BERLIN -- Many years
ago, I worked on a campaign for a politician whose sole tactic
was running one nasty TV commercial after another savaging his
opponent. When I asked him about this approach, he said, "If
I can't get people to vote for me, maybe I can get them to vote
In politics, sometimes
your best friend is the right enemy. If you want to look handsome,
stand next to a rhinoceros.
By that standard,
George Bush is enjoying an embarrassment of riches. In the same
week, he found himself under attack by both Al Gore and Osama
bin Laden. The only thing better would be if Jacques Chirac denounced
him for not wearing French perfume.
You might think it
would hurt the president for the al Qaeda leader to make a sudden
reappearance, chirping away about new attacks on American soil.
The latest tape furnishes an annoying reminder that more than
four years after the World Trade Center towers fell, the guy who
brought them down is still mooning us from his mountain hideout.
to the greatest military power on Earth. But every tape bin Laden
makes reminds Americans how much they loathe him, distracting
them from the fact that they're not all that crazy about Bush.
If the president can't sell his policies on their merits, he can
pitch them as the opposite of what the enemy wants.
By renewing his pledge
to slaughter Americans, bin Laden conveniently took the focus
off of Iraq, where the president is weak, and put it on terrorism,
where he is strong. In the latest polls, only 37 percent of Americans
now approve of how Bush is conducting the war in Iraq. But 53
percent support his handling of the war on al Qaeda.
That explains why
the administration doesn't mind getting beaten up by civil libertarians
for its secret domestic spying program. To many voters, the criticism
only confirms their belief that Bush is serious about fighting
the terrorists. In Iraq, the administration was accused of doing
too little to ensure victory. To be faulted for doing too much
is a nice change.
can also hope that by urging a speedy U.S. departure from Iraq,
bin Laden will deter Americans from embracing that option. In
his latest message, he crowed that "an overwhelming majority
of you wants the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq."
But even unwanted
validation from al Qaeda isn't likely to reverse the current of
public opinion, which responds to more tangible facts. As Ohio
State University political scientist John Mueller notes in a recent
article in Foreign Affairs, this war has followed the same simple
pattern as the conflicts in Vietnam and Korea: "As casualties
mount, support decreases."
Once people jump
off the bandwagon, they rarely climb back on. Good news from Iraq
has temporarily boosted support in the past. But it "soon
fell back to where it had been before and then continued its generally
downward course," says Mueller.
If there is anything
different this time around, he notes, it's that opposition grew
so fast. In Vietnam, 20,000 American soldiers died before most
Americans decided Lyndon Johnson had blundered. In Iraq, it only
took 1,500 deaths to convince a majority that we have better things
Maybe that's because
we've gotten used to seeing our military prevail quickly and easily,
as we did in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. To be fighting
nearly three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein was not in
the game plan. Neither was the price tag of up to $2 trillion
recently projected by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz.
Americans are not
pathologically allergic to the costs of war. Had we found nuclear
weapons in Iraq, no one would be asking today if the sacrifice
was worth it.
But in 2003, most
people would not have been willing to expend large amounts of
money and blood to bring liberty to Iraq, and they still aren't.
If a president wants to fight a war to make the world a better
place, it had better be a quick one.
When he decided to
invade, Bush refused to see that he was leading the nation into
a prolonged conflict that would soon forfeit public support. So
today he finds himself at a pretty pass: telling Americans they
are wrong about the war in Iraq, while Osama bin Laden tells them
2006 Creators Syndicate