Friday, May 28, 2004

The politics of terror

We knew all along that the Bush campaign would stop at nothing, stooping to even the most outrageous smear, to defeat John Kerry this November. Now it's happening.

It's becoming clearer every day that one of the chief Republican talking points emerging in the campaign is the suggestion that a vote for Kerry is a vote for Al Qaeda -- because, purportedly, the terrorists secretly want Bush defeated, since Kerry is "soft" on the "war on terror." Of course, a cornerstone of this ploy is the belief that the so-called liberal media will gladly transmit this smear.

Atrios recently caught one of the more egregious examples of this meme being broadcast on CNN's Wolf Blitzer program.

Yet, as Matt Stoller observes, what's really Newspeakish in an utterly Bizzarro kind of fashion about this particular instance of the smear is that it turns on its head what at least one purported Al Qaeda faction has actually said, to wit:
The statement said it supported President Bush in his reelection campaign, and would prefer him to win in November rather than the Democratic candidate John Kerry, as it was not possible to find a leader "more foolish than you (Bush), who deals with matters by force rather than with wisdom." In comments addressed to Bush, the group said:

"Kerry will kill our nation while it sleeps because he and the Democrats have the cunning to embellish blasphemy and present it to the Arab and Muslim nation as civilization."

"Because of this we desire you (Bush) to be elected."

Avedon Carol goes into more detail about this aspect of the smear:
I haven't said much about this because, frankly, I don't see any mileage in it, but let me say for the record that when Al Qaeda announces that they'd prefer Bush to win the election, I don't necessarily believe they are being facetious. For one thing, they tend not to lie very much about their beliefs and plans, and for another they already know from experience that when they tell the truth about what they are up to, no one in the administration pays any attention. They provided an announcement on the radio that they were going to make a big hit on us in 2001 and left more breadcrumbs than Hansel and Gretel, and no one followed it up. Their MO isn't lying, it's open boastfulness. Why should they lie? Is it going to make a difference?

Winston Smith makes an important point along similar lines:
I, like many others, however, believe that the Bush administration has botched the conflict with al Qaeda. In fact, I cannot imagine any plausible course of action that could have been more disastrous. This administration was so eaten up with derision for the Clinton administration that it ignored their warnings about al Qaeda. They ignored their own PDBs indicating that an attack in the U.S. was imminent, and consequently did nothing to prevent 9/11. After 9/11, the administration radically overreacted. It first pushed for passage of the Patriot Act, doing bin Laden's work for him by undermining the very liberal principles that he is trying to destroy. Then the administration squandered the good will the rest of the world had for us after 9/11, alienating our allies and, in fact, the rest of the world by -- among other things -- attacking Iraq on obviously trumped-up charges about WMDs, and by announcing that anyone who wasn't with us was against us. Worse, by failing to commit enough and the right kind of troops at Tora Bora Bush allowed a cornered and wounded bin Laden to escape our grasp.

Stunning, astounding, incredible as those failures are, they all pale in comparison to the Administration's greatest error. Failing to decapitate al Qaeda at Tora Bora was a blunder of historical proportions, but the reason the administration failed to do so is even more astounding: they wanted to preserve our troops for an attack elsewhere. If the planned attack had been against a more dangerous enemy, then this would have been rational. But, of course, it wasn't. Even had we allowed bin Laden to slip away merely because we didn't want to commit enough troops, or because we didn't want to undertake such an expensive effort, this would have merely been an act of astounding incompetence. But instead the administration withheld troops in order to strike elsewhere. And, again, if the country we ultimately attacked had merely been unconnected with bin Laden in any way, this action would have merely been tragically idiotic. But no. The Bush administration allowed bin Laden to escape so that we could attack one of bin Laden's enemies, the man bin Laden himself called "a bad Muslim."

Still, while a clear case can be made (mostly for the sake of rebutting the Kerry smear) that Al Qaeda is far more likely to actually hope Bush, not Kerry, wins, it's worth noting that neither the Kerry camp nor any Democrat -- not even a pundit -- has not resorted to this argument, even by inference.

