Although John Kerry has a commanding lead in worldwide polling with 72 percent, George W. Bush’s prospects may have been boosted in the more important election here at home by a single foreigner-Osama bin Laden.
Some expected bin Laden to be a factor in the U.S. election – either through an anti-U.S. terrorist strike or, for those more inclined to conspiracy theories, through the Bush administration’s apprehension of him just before the election. Yet four days before the election, bin Laden confounded all expectations by releasing a video that seemed to be aimed at conveying a more statesmanlike presence. In the video, bin Laden didn’t endorse either candidate for president, saying to the American public: “Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or Al Qaeda; your security is in your own hands.” But bin Laden is shrewd and knows very well that releasing a tape shortly before the election would help Bush.
In his reelection bid, Bush has used the 9/11 attacks and his ensuing “war on terrorism” for political advantage, and that war is one of the few issues on which the president has an advantage over Kerry. Furthermore, the week before the tape’s release the president was forced to defend the missing explosives in Iraq and sluggish economic statistics.
Naturally, the Republican electoral machine was thrilled that bin Laden moved electoral politics back onto more favorable terrain-national security. According to the New York Times, Richard N. Bond, a former Republican national chairman, noted that the video was a “reminder for all Americans that America is under attack-and who can be the best commander in chief in the war on terror is the central issue of this campaign.”
But why would bin Laden want to help his ostensible nemesis get reelected? Maybe because the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism” has done more to help al Qaeda than anything since the invention of gunpowder. Instead of using elite U.S. troops to capture or kill bin Laden during the war in Afghanistan, Bush allowed him to get away by relying on unreliable Afghan warlords.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Bush then fell into bin Laden’s trap. Terrorists and guerrillas-weaker players-use the standard tactic of attacking a stronger party to get an overreaction that will enable them to recruit more fighters, supporters and financial contributors. Bush’s quixotic post-9/11 flailing about for unrelated enemies to vanquish in Iraq, a nation that practices Islam and has Muslim holy sites, was such an overreach. In addition to siphoning off valuable U.S. intelligence capabilities and Special Forces from hunting bin Laden to deposing Saddam, Bush’s use of 9/11 as an excuse to embark on the Iraqi excursion actually increased the threat to Americans from terrorism.
Following the tenets of the Muslim faith, Islamist fighters from around the world have flocked to Iraq to repel the “infidel” invaders of Islamic lands-much as they did to fight the Russians in Chechnya, the Soviets in Afghanistan, and now the Israelis in Palestine. Even more ominous, Islamic fundamentalists that previously had only local concerns-for example, the al Zarqawi group in Iraq and the fundamentalist Algerian resistance-have now signed on with al Qaeda. The president’s own State Department admitted that worldwide terrorism had recently increased. More important, according to the anonymous intelligence official who authored the book Imperial Hubris, the rate and destructiveness of al Qaeda’s attacks have increased from 2001 to 2004 over what they were from 1994 to 2001.
Despite bin Laden’s apparent effort to help reelect an administration that has been so helpful to him in firing up his base, bin Laden wanted to reiterate why al Qaeda was attacking the United States and implicitly offer a way to end the violence. In the video, Bin Laden stated, “Any state that does not mess with our security, has naturally guaranteed its own security.”
Appropriately condemning bin Laden’s use of appalling barbarism against innocents should not inhibit us from analyzing why bin Laden attacks the United States. In fact, our survival may depend on such an honest examination. Although President Bush, to hype his war on terrorism, has claimed that the terrorists hate us for our freedoms, bin Laden takes exception to this assertion and reiterates that he attacks the United States because of its military interventions in the Islamic world. Few Americans are aware of the extent of this meddling.
Certainly, we cannot stake our security on bin Laden’s implicit proposal to end his attacks if the U.S. ends its militaristic adventures in the Muslim world. That he seems to favor, for the continued expansion of his al Qaeda organization, the reelection of an aggressive U.S. president should make us suspicious of his peace entreaties. Al Qaeda’s leaders must be captured or killed. But for the long-term, we must ask if ending U.S. meddling in the Islamic world could significantly reduce the risk of future “bin Ladens” arising and launching anti-U.S. attacks.