Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

By Leonard Fein

Published September 17, 2004, issue of September 17, 2004.
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In a debate the other night at the annual meeting of Cleveland’s Jewish Community Relations Council, Jeff Jacoby, The Boston Globe’s well-spoken conservative columnist, remarked that “Since 9/11, there’s been no 9/11.” That, he argued, is evidence that President Bush is doing a good job in defending the nation against terrorism and deserves our support on November 2.

I enjoy debate — except when I am one of the debaters. Invariably the clever riposte occurs to me an hour or even a day too late — or, if I think of it then and there, a half-dozen other things my opponent says before it’s my turn again displace it in my memory bank and it is retrieved just about the time the post-debate reception thins out. That’s what happened with Jacoby’s 9/11 comment. I just didn’t respond to it at all, other matters having intervened. In the end, a debate is not a conversation.

So I never got to say:“But if the president is taking credit for there not having been a 9/11 since 9/11, what are we supposed to make of the near-daily warnings by members of his administration? Again and again they tell us that the question about a future major terrorist attack in the United States is not ‘if’ but ‘when.’ Credit for keeping us safe and credit for warning us of the imminent danger at the same time?”

But before you disparage that sly twinning, consider the utter brilliance of it: If the forewarning is followed by an actual attack, how prescient, how wise, how responsible the administration has been; if the forewarning is followed by nothing, how effective the administration has been in warding off the would-be attackers.

In short, not only can you have it both ways — but you’d also be crazy not to. Heads I win, tails you lose.

Except that this is not a game. The terrorists are real, their malevolence is manifest. It is a constant temptation for those of us who believe that the war on terrorism and the war on Iraq are two quite different wars to make light of the one because we are critical of the other. A temptation, and an error most serious. If we fault Bush for declaring a war on terror and then leading us into a war that is fundamentally an evasion of the war on terror, that cannot come to mean that we regard the war on terror as unwarranted.

There are any number of Bush problems, but the pre-eminent Bush problem is the displacement of the wholly legitimate, even urgent, war on terror by the gratuitous war on Iraq. And that problem has, of course, become much more than a Bush problem; it is now an American problem, even an American crisis.

Perhaps, if we’d been sitting around with nothing to do, we might have thought it a noble endeavor to oust Saddam Hussein, to free the Iraqi people of their tyrant. But we did (and do) have something to do — namely, to do battle with a growing worldwide terrorist threat. We even knew quite precisely the first major battlefield of that war. That battlefield was (and is) Afghanistan, the failed state whose miserable Taliban rulers we ousted from power and where these days the Taliban are inching back;that failed state whose nominal president, Hamid Karzai, is more the embattled mayor of Kabul than the actual president of his country.

We knew as well that we would have to confront the problem of Saudi Arabia, our nominal and sometime ally that is also a major financier and breeding ground of terrorism. But instead of tending to these and other urgent matters, we chose war in Iraq. Can it be that we did not know how very far Afghanistan remained from stability — or is it that we knew we could never transform Afghanistan and sought instead a battle we (mistakenly) imagined we could truly win?

Yet Mr. Bush and his people have done a spectacularly successful job in conflating the war on terrorism with the war on Iraq, as they have been successful in chipping away at John Kerry’s biography and qualifications for the presidency. Indeed, the Bush campaign has brilliantly achieved what it set out to achieve, while the Kerry campaign has yet to develop the traction it needs.

But the nation is ill served by the kind of campaigning to which we’ve been subjected, a campaign of style over substance. The Kerry campaign lacks traction, but the Bush campaign lacks truth. Worse yet, it encourages people to view Kerry and the Democrats as not merely wrong, but as sinful.

The consequence is a nation seriously divided. Consider that when asked which candidate they trust to do a better job of handling appointments to the Supreme Court, 46% of Americans choose Bush and 36% choose Kerry. And here the split between red and blue states becomes manifest: In the East, on the Supreme Court question, the break is 35%-41% in Kerry’s favor; in the West, it’s 40%-48% in Kerry’s favor. But in the Midwest, Bush is ahead 46%-26%, and in the South he wins 54%-32%. That some number of Americans, especially in the South and Midwest, imagine that Bush is more trustworthy than Kerry regarding Supreme Court nominations — meaning they’d rather have judges appointed by a right-wing zealot than by a mainstream liberal — proves either that right-wing zealotry is quite acceptable these days or, more likely, that Bush has succeeded in masquerading as mainstream.

Bush mainstream? Bush trustworthy? The Bush of Ashcroft and Cheney and more than a thousand Americans killed in Iraq, of stem cells and the deficit and the tax cuts and all the rest? Madness. And oh so sad.

Leonard Fein is the author of “Against the Dying of the Light: A Parent’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights).

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