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The War for the War on Terrorism

Though the 9/11 Commission in its final report let Bush off the hook for any blame for the attacks, it still obliquely chided the administration for its lack of preparedness.
 
 
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In a telling and embarrassing moment for President Bush that Michael Moore captured with devastating effectiveness in Fahrenheit 9/11, an aide whispers to Bush that terrorists had just obliterated the World Trade Center. A plainly shell-shocked Bush blithely continues reading a primer to a group of school kids. In that chilling scene, the issue of terrorism was as far removed from Bush's radarscope as a Martian invasion. Though the 9/11 Commission in its final report let Bush off the hook for any blame for the attacks, it still obliquely chided the administration for its lack of preparedness.

In the three years since the attacks, Bush's volte-face on terrorism has been breathtaking. He has propelled the issue to the top of his agenda and worked overtime to keep it there. While the monster edge that Bush once had over Democratic presidential contender John Kerry in the polls as the man best to take on terrorists has shrunk, he still outranks him on the issue. But a June USA Today/CNN/ Gallup Poll found that Kerry and Bush are in a dead heat with voters when asked which one could best fulfill the responsibilities of commander-in-chief.

With Iraq a mess, his education initiative moribund, his tax cuts under withering attack, and the 9/11 Commission report giving critics more ammunition to savage his anti-terrorism credentials, Bush will blitz voters with tougher talk on terrorism in speeches at airbases and patriotic rallies, accompanied by a sea of uniformed military personnel. His almost single-minded message in the nearly $100 million that he has spent on TV ads is: I can best protect the American people from terrorist attacks.

FBI director Robert Mueller, Vice-President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Tom Ridge will pound the public with terrorists-on-the loose warnings. The alleged attackers will be al Qaeda operatives, suicide bombers or Saddam Hussein henchmen. Their alleged targets will be everything from movie studios, farms, shopping centers and chemical plants to apartment buildings and bridges. There may even be more loose talk about suspending elections.

This is not crass, cynical election year fear and panic mongering. There are legitimate and compelling security concerns. In a July USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll more than half of Americans think there'll be a terrorist attack before the presidential election or on Election Day. Despite the real fears, playing politics with terrorism is calculated to ram home to wavering, undecided voters, and that includes some Democrats, that Bush can live up to his self imposed title of "wartime" president, and that it would be a fatal mistake to swap presidential horses in midstream.

With the most crucial election in the last half-century hinging heavily on the terrorism issue, Kerry must scramble even harder to snatch the title of wartime president from Bush. In one of the longest, detailed statements the Kerry-Edwards campaign has issued on any policy issue, Kerry topped Bush and called for a radical increase in military and intelligence spending, and hard target preemptive strikes.

The Democratic platform had Kerry's stamp all over it with the toughest talk on terrorism and national security the Democrats have uttered in years. Kerry will parade his own line-up of admirals, generals and Vietnam Vets on the campaign stump with him. He will match Bush's millions on TV ads touting his tough terrorism proposals, and remind anyone within earshot that he beat Bush to the punch in sounding the alarm bells on the terrorist threat in 1997 in his book, The New War. (Though in the book he fingered organized crime syndicates as the main terrorist culprits). On the eve of the release of the 9/11 Commission report, both slammed each other with accusations of playing politics with the nation's intelligence capabilities.

In nearly two centuries from the War of 1812 to the Vietnam War, no president that has sought reelection during a time of war has ever lost the White House. Politicians have long known that war fever, and national security jitters is a sure fire ticket to their boost poll ratings, secure public allegiance, and increase the political dominance of whichever party is in power. If a president is doing a really terrible job in handling domestic problems, it can also deflect public attention from those problems.

But there are exceptions. Bush Sr. had stratospheric approval ratings after the 1991 Gulf War, but he still lost the presidential election. Clinton in 1996 took much heat for his perceived mishandling of military operations in Somalia and Haiti operations, but he still won reelection. Bush Sr. and Clinton, however, were not in a dead heat with their opponents as Bush and Kerry are. The issue of terrorism and national security then had not stirred deep public fears nor been fiercely politicized by presidential contenders. This time it has.

And that virtually guarantees that Kerry and Bush will intensify their political war over the war on terrorism.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press).