The Al Qaeda Candidate?

"Joe Lieberman's defeat is evidence of a startling political shift," the Economist wrote in an August 10, 2006 article titled "America's anti-war center begins to hold." Businessman Ned Lamont defeated Lieberman in the Connecticut senatorial primary on August 8 by a 52% to 48% margin. According to state statistics 14,000 voters changed their registration from unaffiliated to Democrat to vote in the primary, while another 14,000 new voters registered as Democrats. Voter turnout, normally around 25% for primary elections in Connecticut, exceeded 40%. Calling Lamont's victory "astonishing and revealing," the Economist noted that Lieberman lost because of his "enthusiasm" for the Iraq war, and for his view that criticism of the commander-in-chief in time of war is dangerous.

Those views are increasingly out of synch with public sentiment, as demonstrated by a Gallup poll conducted in late July that showed 28% of Republicans and 56% of Independents joining 77% of Democrats in the belief that the US should withdraw troops from Iraq either immediately or within the next year. An Associated Press/IPSOS poll conducted August 7-9 found Bush's approval rating at 33%, matching a record low. Approval for Bush's handling of the war in Iraq matched his overall approval rating, and also represented a record low. An ABC/Washington Post poll conducted August 3-6 found that respondents trusted Democrats to handle "the US campaign against terrorism" 46% to 38%.

On Wednesday, August 9, Dick Cheney suggested that Lamont's victory could encourage "al Qaeda types" who want to "break the will of the American people in terms of our ability to stay in the fight and complete the task." The Democratic Party, Cheney said, preferred that the US "retreat behind our oceans and not be actively engaged in this conflict and be safe here at home." Lieberman, said Cheney, was "pushed aside ... because of his willingness to support an aggressive posture" on terror. Headline News anchor Chuck Roberts took it one step further, asking senior editor John Mercurio, "... [M]ight some argue, as some have, that Lamont is the al Qaeda candidate?"

Several days earlier, on Friday, August 4, and again on Saturday and Sunday the White House had been briefed in detail about the British plot to blow up aircraft headed to the US. But reports that British intelligence services had foiled the plot were only made public on Thursday, August 10. NBC News subsequently reported that British intelligence wanted to continue surveillance of the plotters for another week, to gather more evidence, but US officials pressured them to make arrests and a public announcement sooner. A British official told NBC News that, contrary to earlier reports, an attack was not imminent, the suspects had not purchased airline tickets, and some did not have passports.

Within hours of the public announcement that the plot had been disrupted, the Republican National Committee (RNC) emailed a fundraising appeal citing the so-called "war on terror." Responding to criticism from Democrats that Republicans were politicizing terrorism, the RNC claimed that the email had been scheduled for release before news of the plot broke.

On a day trip to Wisconsin, without a press entourage, Bush spoke briefly at the airport in Green Bay. The arrests in Britain "are a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation, Bush said. "We've taken a lot of measures to protect the American people. But obviously, we're still not completely safe.... It is a mistake to believe there is no threat to the United States of America."

The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg suggested in an analysis published August 13 that the news of the foiled terrorist plot in Britain following the Lieberman defeat gave the Republican party "opportunity to pull together ... rallying once more around Mr. Bush's signature issue, the fight against terrorism." But, while events may have allowed the Republican party to gloss over its differences concerning immigration policy, and concern about the "political effect of violence in Iraq," the domestic political context now is very different from that of the 2004 election. As the Associated Press's Terence Hunt characterized it, Bush won in 2004 "with a tough-on-terrorism argument and the promise that the United States was better off confronting terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq than battling them at home."

Senator John Kerry's comment highlighted the contrast between the 2004 campaign rhetoric and reality. "This is a stark reminder that the war on terrorism is global, and extends far beyond Iraq to our very shores. Terrorism is the biggest threat to Americans' security, and this event exposes the misleading myth that we are fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here."

