If it's true that conventional wisdom, like quick-dry cement, usually hardens within 48 hours of an event -- think of the January 1998 Lewinsky revelations and the immediate pronouncements that the matter would lead to impeachment -- the reactions to the July 7 London terrorist bombings provide a case study in how the right seeks to use an incident, even a tragic one, to advance an agenda that events have already proven wrong, if not disastrous.
The intersection of the ever-faster news cycle, unprecedented partisan polarization, summer-vacation schedules, and national-security threats hardly makes for rational conversation, so it should come as little surprise that one of the very ﬁrst conservative media responses to the coordinated series of detonations that rocked London on the morning of July 7 was a hysterical blog post. “We. Are. Not. Safe.,” intoned John Podhoretz on “The Corner,” the staff blog of the National Review Online. “These ﬁends will drench the streets of the world's free societies with the blood of the innocent unless they are stopped.”
Notorious television pundit Bill O'Reilly rushed home from his holiday to broadcast a crazier-than-usual July 8 show that saw him denying the obvious reality that, as a guest suggested to him, “There are innocents being killed in Iraq, too” (“No, there aren't,” he responded); loudly objecting to descriptions of the murders in London as “tragedies”; and offering to mail viewers “boycott France” bumper stickers, as if this were somehow relevant.
Further up the right-wing intellectual food chain, others were already cobbling together more coherent accounts of the day's events -- with potentially catastrophic consequences. Frank Gaffney, Washington Times columnist and president of the Center for Security Policy, argued in a swiftly assembled column for the National Review Online that the attacks proved, well, that the entire conservative political agenda was now more necessary than ever. “Governments,” Gaffney wrote, “must remain seized with and give priority to countering terrorists and their state-sponsors,” deploying “military measures aimed at disrupting [terrorist] operations and denying the safe-havens” from which attacks are launched. The “most imminent” response priority should be to cancel “Israel's planned surrender of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank under present, and foreseeable, circumstances.” For good measure, Gaffney even informed us that the G8 agenda of “debt relief and other aid for Africa and initiatives meant to affect global warming” constitutes “a distraction we cannot afford at the moment.”
Its lack of factual grounding aside, Gaffney's response at least met minimal standards of coherence that other pundits lacked in the heat of the moment. Roger Bate, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) charged with The Weekly Standard's morning-after commentary, offered only lazy “old Europe”–bashing. “Where,” he asked, “are the really strong statements on ﬁghting terrorism from either [German] Chancellor [Gerhard] Schröder or [French] President [Jacques] Chirac?” They were, in fact, exactly where you would expect them to be: quoted in major newspapers. You just had to read down into the stories. The attack “once again inspires us with horror,” Chirac said, adding that it “strengthened even further our sense of solidarity.” “The international community,” said Schröder, “must do everything in its power to ﬁght terrorism together with all the means at its disposal.”
“The Corner,” meanwhile, continued its degeneration into nonsense and panic. Rich Lowry, the National Review's editor, endorsed the view that someone ought to “ﬁnd a terror camp somewhere and hit it” because “terrorists should, for these purposes, be treated as one nation, and all should be held responsible for any one attack.” Katherine Jean-Lopez assailed CNN's Soledad O'Brien for observing that Londoners witnessed things “that only people at war see” in a manner implying that “she didn't get that they ARE IN FACT AT WAR.”
This impulse to lash out is completely unwarranted. Nothing could be clearer to a native New Yorker who's returned to his hometown many times in the past several years than the fact that even the massive devastation of September 11 has not fundamentally altered -- or even appreciably affected -- that city's basic vitality. In the immediate wake of those attacks, this was not clear; nor was it obvious whether worse was in store. Since then, we've learned that it is probably not. The horrifying Madrid bombings were an order of magnitude less deadly than 9-11, and the London attacks a further order of magnitude less lethal than Madrid. Al-Qaeda and its afﬁliates evidently lack the numerical strength to deluge the West with low-grade terrorism and lack the wherewithal to pull off spectacular World Trade Center–style attacks more than once in a blue moon. The risks -- of chemical warfare or catastrophic nuclear terrorism -- remain very real. But they are best combated through an emphasis on securing nuclear materials and guarding against the shipment of radioactive cargo into the United States -- efforts that the Bush administration has utterly failed to undertake.
The people of London have, by all accounts, reacted to the killings by mourning the dead and deﬁantly moving on with their lives. It's the response to be expected from a city that has been subjected to on-and-off terrorist attacks for decades, and the most strategically sound approach to a mode of assault that relies on inducing panic and terror. To the pundits of the American right, however, the London bombings pose an existential threat -- not to the United Kingdom or to the United States but to the intellectual ediﬁce they've created to defend the Bush administration's handling of national-security policy.
