Dean's bubble didn't burst in Iowa with his manic rebel yell of defeat, nor
was it punctured by Al Gore's kiss of death: the bubble vanished on December
13, 2003, the day Saddam Hussein was captured by US forces.
With the nabbing of Saddam, President Bush was able to suck the soul out of a campaign that drew its core vital energy from the intense anger a large segment of the electorate felt towards Mr. Bush and his administration for misleading the nation into war. Mr. Dean was right to remark the day after Saddam's capture that the world was not any safer from international terrorism with Saddam out of circulation, and his instinct was correct when he took the offensive rather than grant Bush points. But the damage inflicted on Dean and his drive could not be undone with fact and common sense: the effect of Saddam's capture on public opinion was massively visceral, beyond argument. President Bush looked presidential: he had stuck the course in the midst of a constant stream of attacks (against him and the soldiers on the ground), and he had delivered. Howard Dean looked like an angry, impatient man with lots of steam to let out and not much more. And since he was the front-runner, and visible, he had the unfortunate privilege of being the one placed side-to-side with President Bush -- and the contrast fatally did him in.
There is a cautionary tale and an important lesson here not only for the current Democratic front-runner, but also for the opposition in general. John Kerry -- if his bandwagon continues to fill merrily -- and those who are managing his campaign need to psychologically prepare the electorate for the possible capture of Osama bin Laden. Democrats simply cannot afford a replay of their Dear-in-the-headlights Saddam capture performance.
The first thing Democrats must do is to stop asking, 'Where is Osama bin Laden?' and to start asking, 'Why is it taking the administration so long to capture Osama bin Laden?' The difference is subtle but important: the capture of bin Laden can easily render the first question moot, but not the second question.
By constantly harping the DELAY in the capture of bin Laden and making that the focus of criticism rather than merely pointing to the failure to capture him so far, Democrats can not only protect themselves politically if and when bin Laden is captured, but can steadily push the much stronger and less vulnerable argument that had bin Laden been nabbed earlier, his terrorist network would have been decapitated when it had the one head to decapitate. Now, more than two years after September 11, with bin Laden and his closest associates in deep hiding but still on the loose, the al-Qaeda network has morphed into an even more lethal multi-headed hydra and has adopted a far more decentralized modus of operation, and worse, has had time to acquire skills for survival that make it much harder to disrupt, let alone destroy.
Democrats need to stir the counterfactual imagination of the electorate by asking them to imagine where we would be today had the 200,000 soldiers that have seen action in Iraq been deployed in Afghanistan. Where would we be today if the billions of dollars poured into the invasion and occupation of Iraq had been spent on stabilizing Afghanistan, a place where the Taliban are, incredibly, not only on the move, but on the ascent? Where would we be today had the administration had cultivated the good will and the spirit of cooperation extended to the United States by the rest of the world after September 11, and had used that capital to wage with the world community a relentless campaign against international terrorism?
News of a new major Spring offensive by the administration to capture Osama bin Laden offer the Democrats a perfect opportunity to begin hammering and aggressively asking the question of 'delay'. Why has the administration waited so long, and, pointedly, why has the administration all of a sudden recovered its interest to capture Osama bin Laden?
Democrats should start anticipating bin Laden's capture as if it were around the corner rather than lambaste and ridicule the President for his failure to capture the fugitive terrorist. By framing the bin Laden question in terms of 'why so long?' rather than 'why not?' and by constantly asking that question loudly and unapologetically, Democrats can not only blunt what could otherwise be a fatally sharp political sword, but will be able to control the parameters of the important debate about the future of US foreign policy while at the same time highlighting the cynical and manipulative nature of the administration they are working so hard to dislodge.
Ahmed Bouzid lives in Pennsylvania and is author of Framing The Struggle: Essays on the Middle East and the US Media (Dimensions, 2003). He is president of Palestine Media Watch (www.pmwatch.com).