Michael Bloomberg was losing to Freddy Ferrer in the December 2004 Marist Poll by a margin of 51 percent to 39 percent. Only 39 percent approve of the job George W. Bush is doing, according to a recent ABC/ Washington Post poll. The president is down but not out. The public’s disenchantment with the war in Iraq may be only skin-deep.
The president is on the move. He started his campaign to win voters back by challenging the Democrats on security. In a Veteran’s Day speech at Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania, Bush gave a coherent defense of the war. His plan is full of holes, but what matters is the question of whether the Democrats present a better one.
The Congressional election in 2006 is at stake. Will Americans believe the Republicans can do a better job of supporting our troops and defending the country against another terrorist strike, and vote to return the Republican majority?
Bush told a hand-picked and enthusiastic audience that terrorist “attacks serve a clear and focused ideology, a set of beliefs and goals that are evil, but not insane.” They “exploit Islam” using “terrorism, subversion, and insurgency” to establish “a totalitarian empire that denies all political and religious freedom.” The radicals thrive “like a parasite on the suffering and frustration of others.” They “build a culture of victimization in which someone else is always to blame and violence is always the solution.”
Bush’s argument against the terrorist ideology resembles the Republican indictment of liberal elitism. In the GOP’s mythology, liberals harm the poor and disenfranchised by telling them they are victims instead of making them take responsibility for their lives. This subtle dig will be transformed by GOP hacks into the accusation that Democratic Party elites are guilty of near treasonous behavior.
Bush added that the critics of the war mistakenly claim “that our presence in Iraq has somehow caused or triggered the rage of radicals. I would remind them that we were not in Iraq on September the 11, 2001. The hatred of the radicals existed before Iraq was an issue. And it will exist after Iraq is no longer an excuse.”
Of course, the doves know that angry radicals existed before the Iraq invasion, but they have also shown that the war increased the funds and volunteers supporting the Islamic radicals, making them stronger. The president’s distortion on this point requires a nuanced reply and undoubtedly the presidential bully pulpit will be a more effective venue for making the point than the diffuse redoubts of the peace movement.
Bush honed in on his major point—that liberals underestimate the threat facing America: “We are not facing a set of grievances that can be soothed and addressed. We’re facing a radical ideology with unalterable objectives to enslave whole nations and intimidate the world.”
This is the crux of the Republican political argument—an attack on softness. Libs, as the Republicans label Democrats, think they can reason with evil, when in fact it must be crushed. But the president has distorted the experts’ views. Foreign policy specialists from both parties advised the president to isolate the radicals and undermine the radical’s charges. The United States should demonstrate that it is not leading a crusade to take over the Middle East and kill Arabs by the tens of thousands. Unhappily, the invasion of Iraq fulfilled the nightmarish predictions of the Arabs radicals and led many Muslims to accept the radical assessment.
Democratic security alternatives must be based around the goal of isolating the Arab radicals and strengthening the moderates. If the objective is driving a wedge between moderates and radicals, then torture is stupid, in addition to being immoral and illegal. The Democrats should show that idealism can undergird a sound foreign policy. Liberals must hammer at the president’s extremism, pointing to Bush’s martial rhetoric in Tobyhanna: “There is only one effective response: We will never back down, we will never give in, we will never accept anything less than complete victory.”
We are fighting guerillas and terrorists cells. The struggle will continue indefinitely. More emphasis on nurturing alliances and wearing down the sources of new terrorist support is needed, not an updated version of the president’s “Mission Accomplished” dance. Bush supports a rigid, bellicose policy that locks us into a war costing billions while failing to address the true threats. The president not only lies—he doesn’t know what he is doing.
The Democrats must challenge Bush or be crushed by him. He will attack without mercy and without regard for the evidence. Making the mistake of confusing a guerrilla insurgency with a war between nations, he told the veterans, “This fight resembles the struggle against communism in the last century.”
Bush is pointing the way for other Republicans to attack Democrats and war critics more directly for sympathizing with terrorists: “Like the ideology of communism, Islamic radicalism is elitist, led by a self-appointed vanguard that presumes to speak for the Muslim masses. Bin Laden says his own role is to tell Muslims, ‘what is good for them and what is not.’”
The similarities between the arguments used against Democratic elites and those used against terrorism foreshadow the harsh accusations of appeasement and treason that Republicans will use to regain popularity. This time, the Democrats must give as good as they get.