It's the Permanent War on Terrorism, Stupid
Administration Counting on Climate of Fear
to Pave Way for Re-election
by Bill Berkowitz
May 7, 2003
Photo op for Election 2004 campaign advertisement -- Take 1:
On Thursday, May 1, President Bush lands on board a homeward bound aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln. At 9 P.M. EST, with the carrier's 5,000 crewmembers as backdrop, the president announces to the nation that the military phase of the Invasion of Iraq is over.
International terrorist attacks declined by 44% in 2002 -- from 355 attacks in 2001 to 199 attacks in 2002, according to a report published April 30 by the U.S. State Department. The report, "Patterns of Global Terrorism: 2002" pointed out that the number of people killed by terrorists declined to 725, down from the 3,295 people killed in 2001, including the 9/11 attacks. This report did not record the number of dead civilians killed by U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan during the past two years.
President George W. Bush's re-election to a second term will not depend on Florida re-counts, hanging chads, the United States Supreme Court, or the state of the economy. The Republican Party will retain control of the White House if the president continues to persuade the majority of the American people that the war on terrorism must be pursued at all cost -- both at home and abroad -- and the mainstream media continues to uncritically parrot this line.
The Bush Administration claims that the U.S. is well on its way toward winning the war against terrorism. But, despite highly trumpeted "victories" -- the routing of the Taliban and al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and the overthrow Saddam Hussein's Baath regime -- it is cautioning that success in the war against terrorism will be measured in years or decades, not months.
A White House document titled "Securing the Homeland, Strengthening the Nation" maintains that the threat of terrorism is "an inescapable reality of life in the 21st century. It is a permanent condition to which America and the entire world must adjust." If this thinking dominates the political debate as America approaches the 2004 presidential election, the Democrats' hope of breathing new life into "It's the economy stupid" will fail to achieve the impact it had twelve years ago.
President Bush's approval rating hovers at slightly over 70 percent -- twenty points lower than his father's numbers twelve years ago after the end of Gulf War I. Support for Bush, while widespread, has little depth. His advisors recognize that the numbers could easily slip when the welcome-home-the-troops-pageantry fades and people turn their attention to a severely debilitated economy. However, if the administration can set the agenda for Election 2004, it will not be the economy but national security issues heading the list.
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, fear of another terrorist attack has become a central concern for many Americans. Other than the anthrax attacks in 2001, however, the US has experienced only a series of false alarms: Terrorist attacks on bridges, water systems, transportation hubs, and nuclear power plants hasn't happened; the use of chemical or biological weapons hasn't materialized; there have been no "dirty bombers" or suicide bombers; and the much-hyped smallpox epidemic hasn't occurred.
With each real or perceived threat, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, in consultation with the Homeland Security Council, ratcheted-up the Homeland Security Advisory System. Elevating security alerts from yellow (significant risk of terrorist attacks) to orange (high risk of terrorist attacks) sustains public anxiety even if subsequent information proves the threat was over-hyped; witness the near-panic atmosphere caused by the Duct Tape & Plastic Sheeting Advisory earlier this year. When the advisory system is cranked up, polls find Americans becoming more fearful that an attack is in the offing. Imagine the response if there actually were another foreign-initiated terrorist attack on American soil.
The war on terrorism has become the centerpiece of the Bush presidency. Spending on Homeland Security -- which some critics claim has been too modest -- is well into the double digit billions. An April 16 "Department of Homeland Security FY '03 Supplemental Funding Fact Sheet," announced that the President had "authorized an additional $6.71 billion for the Department of Homeland Security to support Departmental functions and domestic counter-terrorism operations that have been activated as a part of Operation Liberty Shield at the start of the war in Iraq." Approximately two thirds of the money went "to offset the costs of Operation Liberty Shield" and the balance was given to the airline industry "to help with costs associated with enhancing the capabilities of the airline industry to combat terrorism."
Operation Liberty Shield was initiated prior to the invasion of Iraq because "terrorists will attempt multiple attacks against U.S. and Coalition targets worldwide in the event of a U.S.-led military campaign against Saddam Hussein. A large volume of reporting across a range of sources, some of which [my italics] are highly reliable, indicates that Al-Qaida probably would attempt to launch terrorist attacks against U.S. interests claiming they were defending Muslims or the 'Iraqi people' rather than Saddam Hussein's regime." The invasion came and went, and there have been no terrorist attacks.
