Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Presidency of Al Gore

Alternative History

Alternative histories have an annoying tendency to say "X happened instead of Y, therefore rainbows, puppies and unicorns." A few people, like S.M. Stirling in his Drakian novels, dare to imagine much darker alternative histories. His thesis was "what if history turned out in the worst possible way?" I suspect a lot of alternative histories would have ended up a good deal less rosy than we like to imagine.

President Gore

November 7, 2000. A concerted grass-roots campaign by Democrats siphons enough votes away from Ralph Nader for Al Gore to win Florida. Gore wins Florida by barely 1,000 votes, but wins its 25 electoral votes and with them, the Presidency, 291 votes to 247. Bush supporters ask for recounts, which fail to change the outcome. Democrats eked out a two-seat majority in the Senate, Republicans a four-seat majority in the House

July, 2001. The CIA warns Gore that a major al-Qaeda event is in the works and that the chatter is not merely bravado or disinformation. Something is really about to go down. Gore directs the FBI and CIA to cooperate and orders heightened security at airports, as well as increased military readiness for an attack on American soil.

The FBI notes a number of odd enrollments by Middle Eastern males in flight schools and soon identifies 20 or more possible conspirators. When 19 of them book transcontinental flights on the same day, the FBI and CIA conclude the most likely scenario is that their targets are on the West Coast, and that al-Qaeda has probably dusted off its plot to destroy trans-Pacific airliners in flight.

Meanwhile, the heightened security measures generate buzz in the blogosphere. Ralph Nader, gracious in defeat as always, accuses Gore of trying to create tension by exaggerating the terrorist threat and accuses him of being a sellout to oil companies seeking to raise prices. Other critics dub the enhanced security at airports "security theater."

Gore comes under increasing criticism for the security measures. Republicans in Congress ask exactly what threats he expects military action to prevent on American soil. When the talk turns to possible hijackings, he is warned pointedly that attacking an airliner on American soil will unquestionably result in impeachment and criminal charges, and possibly trial for human rights violations. Republicans are adamantly opposed to turning Americans over to the World Court but in this case they might just make an exception.

Meanwhile, the conspirators, aware that they have been partially compromised, modify their plans. Six of them purchase 9-mm pistols, paying for them with credit cards and providing a wide, brightly illuminated paper trail for investigators, and then ship the weapons to San Francisco and Los Angeles. They also abandon their plan to use box cutters as weapons, shifting to thin plastic and steel blades that can be secreted in the linings of a carry-on bag. The plastic is invisible to X-rays, while the steel, viewed edge-on, looks like part of the frame of the bag. The FBI and CIA conclude the plot now includes taking six planes hostage. Since the conspirators are booked on only four flights, investigators become even more convinced the final targets will be on the West Coast.

September 11, 2001. The conspirators board their aircraft. Security personnel at the departure points search the conspirators and their bags thoroughly and find no weapons of any kind on their persons or in their bags. The conspirators are grilled about their travel plans and recite a variety of plausible reasons for traveling: job interviews, sightseeing, visiting friends, and so on. With no evidence they pose an immediate threat, and all indicators pointing to hijacks on the West Coast, the conspirators are allowed to board.

A beautiful early fall day in New York City is shattered when hijacked airliners slam into the World Trade Center. A third plane hits the Pentagon while a fourth crashes in Pennsylvania when passengers, alerted to the events on the ground, battle the hijackers. President Gore is meeting with environmentalists when he is alerted to the tragedy. He tells his aides to keep him updated but continues his meeting. Shortly afterward, convinced that a real crisis is unfolding, he leaves and is transported to a secure, undisclosed location. His critics denounce him for continuing to meet with environmentalists instead of dealing with the crisis, and for spending the day "in hiding."

Heightened military preparedness resulted in armed fighters being scrambled while the hijacks were in progress. The first fighters arrived just in time to see the second plane hit the south tower of the World Trade Center. A plane was seen headed for Washington but the prospect of scattering wreckage and burning fuel over a densely populated city was deemed as dangerous as anything the hijackers might do. By the time the Pentagon was identified as the target and warnings filtered through the chain of command, the plane had already hit. Two jets intercepted Flight 93 and ordered it to land. The hijacker in control asked whether they really were willing to shoot down one of their own airliners. Then the pursuit pilots heard the sound of a struggle on board and watched Flight 93 roll, dive and crash.

