Step up to the plate


Ten years ago this week, Al Gore and G.W. Bush met in the second debate of the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign.

Numbing as it was back then, it’s rather entertaining now to read over the transcript.

Recent history of this kind gets covered over too quickly by the sediment of subsequent events, especially given the landslide of the 2001 WTC/Pentagon attacks.

Of course, the debate is interesting not for anything it tells us (nothing) about Bush and the Republicans.

Its historical value lies in the counterfactual: the rhetorical and conceptual armoury (such as it was) of Gore’s “humanitarian intervention” was perfectly capable of serving as the official mood music of the coming Drang nach Osten (aka the War on Terror).

Once the noise about Republican “isolationism” and Democrat “liberal internationalism” is filtered out, the adherence of both candidates to a common project is clear. The Clinton administration had inherited, and then faithfully executed, the grand strategy outlined in the Pentagon’s Defence Planning Guidance of 1992.

The key goals of post-Cold-War US foreign policy, according to this document, were

  1. “precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor”; and
  2. “preventing the domination of key regions by a hostile power”.

Given the decline in the relative weight of US productive power, this would require coercive, “extra-economic” means: in short, aggressive war as an instrument of state policy.

Advancing this prerogative then became the primary concern for all wings of the US elite: core state executives, as well as the periphery of policy intellectuals, business-linked thinktanks and journalists. In this they were assisted by external allies, especially in Australia, Canada, and western Europe.

Thus Gore goads Bush over the latter’s putative reluctance to “intervene” overseas:

I did want to pick up on one of the statements earlier, and maybe I have heard, maybe I have heard the previous statements wrong, Governor. 

In some of the discussions we’ve had about when it’s appropriate for the U.S. to use force around the world, at times the standards that you’ve laid down have given me the impression that if it’s something like a genocide taking place or what they called ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, that that alone would not be, that that wouldn’t be the kind of situation that would cause you to think that the U.S. ought to get involved with troops. 

Now, there have to be other factors involved for me to want to be involved. But by itself, that to me can bring into play a fundamental American strategic interest because I think it’s based on our values. 

Now, have I got that wrong?

Bush fends: “I’m worried about overcommitting our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use.” 

Gore continues:

The way I see it, the world is getting much closer together. Like it or not, we are now — the United States is now the natural leader of the world. All these other countries are looking to us. 

Now, just because we cannot be involved everywhere, and shouldn’t be, doesn’t mean that we should shy away from going in anywhere… 

I just think, Jim, that this is an absolutely unique period in world history. The world has come together, as I said, they’re looking to us. 

And we have a fundamental choice to make. Are we going to step up to the plate as a nation the way we did after World War II, the way that generation of heroes said okay, the United States is going to be the leader. And the world benefited tremendously from the courage that they showed in those post-war years. 

I think that in the aftermath of the Cold War, it’s time for us to do something very similar, to step up to the plate, to provide the leadership on the environment, leadership to make sure the world economy keeps moving in the right direction.

Bush responds:

I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say this is the way it’s got to be. We can help… 

I just don’t think it’s the role of the United States to walk into a country and say, we do it this way, so should you… 

So I’m not exactly sure where the vice president is coming from, but I think one way for us to end up being viewed as the ugly American is for us to go around the world saying, we do it this way, so should you.

And note this exchange, earlier in the same debate:

BUSH: The coalition against Saddam has fallen apart or it’s unraveling, let’s put it that way. The sanctions are being violated. We don’t know whether he’s developing weapons of mass destruction. He better not be or there’s going to be a consequence should I be the president… 

I think that, you know, I would hope to be able to convince people I could handle the Iraqi situation better.

MODERATOR: Saddam Hussein, you mean, get him out of there?

BUSH: I would like to, of course, and I presume this administration would as well. We don’t know — there are no inspectors now in Iraq, the coalition that was in place isn’t as strong as it used to be. He is a danger. We don’t want him fishing in troubled waters in the Middle East. And it’s going to be hard, it’s going to be important to rebuild that coalition to keep the pressure on him.

MODERATOR: You feel that is a failure of the Clinton administration?

BUSH: I do.

GORE: Well, when I got to be a part of the current administration, it was right after — I was one of the few members of my political party to support former President Bush in the Persian Gulf War resolution, and at the end of that war, for whatever reason, it was not finished in a way that removed Saddam Hussein from power. I know there are all kinds of circumstances and explanations. But the fact is that that’s the situation that was left when I got there. And we have maintained the sanctions. Now I want to go further. I want to give robust support to the groups that are trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and I know there are allegations that they’re too weak to do it, but that’s what they said about the forces that were opposing Milosevic in Serbia…


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3 Responses to “Step up to the plate”

  1. Lucy Says:

    Wow. You’re right Nick, recent history does too often get forgotten. I can’t believe there was such a turn around in such a short period of time. Bush’s response to Gore, ‘I’m not sure it’s the role of the United States…’ is the only almost sensible thing I’ve ever heard attributed to him. Also have you thought of a common link in your blog? You do so much researching and writing you could have written a thesis by now.

  2. Nick Says:

    Thanks, Lucy. But be careful of attributing some kind of turnaround or “conversion” to Bush. On the surface, his words in this debate are supposed to reveal an ideological commitment to the “isolationist” Taft wing of the Republican Party. But that was not a credible position for a US presidential candidate in 2000 (nor had non-participation in eg the League of Nations been any more than a tactical manoeuvre in the 1920s).

    In reality, Bush’s was a coded message, addressed at once to two audiences:

    1. The mass electorate of farmers in the midwest and Great Plains, steel workers in Pittsburgh etc., who had been hurt by NAFTA. These people (quite rightly) believed that the “globalist” Democrats represented the interests of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Seattle and Wall Street. To these people, Bush’s words suggested support for high-cost local firms, instead of commitment to free trade, the WTO, etc. The Republicans’ support-base in domestically-oriented industries like energy and construction made this more credible.

    2. The elite audience, which indeed was concerned that the focus of Pentagon/State Department attention should be on the key strategic prize: the oil lake in south-west and central Asia. The Clinton/Albright line of human-rights imperialism did run the risk of “overcommitting the military” in strategically unimportant conflicts. Wanting to be “judicious in its use” paradoxically signalled Bush’s intention to let CENTCOM run riot in Afghanistan and Iraq.

  3. Lucy Says:

    Thanks for your response – sorry I didn’t read it til now! Bloody politics is never straight forward, and also I didn’t know about those agendas which makes Bush’s response, make much more sense.

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