Republican Thomas Kean joined Democrats in questioning the administration's priorities. Referring to the 9/11 Commission recommendations, Kean told the Associated Press. "At top levels, it wasn't taken seriously enough. It wasn't on top of the priority list. ... And that's what I see happening again.... It shouldn't be a political issue. It should be something that everybody supports." "We're not protecting our own people in this country. The government is not doing its job," Kean said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid also spoke about priorities. "As a result of mismanagement and the wrong funding priorities, we are not as safe as we should be," he said. "The Iraq war has diverted our focus and more than $300 billion in resources from the war on terrorism and has created a rallying cry for international terrorists. This latest plot demonstrates the need for the Bush administration and the Congress to change course in Iraq and ensure that we are taking all the steps necessary to protect Americans at home and across the world."

Senator Edward Kennedy suggested that administration policies have made it more difficult to combat terrorism. "This new threat is enormously serious and is an ominous reminder that we must be more vigilant than ever. Five years after 9/11, it is clear that our misguided policies are making America more hated in the world and making the war on terrorism harder to win."

Experts Agree

In its July/August issue Foreign Policy magazine published a survey of 100 foreign-policy experts. Participants included former secretaries of state, national security advisors, military commanders, intelligence professionals, academics and journalists. 80% of those surveyed had worked in the US government. The group included Democrats and Republicans.

The survey found:

  • 84% believed the US is not winning the so-called "war on terror"
  • 86% believed that the world is growing more dangerous for Americans
  • 81% believed that the detention of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, negatively affects the so-called "war on terror"
  • 80% believed that a widespread rejection of radical ideologies in the Muslim world is a critical factor for victory in the global effort to combat terrorism
  • A majority of participants agreed that combating terrorism requires more emphasis on the war of ideas, and not just guns
  • Two-thirds said the US must strengthen ties to the United Nations and other multilateral institutions

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a survey participant noted, "Foreign-policy experts have never been in so much agreement about an administration’s performance abroad. The reason is that it’s clear to nearly all that Bush and his team have had a totally unrealistic view of what they can accomplish with military force and threats of force."

Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, suggested that "We are losing the war on terror because we are treating the symptoms and not the cause.... [O]ur insistence that Islamic fundamentalist ideology has replaced communist ideology as the chief enemy of our time ... feeds al Qaeda's vision of the world."

Declare Victory ... and Get to Work

An interesting counterpoint to the Foreign Policy survey can be found in James Fallows' "Declaring Victory" in the September issue of The Atlantic. Like Foreign Policy, Fallows interviewed a significant number of experts (60) on national security, terrorism, and foreign relations. His interviewees came from military or intelligence organizations, academia, and a few businesspeople. Half were Americans, and the rest Europeans, Middle Easterners, Australians, etc.

The key observation in Fallows essay may be one that is voiced by David Kilcullen, an Australian army officer who commanded counterinsurgency units in East Timor, and is now a counterterrorism advisor in the US State Department. "It is not the people al-Qaeda might kill that is the threat," Kilcullen argued. "Our reaction is what can cause the damage. It's al-Qaeda plus our response that creates the existential danger." Kilcullen drew an analogy to European anarchists in the 19th and early 20th century. While they personally killed maybe 2,000 people, one of them assassinated Archduke Ferdinand and his wife. The response of European governments precipitated World War I. "So because of the reaction they provoked, they were able to kill millions of people and destroy a civilization."

"The al-Qaeda that existed in 2001 simply no longer exists," Kilcullen asserted. "In 2001 it was a relatively centralized organization with a planning hub, a propaganda hub, a leadership team, all within a narrow geographic area. All that is gone, because we destroyed it." Bin Laden's leadership team must now rely on couriers to move cash, where once they could use bank networks. Instead of using satellite phones and the Internet for communication, bin Laden must now use techniques that leave no electronic trail, such as sending out videotapes.

Bard College's Caleb Carr noted that bin Laden's influence has become abstract. "They already were a global philosophy," he told Fallows, "but they used to have a command structure too. It's like the difference between Marxism and Leninism, and they're back to being Marx."

Writer and former Senate staffer Jim Guirard agreed with Princeton's Anne-Marie Slaughter that the US response to al-Qaeda has helped confirm bin Laden's worldview. For instance, the Arabic terms most often used in English to characterize Islamic extremists, suggested Guirard, are exactly the terms al-Qaeda would like to see used. The term jihadist, for example, implies a righteous struggle. The term mujahideen means "holy warriors."

