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A Commentary on the War Against Terror: Our Larger Tasks

Author: Al Gore
February 12, 2002
Council on Foreign Relations

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Note: Remarks as prepared for delivery

I am grateful to be back before the Council on Foreign Relations and I want to congratulate Les Gelb and the entire Council – its staff and its members – on the great work you have been doing to deepen our understanding of America’s role in the world.

A lot of people have let me know they wished I had been speaking out on public affairs long before now. But in the aftermath of a very divisive election, I thought it would be graceless to do so and possibly damaging to the nation.

And then came September 11th.

In the immediate aftermath, I expressed full support for our Commander-in-Chief, President George W. Bush. Tonight I reaffirm that support of the President’s conduct of the military campaign in Afghanistan, and I appreciate his candor in telling the American people that this will be a long struggle – for which the nation must be braced and its political leadership united across party lines.

Indeed, President Bush deserves tremendous credit for the way he has led the nation in a highly successful opening counter-attack in the war against terror.

All Americans are proud of our nation's triumph -- and especially proud of the courage and skill that our armed forces have demonstrated in winning swift and decisive victories. Our men and women in uniform have shown uncommon valor and the highest levels of dedication, professionalism and preparedness in responding to this enormous challenge. They have proved they are up to the task and I know they will continue to protect and defend us in the coming stages of the military campaign as well.

If yesterday marked the five month anniversary of the darkest day in American history, today – the Day After – must mark the anniversary of one of the greatest days in American history: because on September 12, a bruised and battered nation began to fight back. Some fought back by rushing to aid and rescue the few surviving victims of the tragedy - and to aid and comfort the grieving and bereaved. Here in this city, even this today, remains are still being removed from the World Trade Center site.

Some fought back by reporting to reserve units or shipping out for extended tours of duty. And still others reported for duty on the front lines of our homeland defense as firefighters, police, nurses, border patrol, and others whose courage and sacrifices are admired and appreciated now more than ever.

The Axis of Evil

I also support the President's stated goals in the next phases of the war against terrorism as he laid them out in the State of the Union. What I want to talk about tonight are the fundamental, strategic questions before us as a nation. What are the next steps in the war against terrorism? And beyond immediate next steps, what is the longer-range plan of action? And finally, what should be done to deal with root causes of this threat?

Since the State of the Union, there has been much discussion of whether Iraq, Iran and North Korea truly constitute an “Axis of Evil.” As far as I'm concerned, there really is something to be said for occasionally putting diplomacy aside and laying one's cards on the table. There is value in calling evil by its name.

One should never underestimate the power of bold words coming from a President of the United States. Jimmy Carter's espousal of human rights as an integral part of American foreign policy was in truth the crucial first step towards the democratic transformation of Latin America. And Ronald Reagan's blast against "the evil empire" was a pivotal moment reminding everyone that there was more at issue in the struggle between east and west than a contest for power.

As important as identifying Iraq, Iran and North Korea for what they are, we must be equally bold in identifying other evils that confront us. For there is another Axis of Evil in the world: poverty and ignorance; disease and environmental disorder; corruption and political oppression. We may well put down terror in its present manifestations. But if we do not attend to the larger fundamentals as well, then the ground is fertile and has been seeded for the next generation of those born to hate us, who will hold these things up before the world's poor and dispossessed, and say that all these things are in our image, and rekindle the war we are now hoping to snuff out.

“Draining the swamp” of terrorism must of course in the first instance mean destroying the ability of terrorist networks to function. But drying it up at its source must also mean draining the aquifer of anger that underlies terrorism: anger that enflames the hearts of so many young men, and makes them willing, dedicated recruits for terror. Anger at perceived historical injustices involving a mass-memory throughout the Islamic world of past glory and more recent centuries of decline and oppression at the hands of the West.

Anger at the cynicism of Western policy during the Cold War: often aligning itself with corrupt and tyrannical governments. And even after all that, anger at the continued failure to thrive, as rates of economic growth stagnate, while the cohort of unemployed young men under twenty continues to increase.

This is anger different than the pure evil represented by terrorists, but anger nonetheless -- anger which is the medium on which the impulse to terrorism thrives. The evil we now confront is not just the one-time creation of a charismatic leader and his co-conspirators, or even of a handful of regimes. What we deal with now is today's manifestation of an anger welling up from deep layers of grievance shared by many millions of people.

