By Adam C. Pagnucco, Jr.
November 1, 2023
Essay Contest, Richard Madaleno Middle School, Silver Spring, MD
Al Gore almost did not become President. The 2000 election was the closest in U.S. history. Gore won only when the Supreme Court decided by a 5-4 margin that every vote in Florida should be counted. While it took a month to certify Gore’s 427-vote victory in the state, it turned out to be the wisest decision the Supreme Court ever made.
Less than a year in office, the Gore administration confronted America’s worst tragedy in sixty years: the September 11, 2001 attack on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon. After swiftly implementing a rescue and recovery operation, Gore turned to dealing with those responsible. “We will meet terrorism with justice,” he told Congress. “We will meet fear with freedom. And we will offer the people of the world a path to peace with honor and dignity for all.”
The administration responded on two tracks. First, Gore activated the mutual defense provision of the NATO treaty. The NATO countries expelled Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda group and its hosts, the Taliban, in a quick joint campaign in Afghanistan. But NATO’s mutual defense was also expanded into intelligence and financial operations. Working as a group, the NATO countries and their allies were able to root out al-Qaeda cells in London, Madrid and Bali that were planning follow-up attacks. While bin Laden continued to hide for many years, his organization was defanged.
The administration’s second track was even more ambitious. Gore’s national security team believed that Islamic militant groups gained strength by continued conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, and by extension, Israel’s western protectors. So President Gore made renewed peace negotiations between the two sides one of his highest priorities. While the final peace agreement was not signed until after the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, it has mostly held up since then. As a side benefit, extremist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah faded away once the agreement (as well as a treaty with Syria) led to economic prosperity throughout the region.
The Gore administration’s biggest decision was on how to handle Iraq. Many Republicans and some Democrats, including Vice-President Lieberman, argued that Saddam Hussein’s regime needed to be removed. But Gore ultimately decided that war against Iraq would undermine negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Instead, NATO, the UN and the United States pressured Iraq into admitting that it did not have any weapons of mass destruction or any relationship with al-Qaeda. The survival of the Hussein regime prompted Vice-President Lieberman to decline to run again in 2004, leading to his replacement on the ticket by Virginia Governor Mark Warner.
It was not until many years later that we learned about President Gore’s most controversial initiative. In the secret 2004 Ankara Pact, the administration forged an alliance with the Hussein regime and internal Iranian opposition groups to work against Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Over the next three years, a combination of escalating UN sanctions, Iraqi border incursions, and sabotage of Iranian nuclear facilities led Iran’s leaders to force out their fanatical President and negotiate. While many later objected to Gore’s willingness to work under the table with America’s former enemies, the secret program probably kept Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The issue’s sensitivity is reflected by the fact that UN Secretary-General Gore will still not discuss it.
President Gore had his disappointments. He never could win universal health care; that had to wait for President Warner’s administration. He could not convince the Congress to accept the amended Kyoto treaty on climate control, but his 2005 cap-and-trade legislation started America down a path of declining greenhouse gas emissions. And his administration was sorely tested by Hurricane Katrina. After dealing with initial shortcomings in the rescue operation, Gore proposed an ambitious plan to rebuild Louisiana’s wetlands. An entire generation of engineers, architects, scientists, environmentalists and construction workers was trained in the greatest American public works project since the New Deal. Completed in 2010, the Louisiana wetlands restoration has served as a model for the rest of the world ever since.
Many conservatives still imagine what would have happened if Texas Governor George W. Bush had been elected. They question whether toppling Saddam Hussein would have given America more leverage in dealing with other rogues. It is true that aggressive regimes continue to be a problem. Qusay Hussein, Saddam’s successor, has been accused of arranging the 2015 assassination attempt on the Emir of Kuwait and is believed to be financing Shiite rebels in Saudi Arabia. President Van Hollen is now dealing with two crises: the recent missile exchange between Taiwan and China and Russia’s invasion of Georgia.
But Gore’s critics miss the central lesson of his presidency. Gore’s greatest successes did not come through military action, but rather through coalition building. Large groups of countries worked together to suppress terrorism, bring peace and economic growth to the Middle East, reduce disease and poverty in Africa and, most crucially, to collaborate in developing EFE (emission-free energy) technology to fight global warming. America’s prestige and influence have never been higher around the world. A new era of optimism based on American leadership, genuine multi-lateral cooperation and rising shared economic growth began during the Gore administration and has been ably continued by his successors.
I for one am glad that the U.S. Supreme Court decided to count every vote in Florida. The first eight years of the 21st Century were some of the most critical in U.S. history. It is difficult to imagine how the country would have fared without Al Gore, America’s greatest President.