With the weapons-of-mass-destruction rationale for invading Iraq long dead and the grandiose pseudo-Wilsonianism of the president's second inaugural address ringing hollow as elections failed to bring peace to Iraq, the White House has taken to explaining the war as an effort to “take the ﬁght to the enemy.” As Donald Rumsfeld put it as far back as 2003, when it ﬁrst became clear that Iraq was not to be the cakewalk he promised, it's better to ﬁght terrorists in Baghdad than “in Boston or in Baltimore or Boise.”
This notion, known and propagated in the conservative blogosphere as the “ﬂypaper” justiﬁcation for the war, is and always was absurd. The U.S. military presence in Iraq does nothing to hinder jihadist inﬁltration of democratic nations, but does, as the CIA has pointed out, provide a training ground for the jihadists of tomorrow. Maintaining the linkage between the invasion of Iraq and the war on terrorism is essentially impossible now; so the right seeks, once again, to reconﬁgure the nature of the relationship, this time with terrorist attacks understood as a front in the Iraq War. As Lowry put it in typical morning-after commentary, “The Spanish cut and ran from Iraq after the Madrid train bombings in 2004, hoping to take the target off their back, but painting one all the larger on the backs of any countries supporting the ﬁght against extremism in Iraq.” This completely misconstrues the actual chronology of events in Spain, but accuracy is hardly necessary when the clear point is to imply that the Bush administration's domestic political opponents are somehow in league with terrorism. “The Brits, having suffered much worse during the Blitz and the height of the [Irish Republican Army] bombing campaign in the 1970s, won't surrender so easily,” Lowry assured us.
Interestingly, the conservatives positing such a motive to the bombings are, in essence, in agreement with left-wingers who assert that Tony Blair brought the attacks on the British people through his support of the Iraq War. Both theories are equally, and equally obviously, misguided: Al-Qaeda began its jihad long before the invasion of Iraq. That Bush's defenders and Osama bin Laden have both taken to claiming that the conﬂicts are causally related is a curious irony with little basis in reality.
Propaganda points aside, many on the right greeted the attacks with what's best described as ill-concealed glee. Indeed, the evening before the attacks, FOX News host John Gibson expressed disappointment that Paris had lost its bid to host the 2012 Olympics on the grounds that it “would have been a treat, actually, to watch the French dealing with the problem of their own homegrown Islamist terrorists living in France already.” Then, after the bombings, Gibson offered up the thought, “This is why I thought the Brits should let the French have the Olympics.” FOX's Brit Hume recounted that his “ﬁrst thought” in response to the attacks was that it was a good opportunity to make money picking up bargains in the futures market. Brian Kilmead explained that the attacks work “to the Western world's advantage, for people to experience something like this together.” In a more pessimistic vein, classicist turned war pundit Victor Davis Hanson sighed regretfully that memories of 7-7 will, like those of 9-11, fade, leading Bush and Blair “to become even more unpopular.”
The consistent superﬁcial message was Kilmead's: Attacks are good because they remind us that we are “at war.” But Hanson brought the subtext to the surface: Attacks are welcome because they allow the right to recapitulate its ﬁnest hour, the days and weeks immediately following 9-11, when Bush's popularity reached historic highs and liberals were too cowed to criticize conservatism on any front. Indeed, some columnists like the omnipresent Mark Steyn appeared to be stuck in a time warp, offering readers of The Daily Telegraph the bizarre thesis that the attacks were “the beginning of a long existential struggle, for Britain and the West.” Really? It's hard to see how the ﬁfth -- and least deadly -- major al-Qaeda attack of the past four years (London followed New York, Bali, Istanbul, and Madrid) could possibly be construed as the beginning of anything.
Despite the passage of several years and two wars, those pundits able to muster anything resembling actual policy recommendations in the wake of the London bombings appeared to be simply reprinting fall 2001 content. Gaffney's immediate reaction to 7-7 resembled nothing quite so much as his immediate reaction to 9-11. “The states that sponsor and support” terrorism are, now as then, the main focus. We learned back then that “the ﬁght that has now come to our land is the same one Israel has been ﬁghting for many years.” He conceded that “its perpetrators may or may not be exactly the same.” Today, with the knowledge that they are not, it still makes no difference, and continued occupation of the Gaza Strip is seen as a reasonable retaliation for an attack perpetrated by unrelated groups. Indeed, Gaffney's reaction to the Madrid bombings was, again, the same advocacy of a “strategy of offensively and, if necessary, preemptively engaging terrorist cadres, networks, and state sponsors.”
Late on the afternoon of July 8, The Weekly Standard published Bill Kristol's article on the subject, which spoke of the need “to deter or remove regimes that cooperate with terrorists” as the cornerstone of future strategy. Again, the similarities to Kristol's ﬁrst post–9-11 article -- written in the form of an open letter to the president, calling for “measures of retaliation against … known state sponsors of terrorism” -- are striking.