Military force alone cannot deal with this. Public diplomacy alone cannot drain this reservoir. What will be needed is a far reaching American strategy for encouraging reform, and for engaging day in and day out with societies that are trying to cast off the curse of bitter experience relived continuously. Hope for the future is the only way to put out these fires.

What is “evil” anyway? I do not pretend to have the answer to such a question but my faith tradition teaches me that all of us have the potential inside of us for both good and evil. Indeed, the first example of murderous violence in the Bible is the story of the two sons of Adam and Eve. With slight differences, it is the same story told in Chapter five, verses 27 through 31 of “Sura” in the Koran, where Muslims read that both Cain and Abel “offered an offering, but it was accepted from one of them and was not accepted from the other.” Feeling disrespected by God, Cain said to his brother, “I will most certainly slay you… then his mind facilitated to him the slaying of his brother, so he slew him; then he became one of the losers.”

Disrespect, the feeling that what one has to offer in life has been rejected, the feeling that one has joined history’s losers can make us as human beings more vulnerable to evil.

Conservative theologian Michael Novak wrote recently of America’s founders’ view that, “there is evil in the world and it coagulates, it gathers force, and if it bursts its bounds endangers everybody.” In a brilliant essay that was otherwise full of praise for President Bush’s actions in the war against terror, Novak concluded with an important caution: “The word ‘evil’, when used only of others, can intoxicate the user before he knows it. I commend to him [the President], and all of us, [Reinhold] Neibuhr’s pregnant warning: ‘the final enigma of history is therefore not how the righteous will gain victory over the un-righteous, but how the evil in every good and the un-righteousness of the righteous is to be overcome.’”

We must also expand our idea of what constitutes a threat to our security in the long run, and be prepared to confront and deal with these things, too. It is time to accept that massive environmental disorder including global warming is literally a threat to international peace and stability. We must finally develop alternatives to mid-eastern oil, internal combustion engines, inefficient boilers and the inertia that has paralyzed needed efforts at conservation.

HIV/AIDS is a national security threat. It is now the most deadly pandemic in the history of the world. U.S. leadership is needed.

We must acknowledge that the utter poverty of hundreds of millions of people is not a matter for compassion only, but a threat in the long term to the growth and vigor of the global economic system. We must see it as a part of our charge to help create economic opportunity so that the gap between the richest and poorest does not grow ever wider.

Globalized crime is a cousin to globalized terror, and along with corruption needs to be dealt with as an urgent threat to civil society.

Our most important immediate task is to continue to tear up the Al Qaeda network, and since it is present in many countries, it will be an operation, which requires new forms of sustained cooperation with other governments.

Even if we give first priority to the destruction of terrorist networks, and even if we succeed, there are still governments that could bring us great harm. And there is a clear case that one of these governments in particular represents a virulent threat in a class by itself: Iraq.

As far as I am concerned, a final reckoning with that government should be on the table. To my way of thinking, the real question is not the principle of the thing, but of making sure that this time we will finish the matter on our terms. But finishing it on our terms means more than a change of regime in Iraq. It means thinking through the consequences of action there on our other vital interests, including the survival in office of Pakistan's leader; avoiding a huge escalation of violence in the Middle East; provision for the security and interests of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States; having a workable plan for preventing the disintegration of Iraq into chaos; and sustaining critically important support within the present coalition.

In 1991, I crossed party lines and supported the use of force against Saddam Hussein, but he was allowed to survive his defeat as the result of a calculation we all had reason to deeply regret for the ensuing decade. And we still do. So this time, if we resort to force, we must absolutely get it right. It must be an action set up carefully and on the basis of the most realistic concepts. Failure cannot be an option, which means that we must be prepared to go the limit. And wishful thinking based on best-case scenarios or excessively literal transfers of recent experience to different conditions would be a recipe for disaster.

But still, the question remains - what next? Is Iran under the hard-liners less of a proliferation threat than Iraq? Or less involved with terrorism? If anything, Iran is at this moment a much more dangerous challenge in each area than Iraq. Iran is flight-testing longer range rockets. Iran has loaded up at least one merchant ship with a cargo of death for Israel.

The vast majority of the Iranian people seem to disagree with the policies and actions of the small group of mullahs now in control of their military and intelligence apparatus. We have to deal with that nation’s actions as they take place. In the process, however, we should find ways to encourage the majority who obviously wish to develop a more constructive relationship with us.

