On Oct. 29, 2004 -- four days before the election -- Osama bin Laden released a videotape attacking President Bush. As Ron Suskind later reported in his extraordinary book The One Percent Doctrine, CIA analysts concluded that "bin Laden's message was clearly designed to assist the President's reelection." John McLaughlin, the acting director of the CIA at the time, said at a meeting to discuss the tape, "Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the president."
At the time, it was universally understood that the more voters were reminded of terrorism and external threats, the more they would gravitate toward the Republican candidate, particularly one who was so skilled at standing on top of rubble and issuing lusty promises of vengeance. What wasn't remarked on much was the possibility that -- as the CIA understood -- George W. Bush's re-election was exactly what al-Qaeda wanted. Chances are that they'd like the current Republican presidential nominee to win as well. The difference is that unlike four years ago, al-Qaeda may not have the power to affect the outcome of our election.
And it doesn't take a terrorism expert to figure out why al-Qaeda would want to elect Bush. If al-Qaeda had planted their own agent in the White House, he couldn't have done much more for the terrorist organization than Bush did. He let bin Laden escape at Tora Bora. He invaded a Muslim country, bogging down the United States in a protracted war that sapped its resources, isolated America from its allies, fanned the flames of anti-Americanism, and provided not only a recruiting tool for future terrorists but a place where they could train to kill Americans. He presented to the world a caricature of the ugly American, all bluster and ignorance. He established a virtual gulag at Guantanamo and defended the use of torture, obliterating America's claim to moral superiority. And perhaps most helpful to al-Qaeda, he talked about terrorism in apocalyptic terms, elevating the terrorist organization to the status of a civilization all its own, so powerful that it could destroy the world.
So it wasn't much of a surprise when it was reported last week that a message on a jihadi Web site said that it was in al-Qaeda's interest to see John McCain elected to fill Bush's chair. The person who put up the post may or may not be an actual terrorist, but he did seem to have a handle on our political situation, at least as it has been up until now. If al-Qaeda were to attack America, the author of the post wrote, "this act will be support of McCain because it will push the Americans deliberately to vote for McCain so that he takes revenge for them against al-Qaida. Al-Qaida then will succeed in exhausting America till its last year in it." The McCain campaign helpfully explained that if a terrorist says something approving about Barack Obama, he's revealing his true affections, but if he says something approving about John McCain, "he's clearly trying to damage John McCain, not speaking from his heart."
What the key terrorist groups operating today would probably like most of all is a third term for George W. Bush. It isn't just al-Qaeda that has benefited from Bush's leadership; Hamas and Hezbollah have flourished over the last eight years as well. In 2006, apparently in thrall to the notion that elections are a magic elixir for whatever ails a country (call it the Cult of the Purple Finger), the Bush administration pushed for parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories. Israeli leaders (including the perhaps-soon-to-be prime minister, Tzipi Livni), protested to the administration that it was a bad idea, warning that Hamas would likely emerge the victor. They were right: When the election took place that January, Hamas won 76 of the parliament's 132 seats, stunning the Bush administration and giving Hamas an institutional legitimacy it could not claim before.
Six months later, when Israel sank into a war with Lebanon, the administration encouraged the Israelis to continue and crush Hezbollah once and for all. As Israelis hid in bomb shelters and artillery rained down on southern Lebanon, Condoleezza Rice optimistically called it "the birth pangs of a new Middle East." In the end, the Israeli public was disgusted with their own government's bumbling, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah became a hero to anti-Israeli Arabs and Muslims everywhere. Score another one for brilliant Bush administration statecraft.
John McCain hasn't said much about Hamas and Hezbollah this year, but he likes to call Islamic terrorism "the transcendent challenge of the 21st century." That's quite a statement, one that no doubt warms the cockles of Osama bin Laden's heart. It says that al-Qaeda is more important than any nation on Earth save America, the global hegemon. As far as McCain is concerned, terrorism is more important than global warming, more important than the rise of China as an economic power, and more important than any challenge the United States will face for the next 92 years.
If nothing else, McCain gives the boys down at the al-Qaeda recruiting office a great pitch: "Look, kid, I know your life seems kind of miserable -- the parents are hassling you, school is a drag, and the night life in Karachi leaves a lot to be desired. So here's what you're facing. You can get some crappy job, marry some boring girl, live a meaningless existence, and keel over from a heart attack at 50. Or you can join the transcendent struggle of the 21st century. John McCain knows that if America loses, the forces of Islam take over the world. Don't you want to be a part of that?
But as far as the conservatives are concerned, worrying about how this clash of civilizations looks to Ahmed Sixpack is for wimps. Foreign publics don't need to be courted or convinced; they need to be shown who's boss. Likewise, terrorists shouldn't be fought by depriving them of the hard and soft support they need to operate freely but by opening up a big old can of whoop-ass.
So Republicans certainly have a political interest in asserting that terrorists quiver in their dusty boots whenever the snarling visage of a Bush or McCain appears on their televisions promising to "smoke 'em out" (that'd be Bush) or "follow bin Laden to the gates of hell" (that'd be McCain). But I have no doubt that they genuinely believe it. From their perspective, the fight against terrorism is a test of will and manhood. If we show terrorists that we're strong and tough, they'll eventually realize that their fight against us is futile, and they'll give up. GOP consultant Ed Rogers recently said on MSNBC, "None of our enemies are afraid of Obama. Why would they be? On the other hand, all of our enemies are afraid of John McCain."
I'm sure Rogers can't fathom why anyone would fear Obama, or why anyone who wishes America harm wouldn't fear McCain. But what does al-Qaeda really fear? What they fear is being marginalized. They can only continue to obtain recruits, raise money, and move about as long as they maintain support in Muslim countries, both active and passive. They fear not another American invasion of a Muslim country, but an American foreign policy that makes them less relevant. They fear a decline in anti-American sentiment. They fear Muslim publics that don't hate America quite as much, and so are unwilling to tolerate extremism in their midst. They fear losing their enemy.
And the American people may just be getting the picture. The sight of Osama bin Laden could make them rush to George Bush's arms four years ago, but would it have the same effect today? Would voters react to a new bin Laden tape -- or even a terrorist attack -- by saying, "We need someone who'll get tough on terrorism"? Or might they say, "Why the hell haven't we caught this guy yet? What are we doing wrong?"
The public didn't say that four years ago, in large part because George Bush's entire campaign was based on the proposition that he was strong and John Kerry was weak -- and it worked. In a Pew poll released at the beginning of October 2004, more than twice as many people (59 percent to 29 percent) picked Bush as the "strong leader." In contrast, when Pew asked the same question at the same time this year, McCain and Obama were virtually tied, at 43 percent to 42 percent.
The difference isn't just that the Bush 2004 campaign repeated this message endlessly, while the McCain campaign has been more scattershot. Much more important is that the public just doesn't think Barack Obama is weak. Unlike previous Democratic nominees, when attacked he exudes confidence, not fear. Add to that the fact that McCain's "tough" approach to terrorism is impossibly tainted by its association with the most unpopular president in history, and you have a radically different context in which this discussion takes place.
Osama bin Laden probably does want John McCain to win this election. But he may have run out of ways to help make it happen.