Running Against Osama

Howard Fineman argues that Osama bin Laden is the “stealth candidate” in the 2004 presidential race.

Iraq was the war Bush wanted. But it also was the war OBL wanted. Not even in his most fevered prayers could bin Laden have imagined the propaganda coup offered by the pictures of humiliated prisoners in Baghdad. It̢۪s unfair, really: Saddam̢۪s murderous sadism went on for decades, largely away from the media̢۪s eyes. We are conducting our war in public and by standards of decency and law unknown in the Persian Gulf. But pictures don̢۪t come with context, and these paint us the way OBL wants us to be seen.

Bin Laden̢۪s bet was, and is, that the United States is too weak-willed and economically vulnerable to last for long in a war against jihadis motivated by centuries of hatred for the West. The American public will tire of the fight, and the cost will weaken an economy already facing competition from Europe and China. He hoped to provoke an Armageddon, and now he has one.

Will Al Qaeda try to launch another attack in the U.S. before the presidential election? Probably. How would that effect the presidential election? Hard to say. America is not Spain, but the public̢۪s patience is not unlimited, either.

Actually, it is much more likely that the American public will tire of the war in the absence of another domestic attack. The 9/11 attacks were a galvanizing event but, contrary to the hype, they did not “change everything.” For most of those not directly involved in fighting the war on terror, it is mere background noise. The willingness to absorb the cost of a war whose provocation is receding into memory is indeed not unlimited.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. delta dave says:

    Our wars should be more than merely spectator sports with the public choosing sides and sitting in the stands cheering on their particular side…for or against the war effort. Wars are a national commitment, not just an administration policy exercise.

    The post-WWII propensity of our government to fight wars without directly involving the public is a strategic mistake in my opinion.

    It leads to war being viewed as an administration specific foreign policy and mere political exercise — That’s why every war since the Korean War (remember we had both “guns and butter”) has had the presidential incumbent’s name directly associated with the war and why the opposition party always stakes out an opposing position.

    The public “tires” of these wars because they don’t have a direct vested interest in them. Without the public being diretly vested in the war and its execution, the administration in charge is hamstrung in obtaining both resources to fight and execute the war and in maintaining resolve over the long haul.

    Even President Bush separates the American people from the War on Terrorism — by putting things in terms of what his administration is doing instead of a context of what the American people are doing. Everytime the Presidents says “I” instead of “The American People” will… are… etc. the context presented is its his war not our war – not the American public vs terrorist, but President Bush vs terrorist.

    The War on Terrorism is my (our) response to those who would kill us at any opportunity and who make the world unsafe for us to travel and enjoy. Consequently I (we) want to be included — give me (us) a tangible role, a physical means, something to do besides watch from the sidelines.