The very constancy of the hawkish rhetorical response to terrorism highlights its fundamental ﬂaw. A strategy genuinely geared toward ﬁghting al-Qaeda would necessarily change in response to the dramatic events of the past several years -- most notably, the apparent ﬂight into territory nominally under the control of Pakistan by the group's leadership. Serious commentary would grapple with the reality that most terrorism experts believe al-Qaeda no longer has or needs a centralized command-and-control infrastructure. Instead, local radical groups take matters into their own hands and choose to afﬁliate themselves with the bin Laden brand. This new reality is what must be grappled with in order to devise a feasible counterstrategy.
Instead, the hawks relentlessly change the subject from al-Qaeda to the basically unrelated problem of state sponsors of terrorism. As has become clear, the intended referent of the state-sponsorship notion in the wake of 9-11 was not the Taliban mini-state but Iraq and, to a lesser extent, the Palestinian Authority. This was made clear in the original Kristol open letter, which argued that “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aimed at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.”
Today, the state-sponsorship meme is an apparent effort to coax the United States into war with Syria or Iran, or both. On December 20, Kristol wrote of the “need to take action to punish and deter [Hafez al-] Assad's regime,” citing the opportunity to “bomb Syrian military facilities” and to “occupy the town of Abu Kamal” (“real options,” he called them.) A Forward op-ed by AEI resident scholar Michael Rubin, published the day after the London attacks, outlined options for the nonviolent overthrow of the regime in Iran, which, he said, should be backed up by “pinpoint military strikes” in case the nonviolent approach fails. The Heritage Foundation's Nile Gardiner and John Hulsman published a policy memo the afternoon of the bombings arguing that there “must be immediate retaliation by the U.S. and U.K.,” prompting Brookings Institution scholar Ivo H. Daalder to observe reasonably that there do not seem to be targets to retaliate against.
While the Iraq hawks eventually engaged in massive efforts designed to convince the public that Saddam Hussein was a sponsor of al-Qaeda in general or the 9-11 attacks in particular (and, indeed, there are many indications that most of the proponents of this theory believe in it quite sincerely), as the Kristol letter indicated, the truth or falsity of such claims was never integral to their view of the merits of the issue. The conservative view -- as seen in everything from the administration's pre–9-11 lack of interest in al-Qaeda to its drive to invade Iraq to the response to the London bombings -- is and always has been that “rogue states” like Syria and Iran are a serious threat to American security, while informal terrorist networks like al-Qaeda are not. Similarly, state acquisition of nuclear weapons is viewed as a grave problem, while mere insecurity of existing nuclear material such as might allow terrorists to buy or steal the material necessary to construct a nuclear or radiological device is not. Actual, existing terrorist attacks are seen as fodder for fostering fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the American population in order to bolster support for an agenda that, when seen for what it is, the public lacks enthusiasm for.
Under the circumstances, the liberal response must be to avoid the errors of fall and winter 2001. Then, an overblown sense of propriety and simple fear of the conservative onslaught led too many liberals either into silence or into pointless attacks on marginal, misguided ﬁgures on the far left, as if they would receive Rupert Murdoch's blessing for being a few shades tougher. Such pusillanimity helped ensure that the hawks' intellectual ediﬁce would be ﬁrmly in place. The events of the past two years have begun to dislodge this ediﬁce, and the reality of the London attacks should be its death knell, but only if the point is made ﬁrmly and forcefully.
Unfortunately, early signs the weekend after the attack indicate a repetition of yesteryear's failures. The Center for American Progress, set up to provide a counterweight to conservative infrastructure, responded with a laundry list of disjointed counterterrorism criticisms à la Bush rather than a clear statement of the progressive view of the problem. Popular blogger Kevin Drum expressed a wish for a one-day “refrain from political point-scoring over the London attacks,” though it's clear that the right has no interest in reciprocating. Besides, much more is at stake than political points: These disputes delve far deeper than mere partisanship and into the heart of substantive policy, with thousands of lives at stake. Ed Kilgore, vice president for policy at the Democratic Leadership Council, took the time in his initial response to take swipes at far-left British MP George Galloway, as if there were a substantial risk that Galloway's views would carry the day in London or Washington.
The real risk is of a resurgent neoconservative movement succeeding in its efforts to use the attacks as a pretext for rolling back support for a number of policy measures that represent the best hope for unifying the world's democratic powers around a terrorism-ﬁghting agenda: negotiations with Iran, Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, reassessment of the Guantanamo Bay detention center, American re-engagement with the issues of global poverty and climate change, moves to end the occupation of Iraq, efforts to encourage Hezbollah's transformation into an actor in Lebanese domestic politics, etc. Instead, the neoconservatives advance the agenda of further military clashes with Arabs. Time and again, liberals have erred by “misunderestimating” the right's determination and ability to move fringe ideas to the center of the public agenda. If we let it happen again, the consequences for the country -- and the world -- could be nothing short of disastrous.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect staff writer.