John McCain's campaign has a problem: it just doesn't have much to talk about. According to the latest polls by Fortune magazine what the gravest long-term threat to the U.S. economy is, McCain answered, "Well, I would think that the absolute gravest threat is the struggle that we're in against radical Islamic extremism, which can affect, if they prevail, our very existence. Another successful attack on the United States of America could have devastating consequences."
Putting aside the question of whether there might be more serious threats to the economy (The housing meltdown? Exploding gas prices?), it's hard to avoid the conclusion that anyone who thinks that Islamic terrorists might succeed in literally destroying America -- "our very existence," as McCain says -- is either a certifiable paranoiac or a complete fool. Given that, it is remarkable how often McCain asserts that Barack Obama "doesn't understand" terrorism, as though unlike McCain, Obama just hasn't spent enough time studying up. And one might forget that McCain himself represents our modern Know-Nothings, the party that pours contempt on intellectuals, that fetishizes the abdication of thought, that for eight years has supported and defended a president who proudly proclaims that he listens only to his gut.
McCain would have you believe that the difference between him and Obama is that he has some wealth of knowledge on which he draws, that his understanding of terrorism is deep and complex, so multi-layered that only he can guide us through the conflict with al-Qaeda. Like Kasparov surveying a chess board, McCain knows what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen, the possibilities and consequences of every potential move spooling across his brain at lightning speed.
So what if he thinks that Iran is training members of al-Qaeda? Details, details. What are you, some kind of pinhead elitist?
When he was campaigning for George W. Bush's reelection in 2004, one of McCain's favorite tricks was to laud Bush for his "moral clarity and firm resolve" in fighting the war on terror. It may seem like a long time ago now, but in the aftermath of September 11, "moral clarity" became an oft-repeated catchphrase among conservatives.
It meant the willingness to cast off nuance (the crutch of weak, pathetic liberals), not worry about whether we might be better able to fight our enemies if we knew as much as possible about them, and get right down to kicking ass. In a world of "moral clarity," there are good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys are going to get what's coming to them.
McCain continues to embody Bush's worst impulses on terrorism, not least his stubborn refusal to grasp even the most basic facts about terrorist organizations. So let's ask: What would al-Qaeda like America to do in the next few years? What would serve its goals? A few things are obvious. It would like us to stay in Iraq, both because it offers its members a place to practice planning and carrying out terrorist acts, and because it sustains anti-American feeling in the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda would also like the American government to maintain as bellicose a posture as possible, rattling its sword and threatening further military actions against Muslim countries.
Next, al-Qaeada would like to see the American president continue to proclaim that it is America's top enemy in the world, one so powerful and menacing that if the land of the free doesn't play its cards right, America might actually be destroyed. This kind of rhetoric not only elevates al-Qaeda's importance but guarantees that those who feel bitterness toward America turn toward bin Laden and Zawahiri as, if not their representatives, then at least their allies.
Bush has done all of this, and McCain promises to do more. It is difficult to overstate the degree to which Bush has done Osama bin Laden's bidding over the last seven years -- from allowing him to escape at Tora Bora, to delivering the quagmire bin Laden had hoped to create in Afghanistan (albeit a few hundred miles away in Iraq), to destroying America's moral authority by embracing the use of torture as official policy, to characterizing the conflict as an epic war of civilizations. When bin Laden released a new videotape just before the 2004 election, he knew exactly what he was doing: By shaking his fist at America, he reinforced every argument Bush was making, helping to ensure that their symbiosis would be renewed for another term. The video might as well have ended with, "I'm Osama bin Laden, and I approve this message. Vote Bush!"
When pressed about the fact that the Iraq War is helping al-Qaeda, both Bush and McCain offer some variation of the idea that Iraq is the "central front in the war on terror," the place where the battle will be won or lost. There is no doubt that Iraq is a wound that continues to seep its infected puss over the entirety of our foreign policy and security efforts. But even if we left tomorrow, and even if we caught bin Laden and the rest of the group's leadership, there would still be tremendous work to be done. Al-Qaeda itself has transformed from an organization into a movement, and terrorism in general is becoming more diffuse, as the State Department's latest annual report on the state of global terrorism points out:
2007 witnessed the continuation of the transition from expeditionary to guerilla terrorism highlighted in Country Reports on Terrorism 2006. Through intermediaries, web-based propaganda, exploitation of local grievances, and subversion of immigrant and expatriate populations, terrorists inspired local cells to carry out attacks which they then exploit for propaganda purposes. We have seen a substantial increase in the number of self-identified groups with links (communications, training, and financial) to AQ leadership in Pakistan. These "guerilla" terrorist groups harbor ambitions of a spectacular attack, including acquisition and use of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
One has to wonder whether McCain believes that terrorist groups that operate in Indonesia or Yemen can be defeated in Iraq. Given the propaganda value of the war and the way al-Qaeda has become a franchise operation, it isn't surprising that the last few years have seen a huge increase in terrorist attacks. The best way to see the history of terrorism in the last few years is with a chart:
There was a spike in 2001 because of the September 11 attacks, but in 2002 and 2003 the numbers were only slightly higher than they had been in the years before. Then the number of people killed by terrorists skyrocketed, to 1,907 in 2004; 6,317 in 2005; 6,572 in 2006; and 9,085 in 2007. And these numbers don't include those killed in acts of terrorism within Iraq itself. (Historical data from the State Department may be found here.)
If Bush and McCain are aware of this trend, it doesn't seem to have had much impact on the way they think about this issue. Ever since September 11, the administration and its allies have acted as though the population of anti-American terrorists in the world is fixed, and if we can just find them and kill them, the threat will disappear. That was the idea behind the "flypaper theory" -- terrorists would be drawn to Mesopotamia, where they could be mowed down by American troops. Problem solved.
Of course, just the opposite happened. For every terrorist we caught or killed, many more were created. The key question for the next president's terrorism policy is what he plans to do about the ocean of anti-Americanism in which terrorists swim. Fail to solve that problem, and al-Qaeda will continue to recruit new members, raise money, and carry out operations, and the number of terrorist attacks will continue to rise.
We've had a seven-year test of the theory that it's better to be feared than loved, and we've seen the results. Perhaps John McCain has a plan to win back the esteem of the world. If so, we ought to hear what it is.