Candidates Finally Get Real About Terrorism, Get Blasted By Critics
28 October 2004 By Stentor Danielson
The fact that this year's presidential race is being run more on image than substance is nowhere more apparent than in the attention given to the question of whether we can win the war on terrorism. Projecting an aura of resoluteness has taken precedence over realistic assessment of America's capabilities.
In August, President Bush said "I don't think you can win it [the war on terror]. But I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world -- let's put it that way." Democrats pounced on the quote as evidence that Bush was admitting his own ineptitude.
John Kerry's turn to get burned for showing insufficient resolve came earlier this month, when he said "we have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance." The Bush campaign repeated Kerry's statement at every opportunity, claiming that the Massachusetts Senator wasn't serious about fighting terrorism.
Bush apparently hadn't learned his lesson in the first two rounds, as he recently told Fox's Sean Hannity that "Whether or not we can be ever fully safe is up -- you know, is up in the air." Democrats were again quick to charge the President with flip-flopping in his commitment to defending the country.
The thing is, both men were right in their politically incorrect assessments. There is no way to guarantee that America will be safe from terrorists, and no way to win decisively and finally against this enemy. Admitting that is not defeatism, it's realism.
We all hope that there is never another September 11, or even another U.S.S. Cole-scale attack. But there is only so much that the president can do to prevent it. Take just the case of Mideast-based terrorism. Certainly there are steps that can be taken by the U.S. to cut down on the desire and the ability of Middle Easterners to resort to violence against this country. But anger at the U.S. is broad and deep, and terrorism is a cheap tactic. Even an extreme strategy -- giving our full support to the Palestinian cause on the one hand, or nuking Saudi Arabia on the other -- would not eliminate al-Qaida within four years. And neither candidate will have the political capital to go even a fraction that far in addressing the causes of terrorism.
What's more, non-American actors have a critical role to play in eliminating terrorism against the U.S. Lasting change will only arise from a grassroots rejection of radical Islam and terrorism. The ability of an American leader to foster this kind of change is limited.
This is not to say that Kerry and Bush's hands are tied with respect to terrorism. If I had more space, I would give arguments that a second Bush term would leave us less safe than a first Kerry term. And contrary to Democrats' affectations of outrage earlier this year, it's legitimate -- though factually incorrect -- for Dick Cheney to claim that Kerry would make us less safe. Yet for one candidate to say he won't be perfect is not an admission that the other would be better.
Unfortunately, candor about the war on terrorism is politically disastrous. Pundits and polls will punish any candidate who won't promise victory. Voters, it seems, want a candidate who can promise them everything. They want to hear that everything will be OK. Yet in demanding that, the public sows the seeds of its own disillusionment. Since neither candidate truly can eliminate terrorism, both run a risk of experiencing an attack on their watch, violating their campaign-trail assurances.
America is famously cynical about its politicians. We expect them to be self-interested and power-hungry, doing only as much good for the public as they have to to stay in office. Come election season, they'll say and promise anything to get your vote.
I can't dispute that characterization of our nation's leaders. But there's a reason they're that way: it works. American electoral politics is the site of a sort of natural selection that weeds out politicians who can make sober assessments of what the government can and can't do. Both Bush and Kerry have felt the sting of the public ire after accidentally being realistic about terrorism. It teaches them to make big promises, to give voters unrealistic assurances.
The failure of the neoconservatives' dream of transforming the Middle East into liberal democracies through military might should have taught us a lesson about hubris. Yes, it's important to be ambitious and optimistic about what one can achieve, because pessimism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But irrational optimism will set you up for failure.
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