On the Korean peninsula, unlike in the previous two cases, we have a strong ally in South Korea. It is not enough to call North Korea what it is – evil. We need to continue to keep the peace by remaining ready for war, as we have for almost fifty years. We also need to work with President Kim Dae Jung and the government in the Republic of Korea to galvanize positive action on the peninsula. Throughout the 1990s we proved that a creative, sustained program could help move the North Korean regime in new directions. Such creativity and commitment to addressing our interests in Korea are needed more than ever now.

And supposing even that we could eliminate the threat presented by the "Axis of Evil?" at what point, can the United States declare that the job is done, and leave the scene? Here, a too narrow definition of the threat, and a too limited assessment of its causes, can lead us into trouble.

It is important that America not just stand tall against terrorists, but America must also stand for economic opportunity and democratic freedoms. America must stand for human rights. America must stand forthe rights of women. America must stand for environmental protection and energy conservation.

Unilateralism and hubris

The Administration in which I served looked at the challenges we faced in the world and said we wished to tackle these "With others, if possible; alone, if we must." This Administration sometimes seems inclined to stand that on its head, so that the message is: "With others, if we must; by ourselves, if possible."

The coalition so skillfully assembled by the President is one that may dissipate as rapidly as it coalesced, unless we make an investment in its permanence, beginning with a more evident respect on our part for the views and interests of its members. As regards our most important established alliance, NATO, we convey impatience and disdain for the military capabilities of its other members, and little patience for their views about longer-term objectives.

Maybe they have earned a good deal of that by their failure to invest in capabilities they only talk about; maybe some of them have been much too ready to believe that the best way to deal with dangerous forces is always to engage them in dialogue. Maybe some of them have bought peace for themselves by not looking too hard for terrorists who plot against us on their soil, so long as their plans did not disturb domestic tranquility.

But we need them with us - and equally for sure, we cannot bind them to us for fierce battle over the long term if we take them lightly. We may be the world’s sole remaining super-power but we are going to need allies. In Greek mythology, Hercules was the super-power of his day, but when he faced his most dangerous foe, the multi-headed Hydra which – like the terrorist networks of today – grew two new heads every time one was cut off – he had to build a coalition. Uncharacteristically he teamed up with an ally because it was the only way he could prevail.

Continuity of effort

One of the truly bad things about our politics is that it incites each administration to attack every last thing its predecessor has done, and to either tear down what was left or rename it so that its parentage can be forgotten. We did some of that - but we also kept a lot of what we inherited from the first Bush administration and we protected it and built upon it. The struggle against terror may last for a very long time, even past a shift of parties in power. You know, the Cold War was won by the cumulative work of administrations from Harry S Truman to George H. W. Bush. And I hope that the present administration chooses to invest in reconstructing a sense of what bipartisanship in the defense of the country is all about: even after the planes land and the guns stop firing.

I don't pretend to any received wisdom but I learned a lot from my experience in the Clinton-Gore administration: lessons I think are worth remembering and incorporating into the normal practice of our diplomacy - and of protecting from the vicious rip- tides of our politics. I know from experience that bi-partisanship is no easy matter. It is difficult to go against one's own political base, whether it’s a Democrat supporting the MX missile or a Republican trying to cancel an obsolete 70 ton artillery piece.

Above all, I learned that our engagement with others on behalf of common values

is something that must be of profound intent, and of long duration. It isn't enough to destroy what is evil, and then seek to leave by the nearest door. We must make the commitment to work with those whom we have rescued until they can stand on their own feet.

That means supporting an increase in the size of the international security force in Afghanistan and enlarging its mandate beyond Kabul to the whole country. And it means remaining engaged ourselves, if not with a small symbolic presences in the international force on the ground, then at least as on the horizon ready to respond with help from the air when needed.

When all is said and done, I hope that when the people of our country next return the White House for a time to the Democratic Party, our leadership then will be big enough to salute the present administration for what it will have done that is wise and good. And to build upon it forthrightly.

Towards that end, we must now expand our concept of what is needed to reach the goals upon which we all agree. The United States needs to create a world made more just and more hopeful, not just a world made more profitable for ourselves. I hope that this President’s record makes it damn hard for the competition to complain about his record in foreign policy. That may be bad for the loyal opposition. But it’s good for the people, who deserve it. And I promise my support for whatever he may do in support of that prayer.

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