June 4th, 2006

Voted for Dean

If Al Gore Had Run the War on Terror

If Al Gore had been sworn in on January 20th, 2001, then a few things would have been different right away, not least of which is that the Clinton-era anti-al-Qaeda task force wouldn't have been dismissed out of hand. And if Al Gore had gotten the same Presidential Daily Briefings that Bush got, he would unmistakably have cared more. What you can't prove to me, though, is that it would have done the slightest bit of good, and I'll tell you why. Even if the task force had pin-pointed bin Laden's location yet again, it would hardly have been the first time. The Clinton administration knew where bin Laden was three times, and tried elaborate measures to capture him once and to kill him the other two times. Obviously, none of those attempts succeeded, and the same reasons would still have applied in the first few months of 2001 -- not enough turncoats inside al Qaeda, too much diplomatic weirdness about using covert ops to assassinate a government official of a country we weren't at war with. Yeah, there were people in the FBI who had figured out most of the plot and even ID'ed at least one of the pilots -- but those leads were still buried in a pile of bogus or distracting leads, and I know of no reason to think that the Gore administration would have miraculously found the right thread to pull in time. No, the decisions that made 9-11 possible were made over 40 years ago, when civil aviation officials everywhere in the world (except Israel) issued regulations requiring air crews to cooperate with hijackers until the plane is on the ground, and that wasn't going to change, period. Why not? Because as we "knew" with total certainty, because al Qaeda had tried this trick once already and failed, suicide bombers by definition are people with nothing to lose, and therefore Gore would have "known" the same thing the Bush administration "knew," which is that suicide-attack terrorists can't fly commercial airplanes.

So on September 11th, 2001 in a hypothetical Gore administration, three planes still crash into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, and the fourth plane's suicide attack gets aborted by the heroism of the passengers. Presumably Gore wouldn't be struggling to sound out the words in My Pet Goat with his intellectual peers, and presumably his reaction time would have been faster ... and it still would have made no difference. It's easy to mock George Bush for his cowardice that day, in a way that would have been harder to pin on a guy who actually volunteered to go to Vietnam and went and didn't go AWOL halfway through his stateside service, but truth be told no matter how badly Gore would have wanted to be in NYC or DC, the Secret Service would still have routed him to Strategic Air Command in Nebraska until things settled down. It would have still been Rudy Giuliani who got all the credit for being sane and rational under attack -- or at least most of it. One of the big positive differences of a Gore administration would have been that James Lee Witt would still have been director of FEMA (more about that, tomorrow), and while there wouldn't have been much that FEMA could have helped with under the circumstances, his quiet confidence and competence were sorely missed on 9-11.

Which leaves President Gore facing the same situation that Bush faced -- how to negotiate the Afghan government into turning over their deputy defense minister without burning every covert operative we have by giving them the evidence. I strongly suspect that Gore would have negotiated longer -- but not for the reason you'd think. No, he would have negotiated longer because Wesley Clark would have been designing the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Gore administration's Afghan War wouldn't have looked anything like Bush's. Al Gore would almost certainly not have chosen the Northern Alliance solution, knowing that the Afghan people turned to the Taliban to rescue them from those warlords and opium lords, and that allying with them would make the country ungovernable afterward. He would also have followed standard Army doctrine for attacking cities and insisted on a huge NATO force and an extensive bombing campaign before the first troops crossed the border. If that sounds familiar, you're right. I'm assuming the battle plan would have been adapted from the previously successful invasion of Iraq in what the US calls the Gulf War. That might have worked to our advantage in a way that avoided war altogether. More months of time could have turned up that copy of that bin Laden home video from the day of the attack; with that smoking gun, it would have been harder for Mullah Omar to justify protecting bin Laden. On the other hand, he might have been reasoning (unwisely) that since the Taliban was able to defeat the Soviet Union, which had much shorter supply lines, surely they could defeat the hated infidel US.

So I'm assuming that under a Gore administration, some time in spring of 2002 (after much sniping from the press and from the families of the victims about why it was taking so long), pretty much all of NATO crosses the border into Afghanistan and starts rolling south. And frankly, finds pretty easy going. There's this myth of Afghan military superiority, but it ignores a few things. First of all, nobody who has ever tried to conquer Afghanistan, from the Macedonians to the Soviets, has found it to be particularly difficult. Actually conquering the country is pretty easy. It's holding it that's hard. Second of all, the Soviets were well on their way to proving that the country could be held, too, by 20th century air cavalry, and that was before Hellfire missile equipped Predator drones. The only reason that the Taliban was able to resist the Soviet invasion was that we equipped them with state of the art radar-guided shoulder-launched surface to air missiles -- which, thanks to their defective battery packs, no longer work. I can't prove that I'm right about this next part, but my take on the personalities involved is that both bin Laden and Omar would have been so overconfident that they wouldn't have tried to escape from Kandahar until too late, until the same point in the invasion they made their break for it in the real world. But against a much larger NATO force, bin Laden would never have made it to Tora Bora, let alone across the border into Pakistan. So by fall of 2002, conveniently in time for the fall congressional elections, Gore announces that bin Laden's body has been found, and declares victory in the War on Terror.

He would have declared victory from the Oval Office, or maybe from Kabul airport, not from the deck of an aircraft carrier ... but he would have had those words thrown in his face just as hard, and by 2006 his popularity would be in the low 30% range. Because having captured Kabul and Kandahar, who would we have found to turn it over to? The choices are the same Islamist fanatics who provided the support for the last attack, or the opium-funded warlords whose private militias plunged the country into a particularly vicious civil war, with levels of rapine and pillage seldom seen outside of diamond country in Africa, after the Soviet Union's loss in Afghanistan. So we would have had every soldier we could spare and then some stuck in an increasingly ticked off country, trying to civilize the place. We would have been right where Britain was after they conquered Afghanistan a hundred years ago, and no luckier or smarter. So by now, people would be asking what we were getting for all the billions of dollars we'd poured into that rat-hole, and if it was worth the over 2000 American casualties it had cost us already?

For all that I make this sound pretty bleak, it would have been better than what really happened. For one thing, unlike what we're doing in Iraq, it would have been honest and legal, a war against a country that had attacked us. Even more importantly than that, it would have preserved the sympathy that Europe and much of the rest of the world had for us after 9-11, and that's diplomatic power that we completely lost when the Bush Administration threw away America's sympathy and credibility in Iraq. But it wouldn't have been all sugar and roses. And we wouldn't have known how much worse things were going to have been if Bush had won, so Gore would have been taking huge flack. Republicans and swing voters would have been all over him for not taking more advantage of force modernization and not having sought allies inside Afghanistan before invading, and Democrats would have been asking what our exit strategy was.

Although if you're thinking that a Gore administration wouldn't have passed the PATRIOT acts, you're sadly misguided. Gore would have faced the same pressure to find the remaining (non-existent) al Qaeda terror cells in the US before they could attack again. He would have asked the same career Justice Department people what powers they needed. They still would have given him the same laundry list of snooping powers that they'd been asking for for the last several decades, and I know that because there isn't a single thing in either of the PATRIOT acts that the Justice Department hadn't already asked Congress for in the War on Drugs. Why should I think that Gore would have scrupled over it, considering that he served for 8 years under Bill Clinton? If you think that Bill Clinton was a friend of civil liberties, you should ask the ACLU about that -- they rated him worse than Nixon on the subject. Gore would have been no better.