Our Politicized Fight Against Terrorism: An Excerpt

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In his new book, Bin Laden's Legacy: Why We're Still Losing the War on Terror, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross catalogs America's strategic failures in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The following is an excerpt.

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It was perhaps inevitable that the fight against al Qaeda and other jihadi groups would become politicized, but it has nonetheless been extremely harmful. The fact that being seen as tough and effective in the fight against terrorism could help one's political fortunes was evident almost immediately, for the standing of two politicians--George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani--and that of the entire Republican Party dramatically changed because of the events of September 11, 2001.

President Bush's initial reaction to the attacks was in fact rather confused and unimpressive due to security concerns that kept him out of sight for most of the day. After concluding his time on the morning of September 11 with a class of second grade students at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, Bush went to a classroom where a secure phone had been set up. He spoke to Vice President Dick Cheney, and after a brief address to the nation about the attacks, Bush was rushed to Air Force One. Concerned that the president could be a target, his security detail kept him on the move. In the thick fog of war, Bush heard reports that Camp David and the State Department had been attacked, that there was a fire in the White House, and that his ranch in Texas may have been targeted. His general invisibility throughout the day made strong leadership impossible.

Fortunately, President Bush hit his stride rapidly. That night, back in Washington, he declared in an address to the country, "Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts." The speech outlined several themes that would become his administration's staples, including the need to bring the full weight of the country's resources to bear against those responsible, and Bush's refusal to distinguish between terrorists attacking America and regimes harboring them. President Bush declared that "none of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world."

Bush would give several more increasingly forceful speeches that month. The public's connection with him was obvious; Bush's approval ratings rose from 55 percent to over 90 percent within two weeks of the attack. The remarkable rise in his ratings just after 9/11 showed the public's fear, concern, and desire for action. It also showed why politicians would be so tempted to politicize terrorism.

New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani also found his fortunes dramatically changed by the attacks. A former prosecutor known for his toughness, Giuliani had won two mayoral terms because of his ability to return good governance to the city, in particular for tackling its seemingly intractable crime problem. But despite his accomplishments, Giuliani's popularity had eroded, and he was viewed as a divisive figure at the time of 9/11.

But the mayor's inspiring response to the attacks caused these critical perceptions to recede. Giuliani projected not only leadership and toughness but also compassion. The mayor took time to condemn the racial and religious hatred that might be directed at New York City's Muslim community, a move that New Yorkers, and Americans as a whole, saw as genuine and laudable.

Giuliani became known as "America's mayor," an iconic figure who was instantly recognizable countrywide. He was named Time's Person of the Year, and he became regarded as a viable presidential candidate. When he did run for president in 2008, early polls put Giuliani at the forefront of Republican contenders. A Gallup poll's issue-by-issue breakdown made clear that the coolness and resolve that Giuliani displayed on September 11 was his key political strength.

Giuliani ultimately did not receive the Republican nomination. There were multiple reasons for his loss, including his blemished personal life and a bizarre campaign strategy that involved skipping the Iowa caucuses, running halfhearted campaigns in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, and placing all his bets on winning the Florida primary. (Giuliani finished third in that contest.)

And even though he was dealt a strong hand on terrorism issues, Giuliani may have overplayed it. Joe Biden famously commented in an October 2007 debate that Giuliani only mentions three things in a sentence: "a noun, and a verb, and 9/11." But if Giuliani did overemphasize his response to those attacks, it was because he realized that it was such a political asset. Though Giuliani didn't win the presidency, his experience confirms the political benefits of being seen as strong on terrorism.

It should be said that the fact that there were political benefits to being seen as strong on terrorism wouldn't inevitably create a problem. After all, it could be healthy to motivate politicians to perform admirably under intense pressure. Rather, the problem was that terrorism became politicized as an issue within a year of the attacks in an incredibly divisive manner. A climate was created that has harmed rather than helped America's effectiveness.

The Republicans were able to capitalize in the 2002 midterm election on the fact that their party was identified as tougher on terrorism. Before the attacks, it seemed that the Republicans could face significant midterm losses. Layoffs and rising unemployment, projected to hit 5 percent by the beginning of 2002, created the risk that voters would punish the party. (The fact that 5 percent unemployment was considered a major political liability seems quaint today.)

The 9/11 attacks, however, transformed the political landscape. Although the economy had been voters' predominant concern until terrorists struck the United States, Gallup polling from January to June 2002 consistently found that terrorism and national security had eclipsed the economy as the issue voters cared about most. And if terrorism was on voters' minds, this was good for the Republicans. An August 2002 Gallup analysis found that Republicans enjoyed a commanding nine point lead among voters who considered terrorism to be the most important issue.

The Republicans exploited this advantage. During the campaign Karl Rove, a senior adviser to President Bush, misplaced a computer disk that contained his PowerPoint presentations about the upcoming midterm election. One piece of advice to candidates was that they should "focus on the war." Rove's advice proved controversial once the public learned of it, but the issue resonated with voters, as did President Bush's focus on selling the coming Iraq War during the campaign.

"We ought not to politicize this war," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle responded. "We ought not to politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death." (Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott responded to Daschle with a bizarre non sequitur: "Who is the enemy here, the president of the United States or Saddam Hussein?")

The bottom line is that Daschle was right: politicizing national security when there was general agreement between Republicans and Democrats on how to combat terrorism was bad for the country. But even though Daschle was right philosophically, the Republicans read national politics correctly. They regained control of the Senate in 2002, picked up five seats in the House, outperformed expectations in the gubernatorial races, and even gained in state legislatures. The GOP's overwhelming victory was not just unexpected but also historic: not since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 had a president's party made gains in both the House and Senate during the midterm election of his first term.

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Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the author of Bin Laden's Legacy, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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