Mahdi is the Muslim equivalent of the Messiah, so whenever US officials refer to the Muqtada al-Sadr's paramilitary force as the Mahdi army, "they confer legitimacy on their opponent in all Muslim's eyes."

The State Department's Kilcullen, wrote last year in the Journal of Strategic Studies that "Islamic extremists around the world yearn to constitute themselves as a global jihad." Rather than, as Bush did once again with his remarks in Green Bay this week, lump together "all terrorism, all rogue or failed states, and all strategic competitors who might potentially oppose US objectives," Western countries should, as much as possible, treat terrorist groups individually.

Documents captured after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 showed that bin Laden "hoped to provoke the United States into an invasion and occupation that would entail all the complications that have arisen in Iraq. His only error was to think that the place where Americans would get stuck was Afghanistan."

Bin Laden also wanted to "drain the United States financially." He thought this would happen by attacks on the US oil supply. What he didn't anticipate, apparently, was what Fallows called "the systematic drag on public and private resources created by the undifferentiated need to be 'secure'." Nonetheless, bin Laden recognized this effect after the fact, noting in a statement just before the 2004 election that the 9/11 attacks had cost $500,000, but that (according to the Royal Institute of International Affairs) the cost to the US was at least $500 billion, or a million to one payoff ratio.

Nearly all of Fallows' experts, however, characterized the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) efforts as "haphazard, wasteful, and sometimes self defeating." Tougher visa rules have made it harder to get into the country -- possibly for potential terrorists, but also for scientists, engineers, and others who have come to the US and created significant innovations. (Fallows cites Intel cofounder Andrew Groves, born in Hungary, and Google cofounder Sergey Brin, born in Russia.) "The student visa crackdown was to deal with [alleged World Trade Center suicide pilot Mohammed] Atta," former DHS official Seth Studder said. "It's affecting the commanding heights of our tech economy."

DHS spends approximately $5 billion of its $42 billion budget on airport screening. "... [s]ecurity theater," political scientist John Mueller called it, "to make people feel safe about flying."

Finally, US estrangement from its allies has been a "destructive response helping al-Qaeda," Fallows wrote. Sir Richard Dearlove, former director of Britain's foreign intelligence service, MI-6, asserted that "America's cause is doomed unless it regains the moral high ground." Dearlove:

The United States is so powerful militarily that by its very nature it represents a threat to every other nation on earth. The only country that could theoretically destroy every single other country is the United States. The only way we can say that the US is not a threat is by looking at intent, and that depends on moral authority.

Caleb Carr added, "We have been so busy reacting that we have not yet said, 'We've made some mistakes, we've done serious damage to ourselves, so let's think about our position and strategies.'"

"A state of war encourages a state of fear," Fallows wrote. Conducting the antiterror effort as a war, rather than reducing public anxieties, fuels them.

Fallows' novel suggestion is to "declare victory by saying that what is controllable has been controlled." "Then," he wrote, "the country can move on to its real work."

That work, Fallows suggested, should proceed on three fronts:

  • Domestic protection
  • Worldwide pursuit and confrontation of al-Qaeda
  • An "all fronts" diplomatic campaign

Domestically, Fallows' experts urged a shift away from the "panicky" color-coded terror alert approach. Four of Fallows' interviewees have written that DHS's misguided spending on "security" would be better targeted to improving emergency-response systems. "No matter how much they spend, state and federal authorities cannot possibly protect every place from every threat. But they could come close to ensuring that if things were to go wrong, relief and repair would be there fast."

Internationally, the cooperation that is essential to keeping al-Qaeda off balance, and preventing it from reconstituting the organization "will be easier in the absence of wartime language and friction," as will efforts to limit proliferation of nuclear material. Under Donald Rumsfeld the US military has been pressured to deploy technology as a way to reduce manpower needs, but Pentagon current and proposed spending has been directed at Soviet-era weapons and programs. Counterterrorism efforts should emphasize language training and regional expertise in the predominantly Muslim areas of the world, Fallows suggested.

In the diplomatic arena, Fallows advocated following the advice of Dwight Eisenhower, who said in his 1958 State of the Union Address. "The only answer to a regime that wages total cold war is to wage total peace. This means bringing to bear every asset of our personal and national lives upon the task of building the conditions in which security and peace can grow."

