Who Was Right?

By Nick Turner

According to the New Zealand First, Act and National parties, former US vice-president Gore has been an ardent supporter of the Bush war policy and Helen Clark was not only politically unwise but factually wrong to suggest he would have handled the Iraq crisis differently.

NZ First leader Winston Peters said during question time in Parliament that it was a "fact that Mr Gore supports the American invasion of Iraq" and Miss Clark's comments were "plain wrong".

Act's foreign affairs spokesman Ken Shirley said during question time that "Al Gore's position is exactly the same as President Bush's position". And in a media statement on 8 April under the heading "Helen Clark Wrong About Al Gore", he quoted a speech by Mr Gore on 23 September 2002 as proving this.

Act leader Richard Prebble, in a speech to the NZ Political Studies Conference at Auckland University on 13 April, said: "Al Gore is actually a hawk on Iraq and, as our Internet search shows, he has made no statement criticising George Bush."

And National Party leader Bill English during question time joined in challenging Miss Clark as to whether she stood by her comments, and on National's website he attacked her for refusing to, "simply say she was wrong".

Helen Clark, possibly because she was already in enough hot water with Washington and did not want to make things worse, declined to respond specifically to these statements and challenges.

So what is the truth about Al Gore's position on the Iraq war? Was Helen Clark wrong?

As is too often the case when our politicians get into a slanging match, the New Zealand news media have done the public a disservice by failing to check the facts and tell us who is right and who is wrong. Are they scared to?

A simple Internet search would reveal that, despite Mr Prebble's assertion to the contrary, Mr Gore is very much on record as strongly opposing the Bush policy on Iraq.

In fact his stance is so close to Miss Clark's that one could be forgiven for thinking she has simply borrowed his policy, and it may well be that this partly explained the Bush administration's angst.

Mr Gore's most complete statement on the subject of Iraq was in a speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco on 23 September 2002 (the speech quoted by Mr Shirley).

Any basic web search will find this speech very widely reported under headlines such as "Gore Assails Bush's Iraq Policy" (to quote the Washington Post). The scores of Internet references to it include quite a few sites which carry the full text, either as prepared for delivery or as actually delivered. In addition to the Scoop link above, another good example is at:

Among the key passages in this speech were:

- "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."

- "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."

- "President Bush is telling us that America's most urgent requirement of the moment right now is not to redouble our efforts against Al Qaida, not to stabilize the nation of Afghanistan after driving his (Osama bin Laden's) 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."

- "All Americans should acknowledge that Iraq does indeed pose a serious threat to the stability of the Persian Gulf region, and we should be about the business of organizing an international coalition to eliminate his (Saddam's) access to weapons of mass destruction."

- "There's no international law that can prevent the United States from taking action to protect our vital interests when it is manifesty clear that there's a choice to be made between law and our survival. 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."

- "It's theoretically possible to achieve our goals in Iraq unilaterally. By contrast, the war against terrorism manifestly requires a multilateral approach. It is impossible to succeed against terrorism unless we have secured the continuing, sustained cooperation of many nations. And here's one of my central points. 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."

- "In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, more than a year ago, we had an enormous reservoir of good will and sympathy and shared resolve all over the world. That has been squandered in a year's time and replaced with great anxiety all around the world, not primarily about what the terrorist networks are going to do, but about what we're going to do."

- "President Bush now asserts that we will take pre-emptive action even if the threat we perceive is not imminent. If other nations assert the same right then the rule of law will quickly be replaced by the reign of fear. What this doctrine does is to destroy the goal of a world in which states consider themselves subject to law. 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 that we can effectively defend ourselves abroad and at home without dimming our principles."

Those are just a few quotes from the Al Gore speech, which received massive news coverage at the time. Another typical example of this coverage was the report in the daily USA Today which carried a headline "Gore Blasts Bush on Iraq War" and said: "Former vice president Al Gore on Monday outlined a sweeping indictment of President Bush's threatened attack on Iraq, calling it a distraction from the war on terrorism that has 'squandered' international support for the United States." The speech was also bitterly attacked by Bush supporters, and led to a rift between Mr Gore and his presidential running mate Joe Lieberman.

It is quite extraordinary that the Act party's Internet search failed to turn up a single one of the vast number of references to this Gore speech attacking the Bush policy.

It is even more extraordinary when we note that Act MP Ken Shirley actually quoted from this speech in his news release of 8 April, wrongly claiming that it showed Mr Gore was supporting the Bush stance!

Mr Shirley cited a one-sentence passage from the Gore speech out of context to do this: "In fact though a UN resolution might be helpful in building international consensus, the existing resolutions since 1991 are sufficient from a legal standpoint."

He failed to quote what immediately followed, where Mr Gore said the problem about relying on this legal argument was that "the war against terror manifestly requires broad and continuous international cooperation (and) our ability to secure this kind of cooperation can be severely damaged by unilateral action against Iraq".

The Gore speech shows that about the only point of agreement between himself and Mr Bush was that it would be nice if the Saddam regime could be got rid of. That goal was in fact established as US policy in the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, passed by Congress under the Clinton-Gore administration.

The Act recited a series of crimes by the Saddam regime and stated: "It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime."

Under the Act, Congress appropriated up to $97 million in military assistance funding to help Iraqi opposition forces end the Saddam regime by providing them with equipment and training. But it also stipulated that apart from the provision of such equipment and training, "nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize or otherwise speak to the use of United States Armed Forces".

President Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act only reluctantly and he was criticised towards the end of his term by many of President Bush's present supporters and advisers for not implementing it with sufficient vigour. Only a small part of the funds appropriated by Congress was in fact drawn down by Mr Clinton to help anti-Saddam groups.

But during the 2000 presidential election campaign, commentators noted that Mr Gore was distancing himself from Mr Clinton's unsympathetic stance and indicating that, if elected, he would take stronger steps to implement the 1998 Act against Saddam.

And in his September 2002 speech, Mr Gore reminded his audience that regime change had been US policy for a number of years. But he did not support that policy being brought about by unilateral US military action, which was precluded by the 1998 Act.

Mr Gore's speech was delivered seven months ago, and one might wonder whether his views have changed at all since then, although there is no obvious reason why they should have.

Very soon after giving the speech, Mr Gore announced his withdrawal as a candidate for the 2004 presidential election, and since then has adopted a low profile on public issues. Since then there has been one report that he told a closed symposium in Athens that the war on Iraq would not have occurred if he was president, but media were not present and there is some debate about precisely what he said. The report from (and archived by Scoop Here) was picked up by the website which is run by supporters of Al Gore, and has not been withdrawn. And in another speech on the same site he criticised the US media for suppressing dissent and debate in the run-up to the war.

In the reported comments that got Miss Clark into hot water, she referred to forces in the Bush administration who always wanted to go after Iraq and September 11 "tipped the balance". This again is a matter that has been extensively detailed on the Internet as well as in mainstream media such as the Washington Post and New York Times.

Mr Bush during his election campaign did not say he planned a war on Iraq, but advice he received after September 11 moved him to this decision. This advice included a letter a few days after the attack, stressing the need to "go after terrorism wherever we find it in the world" and listing an attack on Iraq as next on a list of necesessary actions after dealing with Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaida network.

The 41 signatories of this letter were mostly well-known foreign policy "conservatives" in the US, and included Richard Perle (until recently chairman of the Pentagon's Defence Policy Advisory Board). They also included another member of that board, Richard V Allen, who is now a part-time resident of New Zealand and was recently interviewed on TV by Kim Hill.

Their letter, which can be seen at, said that "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack", US military force should be used to help overthrow the Saddam regime.

As Helen Clark indicated, this was in fact a position advocated for some time previously by people close to the Bush administration. In January 1998, 18 prominent US political and foreign policy figures (including some of the signatories of the letter just mentioned) had sent a letter to President Clinton saying it was time to use US military force to depose Saddam. Its text can be seen at It was followed some time later by a similar one to congressional leaders complaining about Mr Clinton's lack of action.

The lineup of signatories is interesting and is of some relevance to New Zealand's relations with the US. Not only did it include several people who now occupy key positions in the Bush administration and have had the opportunity to implement the Iraq war that they advocated, such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilizad and Richard Perle.

It also included Robert Zoellick, who is now the US Trade Representative with cabinet rank and the person likely to decide whether and when New Zealand gets invited to negotiate a free trade agreement with the US.

Mr Zoellick, a key Bush adviser in the 2000 election campaign, has long been one of the hard-liners on Iraq and would certainly have been a strong supporter of the recent war. Over a number of years he advocated a policy of sending in US forces backed by strong air power to "detach" part of southern Iraq as a stronghold from which opposition Iraqi forces could strike at Baghdad.

Mr Zoellick has an impressive academic and practical background in international security affairs, and takes a holistic view of trade, foreign policy and international security being intertwined. In a recent speech marking the beginning of free trade negotiations with Australia, he particularly noted that "Australians are very stalwart friends and allies of the United States" and "it matters when friends stand by us."

So it would be fair to assume that if New Zealand had backed the war, its chances of a free trade agreement would have been improved. But it would be too simplistic to assume that Mr Zoellick would strike New Zealand off the list of free trade partners simply because of Miss Clark's comments or New Zealand's opposition to the Iraq war without a second Security Council resolution.

As recently as two months ago, well after the New Zealand government had made clear its non-support for the proposed war, Mr Zoellick's office was reported sympathetic to calls from Congress for New Zealand to be brought in at some stage to the free trade negotiations with Australia.

As a man strongly committed to free trade as a matter of principle, and having a longterm perspective on world affairs, he would be unlikely to shut New Zealand out of a free trade agreement solely because of a temporary blip in what has generally been a close and cooperative relationship between New Zealand and the United States over many years embracing military, trade and political issues.

Besides, he would probably acknowledge that even though Helen Clark's comments about Al Gore were diplomatically insensitive and unhelpful coming from a "very very very close friend" of the US, they were factually spot on.


- Nick Turner is a Wellington journalist and observer of international affairs.

© Scoop Media

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