President Gore spent the rest of the day and the following day meeting with advisers, apart from a brief and perfunctory television message in which he promised to seek out and punish the perpetrators. Al-Qaeda quickly claimed credit for the attacks and promised more. The FAA grounds all flights nationwide as a precaution but no new attacks are detected. Republicans bash the grounding as a hollow gesture meant to distract attention from Gore's failure to avert the attacks. Plans are drawn up to strike al-Qaeda's strongholds in Afghanistan but it takes several weeks and the first attacks are launched on October 7. Within a few weeks Al-Qaeda is driven from formal control of Afghanistan but takes up refuge in the mountainous frontier region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. [1]

Within hours of the collapse of the World Trade Center, the Internet is teeming with comments that the collapses looked like controlled demolitions. Right wing commentators assert that Gore had the attacks staged as a pretext for shutting down air travel and eventually banning the use of fossil fuels altogether. Leftists accuse him of planning to foment a war in the Middle East to gain control of its oil. The far fringe claims he's planning to install a dictatorship using national security as a pretext [2].

By December 2001, U.S. and coalition forces are closing in on Osama bin Ladin. Bin Ladin attempts to slip out but is spotted by a British Marine patrol and killed in a firefight. Jubilation in the U.S. and much of the world is intense but short lived. President Gore comes under intense pressure to bring U.S. forces home, a step that he himself highly desires. Coalition members come under pressure from their own people to pull out now that the essential mission has been accomplished. But as U.S. forces scale back operations and coalition troops leave, al-Qaeda turns out to be a hydra-headed monster. Instead of a single group under bin Ladin, al-Qaeda splits into numerous factions. They sometimes fight, sometimes cooperate, mostly go their own way, but all are united by a hatred of Western modernization and a desire to return Afghanistan to a patriarchal feudal society. Having Afghanistan break up into many small statelets ruled by local warlords is just fine with al-Qaeda since that's traditionally how Afghanistan was organized (or disorganized). Gore realizes that they cannot be allowed to win, but with political pressure to avoid U.S. and civilian casualties, he basically restricts U.S. actions to holding key cities and bases. Al-Qaeda quickly resumes control of the countryside. Meanwhile Gore is lambasted at home for leading the U.S. into yet another quagmire. [3]

Despite the fact that Saddam Hussein had remained in power because a Republican President, acting strictly in accord with U.N. mandates, had restricted the Gulf War of 1991 to restoring the sovereignty of Kuwait rather than replacing the regime in Iraq, Gore's opponents conflate the stalemate in Afghanistan with U.S. "failure" to dislodge Saddam and charge that Iraq had aided al-Qaeda. Meanwhile critics on the left condemned Gore for continuing to support U.N. sanctions on Iraq, which they claim are causing widespread misery to the population. Saddam's political theater, in which he repeatedly ignored U.N. resolutions and stymied inspectors, led many to insist Iraq still had chemical weapons. In 2002, in an effort to resolve the question, Gore convened a special panel of military, intelligence and Congressional leaders. One of their star witnesses was Scott Ritter, most prominent American member of the U.N. inspection team. It was not a good week for Ritter. Despite asserting that Iraq lacked chemical weapons and capabilities for making them, or capability for creating biological weapons and capability of delivering them, Ritter was repeatedly confronted with his own writings that stated Iraq would very likely begin to rebuild its chemical weapon capabilities once inspections ceased. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) went through Ritter's book Endgame: Solving the Iraq Problem — Once and For All at length, noting all the instances of Iraqi duplicity detailed, plus the stated necessity of inspections and its recommendation that engagement plus incentives for inspection would eventually produce compliance [4]. Ritter was asked what reasons he had to suppose diplomatic engagement would yield results when it had failed to do so for ten years. Ritter hemmed and hawed but could offer only vague expressions of optimism. He was asked why Saddam was posturing as if he had chemical weapons if he actually had none. Ritter hypothesized that he might be trying to intimidate Iran, but when asked if Iran was a serious military threat to Iraq, conceded it was probably not.

In the 2002 mid-term elections, the Republicans battered the Democrats over the situation in Afghanistan, the unpopularity of increased security measures, and the farcical ineffectiveness of the U.N. in Iraq, to gain slim majorities in both houses of Congress.

Gore and his inner circle concluded that Ritter was probably technically correct in that Iraq had few if any chemical weapons, but that Saddam would seek to rebuild his arsenal as soon as the West's attention lapsed. Gore was also convinced that Iraq had not aided al-Qaeda, but attempting to build a strategy around that point was guaranteed to lead to accusations of a cover-up and weakness. What was undeniable was the privation in Iraq, which could be relieved in only one of two ways: lifting sanctions and allowing Saddam to have his way, or removing him from power. On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the U.N. Security Council. He outlined the fact that sanctions had failed to gain compliance with U.N. resolutions, that Iraq had flouted sixteen U.N. resolutions, and argued that lifting sanctions would only strengthen Saddam's belief that he could win. Furthermore, lifting sanctions would inevitably result in Iraq resuming its chemical weapons program. The only alternative, he argued, was intervention to topple Saddam [5]. The Security Council failed to endorse an invasion, hardly a surprise since intervening to overthrow a corrupt, insane and inhumane regime was a direct threat to most of the members of the U.N.

