Cooler Heads Bring Challenges For The President's Support

12 October 2001

By Stentor Danielson

A month after two planes demolished the World Trade Center and a third smashed a gaping hole in the Pentagon, the initial rage is fading. And with the fading of the rage comes a fading of the unity that propelled the world’s response to the terrorist attacks. This will be the next challenge for President Bush: holding the support that has allowed him to act against the men blamed for the September 11 attack.

On September 11, the initial shock soon gave way in the public mind to rage, a desire to strike back and get even for the losses inflicted upon our nation and our sense of security. Alarmed that someone would dare commit such a blatant act of murder, and fearing the consequences, the world hastened to side with the United States. Even Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, who have become the target of U.S. air strikes for harboring prime suspect Osama bin Laden, saw the need to issue a formal statement of regret over the incident.

Bush played this sentiment well, fueling American passions and reactionary patriotism with language calculated to show he felt just as listeners did, while his administration pursued a much calmer approach to finding the terrorists. At the same time he made a point of denouncing anti-Arab and anti-Muslim (as well as anti-looks-like-a-Muslim) hate, in order to communicate that he opposed terrorism, not Islam.

In the wake of the attacks, Bush’s approval rating, which had been held down by disagreements over his monster tax cut, his environmental policy and lingering doubts of his legitimacy after a hotly contested election, shot up into the 90s. Bush has ridden this approval for quite some time. But cracks have begun to appear that will test whether he can hold together such a comprehensive domestic and international coalition now that the initial wave of outrage is starting to give way to cooler heads.

On Tuesday, the United Nations reported that the initial U.S. bombing of Afghanistan destroyed a building outside of Kabul, killing four aid workers. The four were working to remove the thousands of land mines left in previous rounds of fighting between the Soviet Union and U.S.-backed forces (which included a young bin Laden) and between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

These first civilian casualties put a human face on the fact, emphasized by opponents of war and opponents of the way the U.S. is waging war, that broad military action is bound to kill people besides the Taliban and bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization. The collateral damage necessary in pursuing the U.S.’s current plan in Afghanistan suddenly became much more real, and gave ammunition to those who have been warning of such losses all along.

Such sentiments were echoed Wednesday by the Organization for the Islamic Conference, a meeting of 56 Islamic nations. While expressing support for American action to uproot al Qaeda, they warned the United States not to expand its campaign beyond the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks and to avoid the "deaths of innocent civilians." Continued support from Muslim countries, especially Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan, is critical for success in Afghanistan. Vocal minorities across the Islamic world have expressed support for bin Laden and his anti-West, pro-Islam stance. These groups are poised to take any excuse to make their voice louder, and thereby weaken their governments’ support of the United States. These governments are more susceptible to such pressure now that the emotions of September 11 are wearing off.

Bush was at the center of another threat to the solidarity of his domestic coalition. In the aftermath of the attacks in New York and Washington, lawmakers dropped partisan concerns and rallied behind Bush. Even former President Bill Clinton urged Americans, in no uncertain terms, to support whatever strategy Bush chose. But in the eyes of many, the President took his mandate too far in clamping down on intelligence security this week.

Bush blamed members of Congress for leaking classified information to The Washington Post, which said that there was a "100 percent threat risk" of another terrorist strike. Deeming them untrustworthy, Bush fired off a memo restricting intelligence briefings to eight U.S. Senators and Representatives. The administration further cut off press access to lower-ranking bureaucrats, even ones whose duties are not directly related to national security issues.

Congress members were understandably angry at the sudden curtailment of their oversight role. Senator Bob Graham (D-Fla.) warned that Congress would be ill-informed when it came time to make crucial decisions. Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said "to put out a public document telling the world he doesn’t trust the Congress and we leak everything, I’m not sure that helps develop unanimity and comradeship."

Bush suggested that members of Congress "take any information they’ve been given by our government very seriously." His choice of words seems to suggest that Congress is not part of "our government" in this situation. On Wednesday Bush backed down from his ultimatum, granting wider access to intelligence for members of Congress. But the implications of the skirmish are clear. Whether or not the Executive branch ought to be granted such broad powers to limit access to information, the possibility of antagonism between the branches is clearly a danger now.

The easy part is over for Bush. The first reaction from most Americans and world leaders was to look to Washington for guidance and action. But as reality begins to dampen emotion in many minds, Bush’s anti-terrorism backing may start to crumble. The real test of his leadership will be whether he can convince cooler heads to continue to lend him their support even when civilians in Afghanistan are dying and Congress and the public are demanding more information.

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