The secret passion of Al Gore
The Veep loves foreign policy, and he helps shape Clinton's world view. But will the voters care?
By Karen Tumulty/Washington
Al Gore had been on Bill Clinton's ticket less than a week in July 1992, and was still feeling his way into the campaign and the relationship as the two were winding up their triumphal six-day bus tour in St. Louis, Mo. The best hope they had of defeating a President who had just won a war was to turn the public's attention to what they called the worst domestic economy since Herbert Hoover. But as tens of thousands of people were gathering in the stifling morning heat outside the city library to hear how the Democrats planned to fix it, Gore was inside the Arkansas Governor's hotel suite persuading him to take a stand on a Balkan dictator most Americans at that point had never even heard of. Within days, Clinton was attacking George Bush for being soft on Slobodan Milosevic and calling for military action. He had started down the road that seven years later led to Kosovo.
Gore has always approached foreign policy more with the passion of a crusader than with the calculation of a campaigner. From his first days in Congress, he devoted time and muscle to issues most lawmakers avoided as too complicated or politically expensive. The conviction that made him drag the spotlight onto Milosevic back then comes back to haunt him now, as the unfolding conflict inspires new Vietnam analogies every day, ones in which Gore plays Hubert Humphrey to Clinton's Lyndon Johnson. And yet rather than going awol, Gore has charged into the flames, touting himself as an "active participant" in the policymaking and stating the case for intervention as he campaigns across the country. Kosovo reflects what he has cared about, fought for and forced onto the agenda, even when political prudence would argue for making himself invisible. "He's never ducked on the hard ones," says former National Security Adviser Tony Lake.
Opponents of Clinton's Kosovo operation argue that this conflict has nothing to do with America's vital national interests. But Gore brings to his adviser-in-chief role a different definition of what those interests are and where our enemies lie. While America for a century has fielded armies to defend itself against hostile nations with ever more deadly weaponry, Gore believes the future threats will pose dangers that cannot be measured by throw weight--a poisoned environment, vanishing resources, refugees, disease, hunger, crime and terrorism.
If those are America's 21st century foes, Gore has been training for decades to take them on. He was worrying about global warming back in college, when it was still more a theory than a real threat. His interest in stabilizing post-apartheid South Africa has drawn him to the problems of goat farmers and ways of bringing clean water and solar power to remote villages. In 1994 he ordered the CIA to find out why countries fall apart. After feeding 2 million facts and figures from about 113 instances of national collapse into its computers, the intelligence agency came up with a startling answer: new democracies tend to fail most often when they have a high infant-mortality rate. Clinton's National Security Council quickly found itself boning up on prenatal care.
Gore deserves credit for holding and pursuing his convictions, even if he can't always express what they are in a way people can understand. To critics whose ideas of national mission were shaped by the life-or-death struggle against communism, he makes the new age sound, well, New Age. "The Administration's humanitarian impulse is not well disciplined by a strong sense of national priorities," complains Harvey Sicherman, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank. That could leave Americans confused as to why we get into conflicts and what constitutes success. Gore pushed hard for intervention in Rwanda, for instance. Where would that leave, say, a Sierra Leone in a Gore Administration?
Even his admirers can find inconsistencies between the moral imperatives he embraces in places like Kosovo and the means he is willing to employ to reach them. Gore was a leading advocate of the air war but one of the loudest voices against ground troops. Says an ardent if puzzled supporter, New Republic editor in chief Martin Peretz: "He puts himself into [Clinton's] policy even though I suspect his policy would have been rather different. He would have been earlier and stronger."
While Gore's aims can seem mushy, his methods are not. In a White House whose first reflex is to try to talk every problem into submission, Gore's instinct is to send in the Marines--or, lately, the Air Force. In Haiti the Vice President took on the skittish tacticians who fretted over the risks of invasion and the futility of trying to salvage a country that even in its better days was a social and environmental disaster. Citing the very real danger of waves of refugees hitting the Florida coast, Gore contended that "what was at stake was stopping the killing and the dying and the worst of the misery," recalls former Joint Chiefs Chairman John Shalikashvili. "He insisted we do our homework and figure out how that could be done, which in the end we did, and [we] carried [it] out."
That was not the only time Gore's pitch for force carried the day. In mid-1995, as a frustrated Clinton agonized over air strikes in Bosnia, Gore described photos of a Srebrenica woman who had hanged herself in despair and how they had haunted Gore's 21-year-old daughter. What Karenna Gore couldn't understand, the Vice President said, was why the U.S. was not doing more. At that moment the decision crystallized to make the U.S. bombing threat a real one. "We've got to try something," the President concluded. Giving war a chance helped push all sides to the peace table in Dayton.