Gore finally, reluctantly, came to the conclusion that Saddam had to go. U.N. resolve on keeping up the pressure was likely to weaken as humanitarian groups played up the distress of the Iraqi people, even if it was caused entirely by Saddam himself. Also, many U.N. members were eager to resume trade with Iraq. Many members of Congress hinted that oil prices could be lowered if Iraqi oil were once again on the market. Once sanctions were lifted, it was only a matter of time before Saddam engaged in some new geopolitical adventure, with his most likely targets being Syria, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia. Syria would give Iraq an outlet on the Mediterranean, Jordan would give it a mutual border with Israel, and Saudi Arabia would give it control of much of the world's oil. A resurgent Iraq would also be likely to invite an Israeli military response, further inflaming tensions (even if it might be privately welcomed by Iraq's neighbors).

In discussions with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chairman General Eric Shinseki recommended a large force capable of knocking out Iraq's military. The force would have to be large enough to score a decisive early victory as well as suppress civilian violence. It was agreed there would be a need to secure valuable civilian assets like museums and banks, as well as quickly locate and secure weapons stores to prevent their use by insurgents [6]. Gore recruits a coalition including the U.K. and Spain to participate. Despite the looming invasion, Saddam makes no effort to comply with U.N. demands, nor does he make serious military preparations or even attempt to provide for his own safety [7]. The coalition attacks in late spring, 2003, punching through Iraq's military and quickly entering Baghdad in one of the fastest military advances in history. U.S. forces quickly move to secure key points, including the National Museum. Curators had already secured most of the collection.

One of the few things Saddam had done was invite supporters to help themselves to weapons. Although coalition forces quickly located and secured weapons depots, that took time, and in many cases the Iraqis got there first. Looters intent on sacking the National Museum opened fire on American troops guarding it, stormed inside, and engaged in a major firefight with reinforcements. Gore's critics at home demanded to know why American lives were sacrificed to do a job the (nonexistent) Iraqi police should have done. With Hatch leading the charge, the Republicans branded the Iraq War a failure and started drawing invidious comparisons to LBJ and Vietnam. They specifically pointed to preparations for occupation as the precursor to another quagmire [8]. Although the large coalition force successfully suppressed direct attacks on the military, it had little effect on roadside bombs, car bomb attacks on civilians, Shiite-Sunnite violence, personal vendettas and criminal actions, in which thousands of Iraqis died.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Gore's initiatives were stalled in the Republican Congress. Attempts to enact health care reform and energy efficiency failed. Republican leaders told Gore that anything other than unlimited access to energy on Federal lands was unacceptable. In the 2004 Presidential election, Gore faced tough primary battles from John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, a rarity in Presidential politics where the incumbent usually wins in a walk. The Republicans nominated their 2000 Vice-Presidential candidate, Dick Cheney, who lashed Gore as militarily timid and ineffective, and pointed to his own experience as a CEO as evidence he could do a far better job of managing the economy than Gore. Cheney also painted Gore's health care and energy policies as dire threats to free enterprise and the health of the economy. The Democrats successfully dredged up some of Cheney's less savory moments and Gore eked out a slender win, but the Democrats lost their majority in the Senate and lost seats in the House as well.

Gore's second term was dominated mostly by military issues. Leftist supporters began accusing Gore of betrayal, saying "Gore lied, people died" [9] and Gore's international appeal plummeted. Gore's attempts to cover the costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars by raising taxes were stymied in Congress, who demanded massive cuts in discretionary spending and complete abolition of a large number of programs to raise the money. Gore was unable to advance any of his major agenda items. As the deficit ballooned, Republicans accused Gore of wrecking the economy [10].

