Five Years After 9/11, Fear Finally Strikes Out
By FRANK RICH
THE results are in for the White House’s latest effort to exploit terrorism for political gain: the era of Americans’ fearing fear itself is over.
In each poll released since the foiling of the trans-Atlantic terror plot — Gallup, Newsweek, CBS, Zogby, Pew — George W. Bush’s approval rating remains stuck in the 30’s, just as it has been with little letup in the year since Katrina stripped the last remaining fig leaf of credibility from his presidency. While the new Middle East promised by Condi Rice remains a delusion, the death rattle of the domestic political order we’ve lived with since 9/11 can be found everywhere: in Americans’ unhysterical reaction to the terror plot, in politicians’ and pundits’ hysterical overreaction to Joe Lieberman’s defeat in Connecticut, even in the ho-hum box-office reaction to Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.”
It’s not as if the White House didn’t pull out all the stops to milk the terror plot to further its politics of fear. One self-congratulatory presidential photo op was held at the National Counterterrorism Center, a dead ringer for the set in “24.” But Mr. Bush’s Jack Bauer is no more persuasive than his Tom Cruise of “Top Gun.” By crying wolf about terrorism way too often, usually when a distraction is needed from bad news in Iraq, he and his administration have long since become comedy fodder, and not just on “The Daily Show.” June’s scenario was particularly choice: as Baghdad imploded, Alberto Gonzales breathlessly unmasked a Miami terror cell plotting a “full ground war” and the destruction of the Sears Tower, even though the alleged cell had no concrete plans, no contacts with terrorist networks and no equipment, including boots.
What makes the foiled London-Pakistan plot seem more of a serious threat — though not so serious it disrupted Tony Blair’s vacation — is that the British vouched for it, not Attorney General Gonzales and his Keystone Kops. This didn’t stop Michael Chertoff from grabbing credit in his promotional sprint through last Sunday’s talk shows. “It was as if we had an opportunity to stop 9/11 before it actually was carried out,” he said, insinuating himself into that royal we. But no matter how persistent his invocation of 9/11, our secretary of homeland security is too discredited to impress a public that has been plenty disillusioned since Karl Rove first exhibited the flag-draped remains of a World Trade Center victim in a 2004 campaign commercial. We look at Mr. Chertoff and still see the man who couldn’t figure out what was happening in New Orleans when the catastrophe was being broadcast in real time on television.
No matter what the threat at hand, he can’t get his story straight. When he said last weekend that the foiling of the London plot revealed a Qaeda in disarray because “it’s been five years since they’ve been capable of putting together something of this sort,” he didn’t seem to realize that he was flatly contradicting the Ashcroft-Gonzales claims for the gravity of all the Qaeda plots they’ve boasted of stopping in those five years. As recently as last October, Mr. Bush himself announced a list of 10 grisly foiled plots, including one he later described as a Qaeda plan “already set in motion” to fly a hijacked plane “into the tallest building on the West Coast.”
Dick Cheney’s credibility is also nil: he will always be the man who told us that Iraqis would greet our troops as liberators and that the insurgency was in its last throes in May 2005. His latest and predictable effort to exploit terrorism for election-year fear-mongering — arguing that Ned Lamont’s dissent on Iraq gave comfort to “Al Qaeda types” — has no traction because the public has long since untangled the administration’s bogus linkage between the Iraq war and Al Qaeda. That’s why, of all the poll findings last week, the most revealing was one in the CBS survey: While the percentage of Americans who chose terrorism as our “most important problem” increased in the immediate aftermath of the London plot, terrorism still came in second, at only 17 percent, to Iraq, at 28 percent.