One day later, the Department of Homeland Security's Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate, aka FEMA, announced $165 million in grants to state and local governments to help them "better prepare to respond to all hazards preparedness activities and emergency management." Thousands of teachers and healthcare workers have received layoff notices across the county and unemployment continues to rise, yet the flow of money for homeland security projects continues apace.
Recently, Jonathan Tal, President of the Homeland Security Research Corporation, told me that "It is not possible to defeat terrorism. Terrorism takes a couple of loonies in a basement putting together a bomb or some other device. We can gain a measure of defense against terrorists but we can not ever be terrorism-proof."
David McIntyre, Deputy Director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security and former Dean of the National War College, writes in an Institute commentary titled "Can We Breathe Now? Homeland Security for the Long Haul" that in the same way that "crime, or disease or traffic accidents" are part of the daily fabric of American life, so too must awareness that "some degree of terrorist threat... be a permanent part" of the lives of all Americans.
McIntyre claims that threats from "future extremist groups... remain only one lucky shot away from a very public success that they could trumpet worldwide to demonstrate that 'terror is back.' We must continue to root them out, one at a time, all over the world. This is going to take a while.
"Simultaneous with addressing threats from outside the United States, we must also be ready for disaffected domestic terrorists to act out their rage at society from time to time. Where international terrorists have pointed the way, domestic criminals will surely follow. We will have to secure our complex society from disruption by twisted insiders for years to come... We need to stay the course in the broad range of security improvements envisioned and begun by our business and elected leaders nation-wide."
Both McIntyre and Tal are staking their economic futures on the growth potential of the Homeland Security industry, and it is against those interests that their remarks should be weighed. But, whether you agree with their assessments or not, they are among the new gurus of anti-terrorism staking out the terrain for the administration.
Since 9/11, a timid Democratic Party -- combined with a media absorbed by the climate of fear -- has enabled the Bush administration to initiate domestic policy initiatives eviscerating civil liberties and a foreign policy agenda built on unilateral pre-emptive strikes. Enhancing law enforcement's ability to combat terror on the home front and insuring America's "safety" from international "threats" has been wrapped in the garb of fighting the war on terrorism.
Pundits who envision a repeat of 1992 in 2004 -- when George H.W. Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton -- are way off track. You'll remember that in 1991, President Bush's popularity after the Persian Gulf War soared to Himalayan heights. At the time it seemed inconceivable that he would lose the upcoming presidential election. Yet a year later, with the country mired in recession, "It's the economy stupid" resonated with voters and Bush suffered a humiliating defeat.
At the time, the Cold War was over, 9/11 had not yet occurred and there was no talk of a protracted war on terrorism. This time around, however, the Bush Administration intends that the war on terrorism be foremost in the minds of voters when they enter the booth in November 2004.
The ANSER Institute's David McIntyre recommends "we must run preparedness exercises" to help "those who must prevent [terrorist] attacks and respond to them." The media, many of whom remain intoxicated from being embedded with U.S. and British combat troops during the invasion of Iraq, will play a significant role as the "watchdog" over terrorism preparedness, "observing whether state and local officials are exercising frequently and whether the proper federal and private agencies are involved."
Imagine enterprising reporters standing in front of fire houses, power plants, water systems, transportation centers, and warning the public that these places remain unprotected from a terrorist attack. From Boise to Boston, Miami to Medford, the public will be traumatized, resulting in calls for more money and resources to be spent on homeland security.
As the hoopla and administration-and-media-induced intoxication with "Operation Iraqi Freedom" fades (and if there hasn't been an invasion of Iran or Syria) Democrats will attempt to turn the nation's attention to the economy. But if, as many economists suspect, the administration's economic plan fails to stimulate a stalled economy, it still retains its most persuasive hole card, embodied in that old saw about "not switching horses" -- in this case Commanders in Chief -- in the middle of a permanent war on terrorism.
When the Bush team marches into New York City in early September 2004 to hold its convention -- and hangs around to get the most out of the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks -- the stage will be set for a short campaign built around national security issues. If the voting public continues to buy into the permanent war on terrorism, no matter how bad the economy gets George W. Bush will be re-elected.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.