By 2006, financial analysts were warning of the huge volume of fictitious wealth in the financial derivatives market, and the possible consequences of its eventual collapse. Gore warned Congress of the impending crisis and proposed reinstating a number of banking regulations and requiring U.S. banks to divest themselves of insecure assets. Republicans in Congress revolted in fury and turned back every one of Gore's initiatives. When the bubble popped in 2008, Gore realized that the economic dislocation from major bank failures would be crippling to the U.S. economy, so he proposed a massive bailout program. Congress refused to accept portions of the plan that restricted executive bonuses and required the largest banks to break up to reduce the risk of catastrophic individual bank failures. There were enough economically literate Republicans to pass weakened versions of Gore's reforms, but several banks refused to participate because of the bonus restrictions, and both the bonus and breakup provisions were immediately challenged in court. Facing the prospect of bank failures during the litigation process, or releasing the funds, Gore signed an executive order authorizing the release of bailout finds.

In the election of 2008, the Democrats were assured of a historic first. Hillary Clinton squared off against an unknown black senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. For the first time, a major party would have either a woman or a black as nominee. Clinton won the nomination, becoming the first female major party Presidential candidate. The Republican campaign pitted Dick Cheney against Arizona senator John McCain. McCain won the nomination. During the campaign, the Republicans blamed the Democrats for two major wars, a huge deficit because of refusal to fund them properly, an additional massive increase in the deficit because of the bailouts, and a plummeting economy. They depicted Gore's energy and health care proposals as a blueprint for an economic police state. Blacks, angry at Obama's defeat, and disgruntled progressives frustrated at Gore's ineffectiveness sat out the election, handing the Presidency to McCain and a filibuster-proof majority to the Republicans [11]


(1) Events following the hijackings, apart from Gore meeting with environmentalists instead of a school class and the futile interceptions, are identical to actual history, including reaction to the President's actions on September 11. It would be wonderful to paint the revolt on Flight 93 as successful, but this is not a rainbows, puppies and unicorns piece, and once the hijackers were aboard with knives, there is no reason to think events would have followed any different course. Nor is there any reason to think scrambling jets could have accomplished much. The attack on Afghanistan also follows actual history.

(2) You actually thought with Gore in office the 9-11 conspiracy theories wouldn't be as goofy? Hahahahaha. That's so cute.

(3) Obviously it didn't play out this way, but killing bin Ladin early on probably wouldn't have changed the situation in Afghanistan very much. With a large part of the population supporting a medieval tribal form of government, the war in Afghanistan pits a minority of modernists against a majority of medievalists. The U.S. simply cannot win guerrilla wars, given our present political apparatus and cultural mind-set. Guerrilla wars are fought by people who are willing to spend decades, not months. We want our troops home; the enemy is home.

(4) Given Hatch's stands on Internet freedom, I have no compunctions whatsoever making him a villain. I have no problems making Ritter something of a buffoon as well. Being able to assess the existence of weapons doesn't make you qualified to recommend policy. I really don't have any animosity toward Ritter, but he was hopelessly out of his depth as a policy pundit.

(5) Gore and Powell tell the gospel truth, and we still invade Iraq. Because the chorus of "Bush lied, people died" tends to obscure the myriad legitimate reasons to topple Saddam.

(6) Gore does everything right. These recommendations got Shinseki fired by Bush.

(7) I am convinced that in his head, Saddam believed he won the Gulf War. He survived after all.

(8) You thought that Republicans would support Gore because they would have (and did, in real history) done exactly the same things themselves? You really don't follow politics, do you?

(9) The perfidy of the Left is a hole with no bottom.

(10) Like the definition of 'chutzpah:" killing your parents and begging the court for mercy because you're an orphan. Blatant hypocrisy. And your point is....?

(11) Stay home on Election day. Make my vote more effective. Who needs voter fraud when people voluntarily stay home?


The President is a whole lot less powerful than people think. He can urge Congress to act, he can take a fair number of unilateral actions by executive order, and he can nominate Supreme Court justices. He can veto legislation. He can direct military operations.

He cannot introduce legislation. He cannot appoint Supreme Court justices. He cannot force Congress to do anything. He cannot force the U.N. to do anything.

In this scenario, Gore is elected and does everything right. And in 2003 there was a lot of sentiment that Saddam Hussein had to go, and that the U.N. had made a complete fool of itself. He gets it right on Iraq's chemical weapons. He conducts the war the way the military recommended. But our American mind set just will not allow us to win insurgencies. That takes patience, a long view, and a willingness to pay the cost, none of which we have.

Also, in this scenario, we have a Democratic President and a Republican Congress. Gore wants to do enlightened things, but Republicans block him. Also they get to blame Gore and the Democrats for everything that goes wrong. Sometimes it really is easier to be out of power. Do you really think the Republicans would have said "we're the ones who failed to fund two wars?" Hint: are they saying it now? It's really not hard to envision a scenario where Gore is elected and the events of 2000-2008 play out much as they did anyway.