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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution August 27, 2004

Would bin Laden prefer Bush or Kerry?

By Dan Chapman

At a John Kerry campaign stop in Ohio last month, children in Bush-Cheney T-shirts greeted the Democrat by passing outfliers that read: "If you were Osama, who would you want to win the election?"

A week earlier in Kentucky, bumper stickers appeared in Louisville saying, "Kerry is bin Laden's Man/Bush is Mine."

Jack Richardson IV, chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, was smitten with the sticker's anti-Kerry sentiment.

"Is there anybody that can honestly say bin Laden wouldn't prefer Kerry over Bush?" Richardson asked, adding that Kerry's U.S. Senate voting record wasn't sufficiently tough on terror. "If I was in bin Laden's shoes, I sure as heck would want Kerry."

Bin Laden hasn't commented publicly about the presidential election. But that hasn't kept partisans in the United States from divining the political desires of the terrorist mastermind.

While some Republicans claim that Osama wants Kerry, a recent Doonesbury comic suggests that bin Laden wants Bush. The strip blames the Iraq war for creating "an incubator for a whole new generation of holy warriors" and for "so carelessly squandering America's moral authority."

"May he be re-elected! God willing!" the final captions read. "I'm Osama bin Laden, and I approve this message."

Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan, sides with Doonesbury.

"My guess is that al-Qaida wants Bush," he said, adding that Bush has become the poster boy for jihadi recruiters seeking men, money and munitions to fight the invading American infidels. Cole cites Bush's unequivocal support for Israel and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as fuel for bin Laden's anti-American fervor.

"Their message is that Americans are coming to invade your country, rape your women and humiliate your men. They wanted the U.S. to attack Afghanistan [and] Iraq," Cole said. "Al-Qaida wants a series of escalating fights so that, ultimately, they'll have a really big battle. They think Bush is a sucker for this."

The war on terror, and how the next administration pursues it, is the dominant theme of this too-close-to-call presidential election. Not since 1968, when Richard Nixon battled Hubert H. Humphrey as the war in Vietnam raged, has America's role in the world been so hotly contested.

With the country so bitterly divided, Bush and Kerry try to one-up each other on who will make America safer.

Bush projects the image of battle-tested commander-in-chief promising to protect Americans in a dangerous world. Kerry, who never fails to invoke his Vietnam experience, counters that Bush's foreign policy has spawned hatred of the United States and exposed Americans to even greater danger from terrorists.

Attacks elsewhere

Al-Qaida hasn't struck the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. But the terrorist group has since undertaken numerous attacks outside the United States including the synchronized bombings of commuter trains in Madrid last March that killed 191.

"It continues to be something of a curiosity that there has not been another attack. We don't know why. Surely part of it must be the success of various efforts to suppress al-Qaida over the last three years," said John Pike, a defense analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington think tank that studies security threats."We're probably safer, but not nearly as safe as we could be."

Although Americans tend to favor Bush over Kerry to fight the war on terror, Bush's poll numbers have been slipping.In January, 68 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of the campaign against terrorism, according to a CBS News Poll. In mid-August, 53 percent did. And a Gallup Poll shows that Americans are evenly split on whether the Iraq War — the centerpiece of the Bush war on terror — was worth fighting: 49 percent say it was; 48 percent say it wasn't; the margin of error is plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Polls aren't the administration's only problem.

"The Bush people are frightened by the possibility of the Madrid syndrome getting hold of them," Pike said. "A well-timed terrorist attack flipped the election and drove the incumbent out of office."

Election aftershocks

Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar sided with Bush and sent troops to Iraq last year, upsetting most Spaniards. Aznar, in the hours after the March 11 bombings, tried to blame Basque separatists for the attacks, when the evidence clearly pointed to al-Qaida's involvement.

Aznar was ousted in the elections a few days later, and the new government pulled its troops from Iraq. What happened in Spain has analysts wondering: If bin Laden strikes the United States, say, in late October, would Bush lose the election?

"It's possible the American public would interpret the attack as a failure of the Bush administration," professor Cole said. "Already, the rhetoric on the Democratic side [says] that the president had three years to deal with this threat and he failed. The fact that he let bin Laden escape capture will rise in the public consciousness."

Patrick Basham, a senior fellow at The Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank in Washington, notes that foreign policy troubles during election years have often redounded in favor of the incumbent. Voters tend to trust a candidate more who has withstood calamity and kept the nation intact.

"Historically, traditionally, a serious national security crisis, as any successful attack would be viewed, has helped the incumbent," Basham said. "I still think, to go out on a limb, that the most likely type of attack would be a suicide bombing or a car bombing. And we would continue to see a rallying around the flag."

John Zogby, a pollster, says that politically, "an attack won't matter much."

"The country is split on George W. Bush and hyper-emotional on both sides. There's not much pliability or elasticity here," said Zogby, whose polling clients include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"In case of a major event, you'll still have a bedrock solid group of voters who just hate George W. Bush's guts. There'll be no big [poll] bounce from anything."

But if there's one thing incumbent presidents hate, according to Cole, it's "looking like they're not in control."

Republican Pollster Ed Goeas agrees.

"If I perceive a total breakdown in intelligence, as opposed to terrorists just being right 1 percent of the time and getting through, I would assume that there would be a negative [political] reaction," he said.

A terrorist attack could trip up the challenger, too.

"John Kerry's reaction to any terrorist attack is arguably more important and, unfortunately for John Kerry, harder because he will have to appear patriotic and supportive of Bush," said Basham. "Yet he must appear to differentiate himself in some way that gives him some advantage to voters who are questioning Bush.

"It's a real tightrope," he continued. "Kerry cannot in any way be seen as celebrating this failure of the Bush administration."

No clear choice

The CIA analyst who wrote "Imperial Hubris, Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror" says Bush gave bin Laden "a Christmas present" by invading Iraq.

"The gift he received from Washington will haunt, hurt and hound Americans for years to come," wrote the author, who is anonymous. "We are, overall, in a hell of a fix."

But that doesn't mean bin Laden necessarily wants Kerry to be the next president.

"If you take Kerry at his word, it would appear that he would do less to irritate, rightly or wrongly, the fundamentalist Arab world," Basham said. But "there is every reason to believe that a Kerry administration, at this point in the nation's political evolution and context, would pursue an equally aggressive policy against al-Qaida."

Pollster Goeas said bin Laden doesn't care who prevails on Nov. 2.

"He's not trying to help one side win or the other," Goeas said. "He just wants to kill Americans."


Copyright 2004, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution