TRB: Terror Firma

by Jonathan Chait | June 20, 2008

Last week, the terrorism "issue" made its campaign debut. I use scare quotes not because terrorism is not a threat, but because it's unclear precisely what issue is at stake. John McCain's campaign has been determined to have a debate about terrorism, which polls have shown to be the only issue where he has any meaningful edge over Barack Obama. The problem is that on the only terrorism-related positions where Obama has staked out ground to the left of the Bush administration--torture, closing Guantánamo--McCain has, too.

But McCain saw his opportunity when Obama made the following comment:

What we know is that, in previous terrorist attacks--for example, the first attack against the World Trade Center--we were able to arrest those responsible, put them on trial. They are currently in U.S. prisons, incapacitated. And the fact that the administration has not tried to do that has created a situation where not only have we never actually put many of these folks on trial, but we have destroyed our credibility when it comes to rule of law all around the world, and given a huge boost to terrorist recruitment in countries that say, "Look, this is how the United States treats Muslims."

You may wonder what exactly McCain objects to here. The answer is that Obama endorsed prosecuting terrorists. In the Republican mind, there is a vast metaphysical divide over the question of how you fight terrorists. Tough guys like George W. Bush and McCain understand the evil of terrorism at a gut level and want to fight it with the military, using big guns and bombs. Wimps like John Kerry and Obama have a daintier, more equivocal sensibility, and prefer to deploy nerdy prosecutors to "serve our enemies with legal papers," as Bush liked to say.

And so, when Obama let pass from his lips a reference to trying terrorists in court, McCain's campaign pounced. Foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann warned, "Obama holds up the prosecution of the terrorists who bombed the World Trade Center in 1993 as a model for his administration, when in fact this failed approach of treating terrorism simply as a matter of law enforcement rather than a clear and present danger to the United States contributed to the tragedy of September eleventh." McCain's blog scoffed, "It's hardly surprising that a lawyer would think that the war on terror would be fought more effectively by lawyers than by the United States Marine Corps."

It doesn't matter that Obama never said, or even implied, that legal prosecution should be the sole method of preventing terrorism. The fact that he even mentioned prosecution apparently proves that he has what McCain's campaign called a "September 10th mindset."

Yet some logical flaws with this analysis present themselves. (And yes, I realize that the mere fact that I would intellectualize this issue, rather than understanding it in my gut, proves that I too have a September 10th mindset.) First, terrorists often operate in our country, or in friendly countries, which makes military action against them tricky. McCain (through his campaign blog) assailed Obama for favoring "prosecutors rather than predators." But, when the terrorists are holed up in New York City, as was the case with the 1993 bombers Obama referred to, simply arresting them strikes me as more efficient than leveling their apartment with a drone-fired missile.

Second, when terrorists can be found outside the reach of law enforcement, Obama has explicitly proposed to strike them militarily. Last summer, The New York Times reported that the Bush administration had actionable intelligence about high-level Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. It planned a snatch-and-grab operation but cancelled at the last minute. In a speech the following month, Obama called this "a terrible mistake," and promised, "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." McCain criticized Obama for this, too, saying he "once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan."

Third, none other than Rudy Giuliani, Mr. 9/11 himself, once prosecuted terrorists. In 1994, Giuliani said that the conviction of World Trade Center bombers "demonstrates that New Yorkers won't meet violence with violence, but with a far greater weapon-the law." You might say, in Giuliani's defense, that he did this before September 11. After that, Everything Changed, and, if he caught terrorists again, he would use tactical nuclear weapons against them. The problem here is that he continued to tout his prosecution of terrorists during his comically unsuccessful presidential campaign. But maybe this just goes to show that the September 10th mindset is so seductive that it can strike even its most vigilant adversaries.

I would have thought the example of Giuliani would be inconvenient enough that the McCain campaign would hide him in the closet while they bashed Obama for favoring the prosecution of terrorists. Instead, McCain's campaign trotted Giuliani out for a press conference call and a round of talk show appearances, possibly because he seems to materialize out of thin air whenever the phrase "9/11" is uttered.

Giuliani's sudden appearance is somehow perfectly apt. His lasting legacy to the political culture may be taking a concept (9/11) that was freighted with the strongest emotional and patriotic overtones and doing to it what Clara Peller did to "Where's the Beef?" Giuliani relentlessly milked 9/11 because (as McCain himself pointed out not long ago!) he had no foreign policy experience and repeatedly demonstrated his ignorance of basic facts about his alleged area of competence. He's the perfect embodiment of the foreign policy style that has prevailed most of the last seven years.

The sad irony is that McCain actually had a perfectly credible line of foreign policy attack against Obama: that Iraq is improving and could be imperiled by a pullout. I'm not sure I agree with his argument, but it is looking steadily stronger. His descent into Giuliani-ism, however, suggests his campaign thinks winning on Iraq wouldn't be enough. It's as if, by invoking 9/11, he can summon the return of the mentality that prevailed in the years after the attack.

McCain spent the previous couple months mimicking every theme of the Hillary Clinton unsuccessful candidacy. Now, dropping in the polls, he's mimicking the themes Giuliani rode to a spectacular flameout. It may work. If not, he can always try to tap into the magic of the Jim Gilmore campaign.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at The New Republic.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/politics/trb-terror-firma