Politicizing Terror

George Will notes that, in the current political climate, the administration must take special care not to appear to be politically motivated:

In formulating and publicizing its policies regarding homeland security, the Bush administration must take seriously a fact it deplores: Regarding the war on terror, a minority, but a sizable minority, believes that the government’s words and deeds merit deep skepticism. The hard core of this minority is the Michael Moore-Howard Dean cohort of fanatics, but the minority is much larger than that and it will become even larger unless the administration worries about its sensibilities. For example, if a terrorism alert is based on intelligence some of which is years old, the government should say so immediately.

Writing in The New Republic, three nonfanatics — John Judis, Spencer Ackerman and Massoud Ansari — note that last month the magazine reported that the Bush administration was pressuring Pakistan to deliver a “high-value target” (HVT) in time for the November election. A Pakistani intelligence official says a colleague was told during a spring visit to the White House that “it would be best if the arrest or killing of (any) HVT were announced on 26, 27 or 28 July” — during the Democratic convention. A spokesman for the National Security Council says The New Republic’s story is not confirmed by Pakistan’s announcement on the 29th, the day of John Kerry’s acceptance speech, of the arrest, four days earlier, of a senior al-Qaida figure. The announcement was made at midnight in Pakistan. That was afternoon in Boston, where convening Democrats were suspicious.

Such suspicions are hardly self-validating. However, the government should take care not to inadvertently foment them. So, for example, it would be well if Tom Ridge henceforth would make those grim homeland security announcements without including testimonials to the president’s leadership. Just the news, please.

While I agree with the specific example Will cites, his larger point presumes a civility that simply does not exist. My guess is that the purpose of Ridge’s praise of President Bush’s handling of the war on terror was not a campaign plug–why would an endorsement from a cabinet member carry any weight?–but rather to counterbalance the fear engendered by the announcement itself with a reassurance that the government was doing everything possible to protect its citizens. Will is right, though, that there was no way to do it that didn’t smack of electioneering.

The larger problem, though, is beyond the capacity of any political leader to control. Simply put, no matter what Bush and company do, they’ll be accused of playing politics. Any dramatic announcement will be touted by the other side as political. Failure to make dramatical announcements will be proclaimed a cover-up. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. This situation is bipartisan: President Clinton was in a similar position during much of his second term, especially post-Monica.

While it has become a maxim of our age that the mere appearance of impropriety is itself an impropriety, the fact of the fact of the matter is that virtually any action or inaction will be spun by the other side as sinister. There’s not much that can be done about that. The best thing for leaders to do is act honorably, doing the right things for the right reasons, and then letting the chips fall where they may.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, Terrorism
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Harry says:

    But when Ridge calls a press conference a couple of days after the Democratic convention, and makes an announcement that gives people the impression that there are specific targets under threat in the next 24-48 hours – and then we discover that much of the information was old, and wasn’t as time-sensitive as we were allowed to believe – it’s difficult to not see a political angle to it. Perhaps Ridge didn’t specifically say there were threats on that particular Monday, but when it became obvious that companies and city officials and people geenrally were reacting as if there was such a threat, the administration was quite willing to let it play that way.

    And the problem is so much politicizing terror – it’s the natural tendency to let your guard down after a number of false alarms. Soon enough, the administration’s terror alerts will be just another set of car alarms going off at night in the city.

  2. Bithead says:

    But when Ridge calls a press conference a couple of days after the Democratic convention, and makes an announcement that gives people the impression that there are specific targets under threat in the next 24-48 hours – and then we discover that much of the information was old

    9/11 had been in process for years, before the trike actually occurred. The plans being old therefore gives MORE urgency to the finding, not less.

  3. McGehee says:

    Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. This situation is bipartisan: President Clinton was in a similar position during much of his second term, especially post-Monica.

    I heard someone observe recently, while referencing a Dick Morris column, that though fears of political potshotting may have, according to Morris, paralyzed Clinton in dealing with terrorism, such fears have had no such effect on Bush.

    Would Clinton have moved more decisively had 9/11 happened in 1997 instead of 2001? We’ll never know and the past can only be revisted hypothetically anyway.

    However there is a context for considering Kerry on this matter, and considering his paralysis right now on a far less consequential matter, the prognosis isn’t good.

  4. Paul says:

    What really needs to happen is that somebody in the Dem party -God knows who- needs to stand up and tell the Harry’s of the world they are delusional freaks and to STFU.

    No matter how many times it has been proven there was mountains of NEW evidence, the Harry’s of the world will repeat the Dems talking points with complete contempt for the demonstrable truth.

    What Will knows, but will not write, is that a small but vocal minority of the population is completely freaking crazy and those folks have taken over a large hunk of the Dem party.

    Republicans hated Clinton but at least they retained their sanity.

  5. McGehee says:

    Republicans hated Clinton but at least they retained their sanity.

    Most did. Of the rest, many (e.g., me) regained it before Clinton left office and most of the remainder are slowly regaining it.

    It’s possible the Bush-hating moonbats will begin to regain their sanity as their options for trying to punish him for … being George W. Bush … dwindle a tad.

    It’s also possible live monkeys will fly out of my…

  6. Harry says:

    Sorry, I haven’t read my Official Democratic Talking Points Memo for today, so I’ll just have to wing it. Maybe you can enlighten me. Since, according to the Bush administration, the latest intelligence behind this plot had been updated “as late as January”, and since they admittedly had no information on potential dates and times, it’s not clear to me of the necessity to release this information and raise the threat level on Sunday, August 1, instead of, say, Wednesday, August 4.

    BTW – my statement “And the problem is so much politicizing terror – it’s the natural tendency to let your guard down after a number of false alarms” should have read “the problem is not so much”.

  7. Bithead says:

    Mmmmph.
    Oh, come now, Harry! Surely you’ll recall the complaints (Later proven as unjustified) that Bush knew about the 9/11 attack prior to it’s happening. You must recall their complaints that the American people whould be told… kept in the loop, when new info comes up.

    Or, are you, as I think, going to pounce on Bush no matter WHAT he does?

  8. sqd says:

    I agree with both sides. The Bush campaign is making a huge $75 million ad push this month to try to thwart Kerry momentum, and even I — not normally skeptical of stuff like this — wondered about that announcement after I learned that most of the intel had supposedly been from January 2004 and earlier; I’ve since read that some of it may have been based on another intel stream that was a bit more recent. I’d like to think it had nothing to do with politics, but then again Karl Rove plays a double role of White House advisor and political strategist; so I think some skepticism is warranted.

    However, for the most part I think we should give these guys the benefit of the doubt. Ridge has an impossible and thankless job, and I think while these terror alerts are a bit straining after awhile, he’s done a reasonably good job under very trying circumstances.

    I think the administration should be careful not to cry wolf too many times, and if they do it with politically-suspect timing more than two or three times, then they will lose a lot of credibility, whether they deserve to or not.

    I always enjoy reading George Will. There’s a lot of cheerleading going on these days, but George often seems to cut through a lot of it, in my opinion.