Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Gotcha Campaigning

"Can we win the war on terrorism? Yes, I think we can, in the sense that we can win the war on organized crime. There is going to be no peace treaty on the battleship Missouri in the war on terrorism, but we can break its back so that it is only a horrible nuisance and not a paralyzing influence on our societies." [emphasis added]
-"9/11 a Year On" conference, Sept. 2002, (via Altercation)

Despite the impression you might have had from the buzz in the conservative punditry over the past couple of days, that wasn't John Kerry speaking, that was lifelong Republican General Brent Scowcroft, who was George H. W. Bush's National Security Advisor and the current President Bush's appointee to the Forum for International Security.

Here is Kerry on the same subject, as it appeared in the
New York Times Magazine this past weekend:

"We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance," Kerry said. "As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life." [emphasis added]

I guess it should come as no surprise that the Bush/Cheney campaign is trying to make Kerry's evocation of the word "nuisance" into the linchpin of his foreign policy vis a vis the war on terror. This is the latest example of a tactic that can best be described as "gotcha" campaigning - taking a statement by Kerry out of context, distorting it, and then exaggerating its relevance and significance to Kerry's policies despite the vast mountains of evidence to the contrary (see the "global test" canard).

It is the most cynical form of campaigning because its success depends on the fact that enough of the electorate is uninformed and will not look beyond the sound-bites to learn more about the issues and each candidates' stances. If the voters investigate further, they will learn that such protestations are much ado about nothing.

As an indication as to how ludicrous the charges have been, consider that Bush himself in an interview with Matt Lauer on the Today Show, said that the war against terror was unwinnable. "I don't think you can win it," Bush said. Well then, if you can't win it, maybe you can bring it down to acceptable levels. "Nuisance" may have been a poor choice of words, something that Kerry can certainly be accused of, but that does not justify the over-reaction.

With astonishing mendacity, Kerry's words have been contorted into a means of understanding many of Kerry's so-called positions. There is the argument that Kerry views terrorism, and all of its attendant violence and brutality, as a nuisance and not something more serious. And the accompanying suggestion that Kerry thinks that a pre-9/11 mentality is appropriate, even absent any progress in disrupting terrorist networks worldwide. Finally, there is the suggestion that Kerry will use law enforcement and intelligence as opposed to military operations.

For an example of all three feckless arguments, and a testament to how he has wrung every last bit of respect out of the body of this New Yorker, Rudolph Giuliani has a relevant piece up on the
Bush/Cheney website.

As an aside, there was a time when Giuliani represented a true New York City Republicanism - a certain amount of moderation and independent thinking combined with a more liberal social agenda on reproductive rights and homosexuality. He even supported Democratic incumbent Mario Cuomo in his unsuccessful bid for re-election as Governor of New York against then challenger George Pataki. In the aftermath of 9/11, Giuliani's hands-on, authoritarian, micromanaging approach provided a welcomed sign of stability and order amongst the chaos, and coupled with the fond memories of his Cuomo allegiance, for a brief moment in time Giuliani broached the partisan divide. His fear-laced, exploitation of the tragedy of 9/11, replete with his suggestions that the Democrats were traitorous and weak, last month at the Republican National Convention did much to erase any goodwill he had built up for me. His subsequent appearances and statements have been the coffin nails. He has gone from independent minded conservative to a Bush administration apologista, trading in his credibility and intellectual honesty for demagoguery.

Giuliani had this to say about Kerry's words:

In fact, his comments are kind of extraordinary, particularly since he thinks we used to before September 11 live in a relatively safe world. He says we have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.

I’m wondering exactly when Senator Kerry thought they were just a nuisance. Maybe when they attacked the USS Cole? Or when they attacked the World Trade Center in 1993? Or when they slaughtered the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972? Or killed Leon Klinghoffer by throwing him overboard? Or the innumerable number of terrorist acts that they committed in the 70s, the 80s and the 90s, leading up to September 11?

As a former law enforcement person, he says ‘I know we’re never going to end prostitution. We’re never going to end illegal gambling. But we’re going to reduce it.’ This is not illegal gambling; this isn’t prostitution. Having been a former law enforcement person for a lot longer than John Kerry ever was, I don’t understand his confusion. Even when he says ‘organized crime to a level where it isn’t not on the rise,’ it was not the goal of the Justice Department to just reduce organized crime. It was the goal of the Justice Department to eliminate organized crime. Was there some acceptable level of organized crime: two families, instead of five, or they can control one union but not the other?
To respond to this point by Giuliani, I will rely on the words of the conservative blog Powerline (via another right-leaning blog American Future):

On the issue of terrorism, Kerry stated that "we have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance." I don't understand Kerry to be saying that we should give terrorism the same type and limited level of attention we gave it pre-9/11; rather I think he was providing a realistic, though tone-deaf, assessment of what it is possible to achieve in the war on terror. Like Kerry, I don't expect that we will ever succeed in eliminating terrorism. I doubt whether President Bush believes we will ever do so either; this is probably what he had in mind earlier this year when he expressed skepticism about winning the war on terrorism.

Kerry obviously (and perhaps tellingly) blundered when he compared terrorism to prostitution and illegal gambling, though these are also things that can't be stamped out completely. A better analogy (though still an impolitic one) would have been traffic fatalities. As it happens, my old Dartmouth roommate and CIA anti-terrorism point man Paul Pillar has used this analogy. Each year many people die as a result of automobile accidents. That will always be the case. Similarly, under the best of circumstances, I expect that people, including some Americans, will die each year as the result of acts of terrorism around the world. If we use the correct approach to combating terrorism, for example bringing about regime change in states that have the potential and the propensity to give terrorists what they need to commit mass terror, it is realistic to think that the number can be kept small. Anything better than that is probably beyond our reach.
That about sums it up. Honest conservatives can disagree on the tactics and approaches that Kerry has espoused, and whether or not the Iraq invasion was the right strategy, but poorly executed. But the recent attempts to cast everything Kerry says in the worst possible light, distorted and twisted to meet some pre-determined Bush/Cheney campaign talking point, is not contributing to the overall discourse. For politicians like Giuliani, it has mean the sacrifice of a valuable reserve of political capital. He has lost the benefit of the doubt and the presumption of independence.

Here is more about Kerry's actual stance from the same interview that gave rise to the "nuisance" frenzy:

Kerry told me he would stop terrorists by going after them ruthlessly with the military, and he faulted Bush, as he often does, for choosing to use Afghan militias, instead of American troops, to pursue Osama bin Laden into the mountains of Tora Bora, where he disappeared. "I'm certainly, you know, not going to take second seat to anybody, to nobody, in my willingness to seek justice and set America on a course -- to make America safe," Kerry told me. "And that requires destroying terrorists. And I'm committed to doing that. But I think I have a better way of doing it. I can do it more effectively."

"I think we can do a better job," Kerry said, "of cutting off financing, of exposing groups, of working cooperatively across the globe, of improving our intelligence capabilities nationally and internationally, of training our military and deploying them differently, of specializing in special forces and special ops, of working with allies, and most importantly -- and I mean most importantly -- of restoring America's reputation as a country that listens, is sensitive, brings people to our side, is the seeker of peace, not war, and that uses our high moral ground and high-level values to augment us in the war on terror, not to diminish us."

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