Though Madeleine Albright is the public face of the idea that moral impulses should be backed up by military force, no one has done more than Gore to drive home that approach within the White House. "President Clinton consulted with him at every turn," former Secretary of State Warren Christopher recalls. "The Vice President was usually the last person he talked to before reaching a foreign policy decision." Which is not a bad place to be when you are trying to persuade the ever persuadable Clinton. Says Bill Richardson, the Energy Secretary and former U.N. Ambassador: "He comes in at the end, summarizes, moves the President his way."
Christopher, who organized the vice-presidential search, says Gore's expertise on foreign policy was a major reason why he ended up on the ticket. Gore came from the hawkish wing of his party, having broken with most Democrats to vote in favor of the Gulf War. And unlike Clinton, he served in Vietnam. Gore set his fix on world affairs early in his political career, though it was not an obvious area for a junior Congressman elected from the plateau of Middle Tennessee. Even on the environment, Gore's signature issue, the questions that stirred his passions most were global warming and ozone depletion.
For more than a year in the early 1980s, Gore cleared eight hours a week on his schedule to study arms control, wheedling the country's premier experts to give him tutorials and ultimately making his mark in the nuclear debate with an idea for the single-warhead missile to stabilize the arms race. Leon Fuerth, a former foreign-service officer who landed on the staff of the House Intelligence Committee, oversaw his education and has remained with Gore since--making Fuerth a force in his own right in the Clinton White House and the presumptive favorite for National Security Adviser in a Gore Administration.
Under Clinton, Gore has eagerly taken on entire portions of the foreign policy agenda deemed not quite worthy of--or newsworthy enough for--the President's full attention. At the center of Gore's foreign policy portfolio are the four bilateral commissions he established with Russia, South Africa, Egypt and Ukraine. The relationships are credited with solving some leftover cold war problems, such as persuading Ukraine to give up its nuclear missiles. They also involve the care and feeding of the ascendant leaders Gore would be dealing with as President.
The relationship that matters most right now is the one he began six years ago with former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, his partner on what was called the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. The two tackled tricky trade disputes (over frozen chicken legs, for one), worked out arrangements for cooperation in space, negotiated safeguards on plutonium and lunched over hot dogs and sauerkraut at Katz's Deli in New York City. Gore put such faith in Chernomyrdin that at times it seemed a blind spot. When the CIA produced a report offering what it called "conclusive evidence of [Chernomyrdin's] personal corruption," the Vice President's office returned it with a barnyard epithet scrawled across the cover, according to a New York Times report last November. (Gore's spokesman refuses to comment.) Now that confidence may be repaid. Chernomyrdin, in the role of Kosovo envoy for Russian President Boris Yeltsin, is a key player in the search for a diplomatic end to the war. During Chernomyrdin's visit to Washington this month, most of the talking took place around Gore's dining-room table.
For a political team that came into office arguing that it was "the economy, stupid," it is hard to see how foreign policy will be much of a plus for Gore in 2000--even against a Texas Governor who has referred to "Grecians" and "Kosovians." When Gore has received attention overseas, it has usually been the kind he didn't want. His badly executed 1997 trip to China produced a series of embarrassments, culminating in a clumsy toast with Premier Li Peng, who had been blamed for the massacre of student protesters at Tiananmen Square. And the greater a role Gore takes in fashioning Clinton foreign policy, the more he is likely to face scorching questions about Chinese espionage and Beijing's campaign contributions. Being the foreign policy Vice President of this White House may end up being as much of an asset as being the Carter Administration's economic guru.
But if China and Russia continue to act up, voters might find it reassuring to have a connoisseur in the White House. And in the meantime, Gore won't be able to kick his foreign policy habit. Over the howls of his political team, he insisted on flying two years ago to Kyoto, Japan, to rescue a 155-nation global-warming treaty, something the Republican Senate is never likely to ratify. Last summer, when advisers would have preferred that his time be spent claiming credit for this country's economy, Gore was in Ukraine, urging President Leonid Kuchma to take the bitter economic medicine of the International Monetary Fund. And while political wisdom argued for more quality time in Iowa and New Hampshire last winter, Gore was laying out his economic vision in Davos, Switzerland, touring a radio factory in Cape Town and acting as host at international conferences on reinventing government and fighting corruption.
On Kosovo, of course, Gore's only choice is doing what he can to make Clinton succeed. If it was Gore who planted the policy in the first place, perhaps it is fitting for him to reap the blame or the benefit for the outcome. He's got a vision for the kind of world he wants to see; Kosovo may well determine whether he gets to see it as Commander in Chief.
--With reporting by Jay Branegan and Douglas Waller/Washington
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