A long-running debate in geopolitical circles is how another president would have acted. Pres. Clinton was more inclined to negotiate, like in North Korea, but had also bombed Iraq in 1998 and terrorist attacks had increased throughout the 1990s, culminating in Sept. 2001. So would his vice-president Al Gore, who had been present at all the failed attempts at resolving the terrorism issue diplomatically have, if elected to the presidency, done things differently than Pres. Bush?
No, says Dalhousie political scientist Frank Harvey in a paper for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI). He argues Gore would have invaded Iraq just as President Bush did, and in doing so, pieces together what he considers to be a stronger explanation of the decision to invade in the first place.
“I was never convinced that what seemed to be emerging as the conventional wisdom on the decision to invade Iraq was complete enough,” he explains. “I thought that one way to approach that weak theory was to revisit that history and change the theory’s key variable – replace Bush with a Gore administration.”
This approach to history, known as a counterfactual analysis, may seem like conjecture to some but Dr. Harvey points out that it’s a common practice when evaluating historical events or when testing social scientific theory. He argues any explanation for an event—why a war starts, why a leader decides on a course of action—involves the rejection of competing arguments and that re-evaluating those arguments with historical facts is standard practice.
The core of his argument is that Gore would have faced similar pressures as Bush, both from within the Washington establishment and from the body politic at large. By looking at Gore’s record in government as well as the advisors and voices he would have surrounded himself with, Dr. Harvey hypothesizes that Gore would have started down a similar path to Bush: attempting to get the inspectors back into Iraq, acquiring a Congressional authorization of force to back that effort, deploying troops to give credibility to the threat, and acquiring a strongly-worded UN Security Council resolution.
“Once you start down that road…once you make decisions that many at the time said were rational and reasonable for a credible threat, you’re on the bus,” he says. “And my argument is that momentum kicks in at that point, and it becomes harder and harder to get off the bus.”
The argument that Gore couldn’t have turned back from a path to war offers a sobering perspective on the limitations of presidential power, even for the man who would seem to have unlimited power.
Harvey believes that while presidential candidates often campaign on the edges of the American political spectrum, once in power they’re forced into a narrow ideological centre by a whole array of political, social and economic pressures. He doubts that the incoming Obama administration will be much different.
“If you buy the argument that I develop in the paper and find its evidence compelling, you can expect an Obama administration to follow foreign policies that look similar if not identical to the policies that we saw under the Bush administration,” he explains. “You will see differences, but they will be superficial. There will be few substantive changes on American foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East or with Canada. Continuity and consistency is the norm in American foreign policy because it’s a product of so many other factors than leadership.”
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