The administration’s constant refrain that Iraq is the “central front” in the war on terror is not only false but has now also backfired politically: only 9 percent in the CBS poll felt that our involvement in Iraq was helping decrease terrorism. As its fifth anniversary arrives, 9/11 itself has been dwarfed by the mayhem in Iraq, where more civilians are now killed per month than died in the attack on America. The box-office returns of “World Trade Center” are a cultural sign of just how much America has moved on. For all the debate about whether it was “too soon” for such a Hollywood movie, it did better in the Northeast, where such concerns were most prevalent, than in the rest of the country, where, like “United 93,” it may have arrived too late. Despite wild acclaim from conservatives and an accompanying e-mail campaign, “World Trade Center” couldn’t outdraw “Step Up,” a teen romance starring a former Abercrombie & Fitch model and playing on 500 fewer screens.
Mr. Lamont’s victory in the Connecticut Democratic senatorial primary has been as overhyped as Mr. Stone’s movie. As a bellwether of national politics, one August primary in one very blue state is nearly meaningless. Mr. Lieberman’s star began to wane in Connecticut well before Iraq became a defining issue. His approval rating at home, as measured by the Quinnipiac poll, had fallen from 80 percent in 2000 to 51 percent in July 2003, and that was before his kamikaze presidential bid turned “Joementum” into a national joke.
The hyperbole that has greeted the Lamont victory in some quarters is far more revealing than the victory itself. In 2006, the tired Rove strategy of equating any Democratic politician’s opposition to the Iraq war with cut-and-run defeatism in the war on terror looks desperate. The Republicans are protesting too much, methinks. A former Greenwich selectman like Mr. Lamont isn’t easily slimed as a reincarnation of Abbie Hoffman or an ally of Osama bin Laden. What Republicans really see in Mr. Lieberman’s loss is not a defeat in the war on terror but the specter of their own defeat. Mr. Lamont is but a passing embodiment of a fixed truth: most Americans think the war in Iraq was a mistake and want some plan for a measured withdrawal. That truth would prevail even had Mr. Lamont lost.
A similar panic can be found among the wave of pundits, some of them self-proclaimed liberals, who apoplectically fret that Mr. Lamont’s victory signals the hijacking of the Democratic Party by the far left (here represented by virulent bloggers) and a prospective replay of its electoral apocalypse of 1972. Whatever their political affiliation, almost all of these commentators suffer from the same syndrome: they supported the Iraq war and, with few exceptions (mainly at The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard), are now embarrassed that they did. Desperate to assert their moral superiority after misjudging a major issue of our time, they loftily declare that anyone who shares Mr. Lamont’s pronounced opposition to the Iraq war is not really serious about the war against the jihadists who attacked us on 9/11.
That’s just another version of the Cheney-Lieberman argument, and it’s hogwash. Most of the 60 percent of Americans who oppose the war in Iraq also want to win the war against Al Qaeda and its metastasizing allies: that’s one major reason they don’t want America bogged down in Iraq. Mr. Lamont’s public statements put him in that camp as well, which is why those smearing him resort to the cheap trick of citing his leftist great-uncle (the socialist Corliss Lamont) while failing to mention that his father was a Republican who served in the Nixon administration. (Mr. Lieberman, ever bipartisan, has accused Mr. Lamont of being both a closet Republican and a radical.)
These commentators are no more adept at reading the long-term implications of the Connecticut primary than they were at seeing through blatant White House propaganda about Saddam’s mushroom clouds. Their generalizations about the blogosphere are overheated; the shrillest left-wing voices on the Internet are no more representative of the whole than those of the far right. This country remains a country of the center, and opposition to the war in Iraq is now the center and (if you listen to Chuck Hagel and George Will, among other non-neoconservatives) even the center right.
As the election campaign quickens, genuine nightmares may well usurp the last gasps of Rovian fear-based politics. It’s hard to ignore the tragic reality that American troops are caught in the cross-fire of a sectarian bloodbath escalating daily, that botched American policy has strengthened Iran and Hezbollah and undermined Israel, and that our Department of Homeland Security is as ill-equipped now to prevent explosives (liquid or otherwise) in cargo as it was on 9/11. For those who’ve presided over this debacle and must face the voters in November, this is far scarier stuff than a foiled terrorist cell, nasty bloggers and Ned Lamont combined.