Progressives Rising

Some analysts have suggested that the Lamont victory represents an important unification of left and right flanks of the Democratic party. In this view, as long as progressives, exemplified by Ralph Nader's candidacy in the last two elections, were considered outsiders in the Democratic party, Republicans could promote disunity by drawing moderate Democrats into compromises that were unacceptable to progressives, hence weakening the party.

Beginning with the aftermath of Katrina, Democrats, and particularly progressives, began to gain confidence in criticizing the administration. The combination of hurricane Katrina, the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the decline in Bush's approval ratings, and Howard Dean's leadership of the Democratic Party strengthened the progressives' position within the party. This trend is evidenced by the following:

  • A year ago, an immediate pullout from Iraq was considered an untenable position by most Democrats. Now, as the Bush administration makes contingency plans to pull troops out if the civil war escalates, many Democrats advocate some kind of near term troop reduction or redeployment.
  • A year ago nominally "bipartisan" deals, like the minimum wage increase in exchange for eliminating the estate tax, might have been successful. Now, vocal opposition to Republican policies is seen as a virtue.
  • Congressional Democrats are forcing hearings on oil price gouging.
  • Progressives are raising the bulk of the party's funds, especially from major donors.

The emerging progressive message, which is appearing in campaigns, is that the Bush administration does not reflect America's values. The message is tuned based on the audience: with more liberal audiences it is expressed as "taking back" the country from the right wing; with more moderate audiences it is expressed as the country having been led in the wrong direction from which it must change course.

The moderate approach, on the other hand, is to label the Bush administration as incompetent. This may be an attempt to include those who supported the Iraq war, or who believe that the solution to higher gas prices is more drilling for oil. But the advantage of the progressive message is that it links the political agenda to values. Progressives may be willing to tolerate the moderate approach through the upcoming congressional elections, but the Lamont victory suggests that a significant portion of the party does not regard moderation as a virtue.

Stratfor's Bart Mongoven has suggested that it may be too early to tell whether the Democratic party is being "fundamentally remade." In his view, there is a danger that the party will be pulled too far to the left to be able to win national elections. But it may be possible to maintain the party's base and still present candidates who can win nationally. Progressives may need to "move away from the simple argument that Bush and the GOP do not reflect American values,&quot and instead "suggest (in strikingly positive terms) that their values are better."

Whatever the middle- or long-term effect on the Democratic and Republican parties, over the past week administration attempts to spin reports of terrorist plotting to their political advantage have been, ju-jitsu-like, turned back on them. Commentator and talk-radio host Rachel Maddow voiced one progressive view:

I want to talk about the terror attacks that were unveiled yesterday, that we learned about with those arrests in Britain, in practical terms. There's a couple different ways to talk about something scary in the world. You can talk about ... how afraid you feel, and how angry you are at the people that have made you feel afraid. You can also talk about how to protect yourself - about actual safety. What exactly has the Bush administration done since 9/11 to keep Americans safe in a world that hates us more than ever?

Have they done anything to keep the liquid explosives off planes that they knew al Qaeda was plotting to use against us for the last - I don't know - 12 years? Not before yesterday they didn't. How 'bout taking steps to regulate the chemicals that can make liquid explosives? Don't necessarily need to regulate acetone, which is one of the two ingredients they expected to be used in these liquid explosives yesterday. But the other ingredient - concentrated hydrogen peroxide - you can only get that from chemical supply warehouses. Why not regulate that, or at least make people show some ID when they buy it? Did that ever occur to anybody since they've known about that threat for 12 years?

How 'bout regulating safety at chemical plants that could be the target of attacks? How 'bout securing container ships? How 'bout screening cargo? How 'bout just using radiation detectors on all the cargo that comes in? They do that at some other ports in the world. We don't do that in the United States.

How 'bout screening cargo on commercial airplanes at all? How 'bout actively patrolling the ports, like they do in a lot of countries, but we don't do here? How 'bout locking up loose nuclear material around the world, which we've done less of since 9/11 than we did before 9/11?

How 'bout catching Osama bin Laden, or Mullah Mohammed Omar, or Ayman Zawahiri and puttin' them to work on some popsicle stick art in a prison cell somewhere? How 'bout we work on that? How 'bout we do that instead of disbanding the CIA's bin Laden office? How 'bout we do that instead of diverting the troops from Afghanistan - who were looking for those guys - and sending them to go fight a get-rich-quick scheme in Iraq, instead?

