Monday, October 25, 2004

A Tale of Two Elections (Part 1)

You're getting the Oct. 17th column only today because when it was published, I was in Ukraine on a week-long pre-election monitoring mission with 5 other former Members of Congress and one former Member of the European Parliament, observing preparations for their presidential elections on 10/31. People are worried that the ruling party is pressuring the media, using the power of incumbency to sway the electorate, and that election procedures will be confusing and possibly chaotic. They figure Americans have useful experience with that sort of thing.

I'll try to sort out my experience in Ukraine soon enough for this week's column; if you want Newsweek's take (I'm quoted!) it's here. Once my name appeared in Newsweek, I did an interview this morning with the Ukraine service of Radio Liberty, and I'm talking with Voice of America on Wednesday. And the guy from Newsweek didn't even use my best quote (at least in my humble opinion).

If you want a brief update on my adventures on Friday, when I was detained by the Ukrainian special police at the offices of a nonpartisan voter education and participation organization, there's a brief snippet (with more to come, you bet) below.

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 17, 2004

If Democrats enjoyed pictures of Dick Cheney and John Edwards sitting together to prove that Cheney just made it up when claiming he’d never met Edwards before, imagine how much fun we’ll have with George Bush in last Wednesday’s presidential debate:

Bush, October 13, 2004: “Gosh, I just don’t think I ever said I wasn’t worried about Osama bin Laden. It’s kind of one of those . . . exaggerations.”

Bush, March 13, 2002: “So I don’t know where he is. You know, I just don’t spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you. . . . I truly am not that concerned about him.”

If you haven’t seen the video yet, don’t worry -- you will. But you need to see it not just because it’s yet more evidence that Bush just makes stuff up, but because it reflects a fundamental difference between the candidates in fighting terrorism.

As noted by both Chris Suellentrop in Slate and Joshua Micah Marshall in Talking Points Memo, Bush’s 2002 statement reflects his worldview that the major source of support of terrorism is nation-states. Eliminating state support means terrorists will lack the capability to strike again. As Bush said, “I was concerned about [bin Laden], when he had taken over a country.  I was concerned about the fact that he was basically running Afghanistan and calling the shots for the Taliban.”

But once the Taliban was overthrown, according to Bush's view, bin Laden became irrelevant. So even if large parts of Afghanistan (and northwest Pakistan) remain lawless, terrorists without state support lack capacity to do significant harm. In the words of Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, “[t]errorist organizations can’t be effective in sustaining themselves over long periods of time to do large-scale operations if they don’t have support from states.”

Having lost control over the Afghan government, bin Laden therefore became, in the Bush view, of little moment. Capturing him, despite all the previous “dead or alive” bluster, no longer mattered. Instead, the administration immediately turned to other states that they thought might in some way perhaps offer support to terrorists -- like Iraq.

Kerry views the problem far differently. Given technological advances and transnational financial support (think Saudi oil money), terrorists don’t need a nation for large-scale operations -- like 9/11. Instead, because nations are fixed locations and even the most irrational dictators are interested in self-preservation, state actors can be deterred by the threat of overwhelming American military force. Instead, it’s the shadowy transnational terrorist networks that don’t need a fixed location, and that can communicate across continents and operate in areas without effective state control, that present the greater threat.

In the Democratic view, failed states -- lacking any effective government, where terrorists can flourish amid the chaos -- represent a greater threat than Bush’s so-called nation-state Axis of Evil. In lawless areas, money-laundering, drug production, and arms trading can give terrorists the tools they need for large-scale operations without state support. As Fareed Zakaria noted, Democratic foreign policy experts supported the war in Afghanistan not because they shared the Republican view that that Taliban was a state sponsoring and directing a terrorist network, but because the Taliban instead was a terrorist organization that controlled and guided a state.

To Democrats, overthrowing the Taliban was only part of the job; the second part is making sure that a real government has control of the entire country, to deny the terrorists yet another lawless area for resources and operations. To Republicans, it instead meant we should take out another government, hence the Iraq war.

Empirically, the Democrats have the better argument. Despite losing state support, the number of terrorist incidents worldwide has increased. Eliminating the odious Iraqi government hasn’t eliminated terror; it’s increased it.

Bush’s original statement that he was “not that concerned” about Osama bin Laden is a gaffe according to the Michael Kinsley definition: when a politician inadvertently speaks the truth. Forgetting that he said it in 2004; well, that was a gaffe according to the traditional definition of putting one’s foot into one’s mouth. The gaffe may be enjoyable -- but the world-view behind it is fundamentally flawed.

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