Both sides, of course, can argue all day over which side will be more effective in winning the war on terror. That's a legitimate debate. But when you begin arguing that the enemy supports your opponent, you've descended into the lowest sewers of politics.

As Kerry himself observed in Seattle yesterday, "We may have an election here in America. But let there be no doubt: This country is united in its determination to defeat terrorism," adding:
"This is my message to terrorists: As commander in chief, I will bring the full force of our nation's power to bear on finding and crushing your networks," he said. "We'll use every resource of our power to destroy you."

While Kerry appears so far to be taking the high road, the Bush camp clearly is already throwing its smear machine into high gear. The "Democrats are traitors" theme has been circulating for some time now (see especially Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity), and in recent months that has mutated into the suggestion that Al Qaeda wants Bush to lose. The repetition of the meme on CNN, now focusing specifically on Kerry, was in fact only a minor iteration of what will likely be a major GOP theme this fall.

More significant, actually, was the recent manipulation of the nation's concern with terrorism by Attorney General John Ashcroft, when he made headlines with dire warnings of an imminent terrorist attack this summer.

At least one pundit -- Newsweek's Eleanor Clift -- was astute enough to pick up on the warning's real purpose:
What was the subliminal message of John Ashcroft's stepped-up terror warning earlier this week? It's that if the terrorists want to disrupt the presidential election, that must mean they're for Democratic candidate John Kerry.

... You don't have to be ultra-cynical to suspect the timing of Ashcroft’s dire pronouncements. Bush is in a jam over Iraq, and the exit strategy is changing the subject, or at least broadening it from Iraq to the wider world of terror, where Bush clings to a narrow lead over Kerry in voter confidence. It’s fishy that police departments in the target cities of Los Angeles and New York weren’t notified and learned along with the public about the newest vague threats from television. This was hardly breaking news. Six of the seven names Ashcroft revealed as likely terrorists have been known to the FBI for months, some for as long as two and a half years.

Of course, it turns out that this isn't the half of it. NBC News is reporting that Ashcroft depended on threats from a group that no one believes is a serious terror threat:
[T]errorism experts tell NBC News there's no evidence a credible al-Qaida spokesman ever said that, and the claims actually were made by a largely discredited group, Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, known for putting propaganda on the Internet.

"This particular group is not really taken seriously by Western intelligence," said terrorism expert M.J. Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, an international policy assessment group. "It does not appear to have any real field operational capability. But it is certainly part of the global jihad movement -- part of its propaganda wing, if you like. It likes to weave a web of lies; it likes to put out disinformation so that the truth is deeply buried. So it is a dangerous group in that sense, but it is not taken seriously in terms of its operational capability."

The group has claimed responsibility for the power blackout in the Northeast last year, a power outage in London and the Madrid bombing. None of the claims was found to be credible.

"The only thing they haven't claimed credit for recently is the cicada invasion of Washington," said expert Roger Cressey, former chief of staff of the critical infrastructure protection board at the White House and now an analyst for NBC News. Cressey also served as deputy to former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke.

A senior U.S. intelligence official previously told NBC News that this group has no known operational capability and may be no more than one man with a fax machine.

Friday, Ashcroft's spokesman blamed the FBI, and the FBI admitted claims that terrorists were 90 percent ready to attack came not from al-Qaida, but from the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades' statements.

First Chalabi, now this. Gullibility isn't exactly an asset when it comes to making serious strides against terrorism, is it?

But even more troubling is the prospect of the Bush administration manipulating public fears for political purposes. (I've written previously for MSNBC about Ashcroft's propensity in this regard.) The last thing the nation needs is a wolf-crying White House exploiting a serious threat for spurious ends -- especially when dealing forthrightly with the very real threat of terrorism, and the providing the public with accurate information about it, should be its first priority.

But then, as we know now (thanks to Richard Clarke), the fact that politics trumped protecting the public was what got us into this mess in the first place.

No comments: