John McCain's chief strategist Charlie Black generated controversy this week by saying in a Fortune magazine interview that another terrorist attack on U.S. soil would be a "big advantage" to McCain by shifting the priorities of the country back to national security.
While the debate has focused on whether it was inappropriate to make the comment publicly, or whether it was true, a more crucial question needs to be raised. Why isn't it to McCain's advantage that there hasn't been a domestic terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001?
Some critics of the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies have attributed the absence of terrorist attacks in nearly seven years to the fact that the threat of terrorism was simply overhyped all along. This argument is deeply flawed. For several decades the U.S. didn't view terrorism as a serious threat, and the frequency and severity of attacks kept growing over time, only to recede in recent years.
However problematic this point of view may be, there's at least some logical consistency in arguing that there haven't been any terrorist attacks since Sept. 11 because there aren't many terrorists capable of pulling off such attacks. But that's not the argument being advanced by prominent Democrats, let alone the party's presumptive nominee.
Instead, Barack Obama has been insisting that President Bush's actions have made the terrorist threat even worse.
Last week, Obama said, "the record shows that George Bush and John McCain have been weak on terrorism. Their approach has failed. Because of their policies, we are less safe, less respected, and less able to lead the world."
In a speech on the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Obama declared: "Above all, the war in Iraq has emboldened al Qaeda, whose recruitment has jumped and whose leadership enjoys a safe-haven in Pakistan -- a thousand miles from Iraq," an argument that has been one of his standard talking points throughout the campaign.
BUT IF AS A result of the Iraq War and the Bush Administration's "disastrous" policies al Qaeda has so much freedom to operate and all of these new recruits at its disposal, how come the group hasn't been able to pull off another attack on U.S. soil?
An increasing body of evidence strongly suggests, contrary to Obama's assertions, that the terrorist network has been greatly weakened.
Last month, CIA Director Michael Hayden told the Washington Post that the U.S. has been making significant progress in the fight against the terrorist group, claiming "Near strategic defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Near strategic defeat for al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia. Significant setbacks for al-Qaeda globally -- and here I'm going to use the word 'ideologically' -- as a lot of the Islamic world pushes back on their form of Islam."
Lawrence Wright, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Looming Tower, recently wrote in the New Yorker about the stunning reversal of Sayyid Imam Al Sharif (a.k.a. "Dr. Fadl"), a man who laid the intellectual foundation for al Qaeda, but has now written a manifesto fiercely opposing its tactics.
While making clear that al Qaeda's top leadership remains intact and that it has proved resilient in the past, Wright reported that "the core of Al Qaeda is much reduced from what it was before 9/11. An Egyptian intelligence official told me that the current membership totals less than two hundred men; American intelligence estimates range from under three hundred to more than five hundred."
One of the reasons that conditions have improved in Iraq is that local populations chose to work with Americans to rout al Qaeda. Now, the terrorist group can find little safe quarter in a nation that Osama bin Laden once considered central to the war between Islamists and the West.
Bin Laden still lives, it's true, but he has much less freedom to move around than he did when the Taliban had full control of Afghanistan, a period during which he planned the U.S. embassy bombings, the USS Cole bombing, and the Sept. 11 attacks.
THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION'S decision to remain in Iraq while changing strategy has helped reverse a long-standing narrative that America would run away from conflicts at the first sight of casualties. We did in Lebanon in the wake of the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombings and again in Somalia 10 years later.
Both incidents were cited by bin Laden to buttress his view that America was a "paper tiger." While Obama fears that Bush's policies have "emboldened al Qaeda," what they have actually done is send a message that the Sept. 11 attacks emboldened America.
McCain, understandably, is trying to distance himself from President Bush because the incumbent has such low approval ratings. In talking about Iraq, he always emphasizes that he disagreed with the "failed Rumsfeld strategy," an important point to make, but one that can also come across as overly defensive. If McCain doesn't remind voters, constantly, that despite all of the difficulties we've faced, there has not been a terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, he risks ceding to Obama the charge that the "Bush-McCain" strategy for fighting terrorism has failed. McCain's candidacy is doomed if this is the conclusion reached by voters.
To expand on a favorite line of McCain's, this would not only mean losing the election, but it risks losing the war by providing Obama with a mandate to reverse policies that have successfully weakened al Qaeda and prevented further attacks on U.S. soil.
The problem that President Bush is coming up against is that although a leader fighting terrorism will get blamed for what does happen (conflicts over the balance between civil liberties and security, U.S. military casualties, a protracted war), he never receives any praise for what doesn't happen.
On the morning of the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush's entire presidency became focused on preventing a repeat of that tragedy. If only one or two years had passed without incident, it could be written off as a fluke. But now that nearly seven years have passed, it's time to give the President credit for keeping America safe. McCain will be linked to President Bush on the issue of terrorism whether he likes it or not, so it's imperative that he hammer this point home.
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