How 'bout doing anything in the world to harden ourselves as a target against terrorists? How 'bout building UP our military readiness, instead of destroying it? How 'bout making our National Guard troops that attend to the states from which they are brought up - how 'bout letting our National Guard troops actually work on readiness, homeland security, and infrastructure issues in their states, instead of sending them all to Iraq.

How 'bout doing something other than Karen Hughes Muslim-land speaking tour to try to do something about the fact that a worldwide army of young Muslim men is radicalized against us, and willing to die trying to hurt us? Now more than ever. How 'bout: recognizing that nothing that has been done since 9/11 in this country has made us more safe as Americans, and everything that has been done in foreign policy by this Bush administration since 9/11 has made the world a more dangerous place for the citizens of this country; that significant terror attacks around the globe have dramatically risen since 9/11; that the name Osama is increasingly popular for Muslim newborn boys around the world; that bin Ladenism and the threat that it poses has been made worse while we've decided to substitute sending F16s over unrelated countries - decided to substitute that for any substantive effort to make Americans actually be any safer? How 'bout the American people no longer being willing to settle for fear?

This threat is not going away. No matter what George Bush says about people who disagree with him, about keeping Americans safe, nobody in this country thinks we are not at threat. This threat is not going away, and impotent fear and this get-rich-quick scheme-gone-bad that is the war in Iraq are not going to make us safe. It's time to kick this government out of office, and actually start working toward reducing the threat to Americans posed by militant Islamic terrorism - toward actually making ourselves more safe. Who will make that possible? If the Democratic party can't step up and do it, the people are going to have to do something, because this government that we've got right now cannot do it. They've shown us that for 5 years.


"America's anti-war centre begins to hold" Economist. 10 Aug. 2006

"Bush Approval Rating Sinks to 33%, Matching Low, AP Poll Shows" Bloomberg. 11 Aug. 2006

Sidoti, Liz "Cheney Accused of Politicizing Terrorism" Associated Press. 11 Aug. 2006

Carlson, Margaret "U.K. Terror Bust Already Spins U.S. Politics: " Bloomberg. 11 Aug. 2006

"Washington Post-ABC News Poll" Washington Post 7 Aug. 2006

Hunt, Terence "Analysis: Plot Feeds Political Frenzy" Associated Press. 10 Aug. 2006

"Quotes From Officials on Terror Plot" Associated Press. 10 Aug. 2005

"The Terrorism Index" Foreign Policy. Jul./Aug. 2006

Knox, Olivier "Bush seeks political gains from foiled plot" Agence France Presse. 10 Aug. 2006

"President Bush Discusses Terror Plot Upon Arrival in Wisconsin" Office of the Press Secretary, White House. 10 Aug. 2006

Meet the Press Mod. David Gregory. NBC News. 13 Aug. 2006

Rostom, Aram et al. "Source: U.S., U.K. at odds over timing of arrests" NBC News. 14 Aug. 2006

Sidoti, Liz "GOP, Democrats Clash Over War on Terror" Associated Press. 10 Aug. 2006

Fallows, James "Declaring Victory" The Atlantic Sep. 2006

Wolfe, Richard and John Barry "Iraq—Plans in Case of a Civil War" Newsweek 14 Aug. 2006

The Rachel Maddow Show. Host, Rachel Maddow. Air America Radio. 11 Aug. 2006

Mongoven, Bart "Reading Lamont: The Meaning of a Primary" Stratfor. 10 Aug. 2006

"Headline News Anchor: 'Might Some Argue That Lamont…Is The al Qaeda Candidate?'" ThinkProgress 11 Aug. 2006

"Lieberman Loses Connecticut Senate Primary" 9 Aug. 2006

See also:

"Republicans Losing The 'Security Moms'" (Washington Post, August 18, 2006).

Former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan on "The UK Terror plot: what's really going on?" (August 17, 2006).

In "FBI Role in Terror Plot Questioned" the Washington Post reveals that the alleged plot to blow up Chicago's Sears Tower was "virtually the pipe dream of a few men with almost no ability to pull it off on their own."