July 14, 2004

The $64,000 Question

Dan Drezner is asking the Big Question:

Would a spectacular terrorist attack that took place close to Election day help President Bush or Senator Kerry?

It's a critical question, particularly as I believe that al-Qaeda's leadership is fearful that people will begin to question their operational capabilities if they are unable to mount another attack on the U.S. homeland pre-November elections.

So, be assured, they are gonna try very hard to pull one off.

My answer to Dan's question is that an al-Q spectacular on the U.S. will have the predictable rally around the flag effect--except if it would not have occurred but for gross negligence by the Bushies.

BTW, gross negligence is not divining that the Towers were going to be felled pursuant to the August 6th, 2001 PDB or such.

Now if Maureen Dowd had the run of the August '01 PDB she doubtless would have immediately, amidst myriad ellipses and truncated passages, espied: Bin Ladin wanted to hijack...US aircraft to...attack...World Trade Center...with explosives..

But it's not that easy for the rest of us to connect the dots...

Back to Drezner's Q.

Why won't American voters react a la Madrid?

For one, note that part of the reason Aznar's party fell is that they were too quick out of the gates to categorically blame ETA. This angered the Spanish electorate that believed that the Spanish conservatives were trying to get a pass on the perils of their Iraq policy.

That won't be a factor stateside.

For another, we know it's not about Iraq.

When I was strolling around Union Square on 9/11--there were no troops in Iraq. Lotsa other people remember that too...

Also, and this is likely more controversial, I believe Americans have been less infected by the in vogue relativism prevalent over here in Euro-land (UBL and Bush two sides of the same, hyper-religious messianic coin).

To be sure, we have been deeply shamed by Abu Ghraib.

And we have doubtless killed many innocents through 'collateral damage' in places like southeastern Afghanistan and the Sunni Triangle in Iraq.

But, on the other hand, we haven't purposefully set out to slaughter as many innocents as possible in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And, if al-Qaeda kills, say, many hundreds of civilians in a big suburban mall in the coming months in the Heartland--Americans will be revolted and reminded of this elemental difference.

(Nor, in my view, have we engaged in military actions and collective punishment so severe, in aggregate effect, that the distinction between terror and so-called 'state' terror might have been persuasively hurled at us--though places like Fallujah are very close calls...)

Note too, incidentally, given such prospective large-scale carnage, the Bush administration's negligence would have to be gross. There would be too much anger at the mass killings for mere negligence to hurt Bush.

Kerry and Edwards would likely be making a strategic mistake to attack the Administration if it were merely negligent (I'm thinking about containerized cargo getting in with radioactive material, for instance, as opposed to a FUBAR intel failure where we missed myriad clues about an imminent attack--especially if inter-agency turf battles were found to have contributed to the sorry dropping of the ball).

Put differently, probably too much human trauma in the air to get into the partisan blame game on the basis of a mere negligence scenario alone.

So, all told, I think the majority view will be that the war on terror remains a noble, good fight--particularly in the aftermath of another spectacular.

We've fought it stupidly here and there--and I won't revisit all the errors here today.

But that aside, expect a terror attack in the U.S. (absence gross negligence), to benefit Bush vis-a-vis electoral politics.

What's the deeper paradox in all of this?

Al-Q wants Bush to stay in power.

Which is yet another reason they are very keen to attack before the election, in my view.

Bush, in UBL-think--given his more robust foreign policy and concrete purposeful view that al-Qaeda's catastrophic terrorism is an existential peril--is more likely to set off the civilizational clash that bin Laden is hoping for.

Does this mean the smarter ones among us should be voting Kerry to deny UBL this ostensible tactical victory?

No, not by a long shot.

More on why later.


Why, as someone who supports the broad goals of the war on terror, would I therefore potentially advocate Bush in the face of my contention that UBL would want him in for another four years?

Two reasons:

1) The worst excesses of the Bush Administration (Rummy playing Secretary of State and Defense; Abu Ghraib; troop-lite 'shock and awe' 'transformationalist' crapola; hubris-ridden denigrations of allies (we don't need the Brits!) and the Turtle Bay crowd; etc etc are over; and

2) I'm far from convinced, at least at this stage, that Kerry will be a serious player on the global stage in terms of a vigorous, stolid, strategically sound and ambitious pursuit of vital American interests abroad.

So (stick with me here!) given 1 above--I think the 'civilizational clash' UBL wants will be staved off as Bush gets smarter (no more canines threatening Arab males please...or mock electrocutions with Klan-like head-gear prominently showcased for dramatic effect...)

At the same time, I believe Bush will be more relentless than Kerry in his pursuit of al-Qaeda and other terror actors globally. While also pursuing the war on terror, in a second term, in a manner that also notes that the color gray exists--not just black and white.

Does this make any sense?

That UBL probably wants Bush in again for four but, in my view, a Bush victory would be worse news for UBL than a Kerry victory?

I'm willing to be swayed.

Please comment away.

Posted by Gregory Djerejian at July 14, 2004 12:42 AM
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