It's hard to know if the Bush reelection team anticipated the kind of public outcry it confronted late last week after it launched a television ad campaign using imagery from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Responding curtly to criticism that the administration is stomping over sacred ground, White House officials took the opportunity to lecture Bush's opponents about the terrorism issue. "It is vital to our future that we learn from what Sept. 11 taught us," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters last Thursday.
"Because of that day, we are still engaged in a war against terror," said top Bush advisor Karen Hughes, speaking on ABC television. "And it's important that the next president recognize that." Hughes also labeled the ads' critics, which included family members of 9/11 victims, Democrats.
Other conservatives are reacting with a similar tone and line of reasoning -- mostly without addressing how the Bush administration has handled the investigation into what went wrong with U.S. national security before 9/11, or the potential consequences of adopting sensitive imagery for political purposes.
Minneapolis-based syndicated columnist and blogger James Lileks, author of the Bleat, says it's Bush's prerogative to focus attention on 9/11 during the presidential race.
"It is now unacceptable for a president to remind people he was president during an attack on American soil. Hmm. Well. It's called running on one's record. They get to do that. But now people who were secretly relieved that Bush was in the White House after 9/11 are complaining that Bush is reminding us ... that he was in the White House after 9/11."
In fact, critics have said that they want Bush to run on his record -- starting with a full accounting to the 9/11 Commission of how his White House team handled national security prior to the disastrous attacks. Critics have also wondered why Bush is free to campaign with images of flag-draped coffins pulled from the World Trade Center ruins, while he has forbidden any photography of the caskets of U.S. soldiers being returned from Iraq. Still, Lileks insists the point of using 9/11 imagery is simply about remembering that the attacks happened:
"People forget. People must not forget. People forgot the [bombing of the USS] Cole the day after it happened. People forgot the embassy attacks [in Kenya and Tanzania] -- if they were aware of them at all -- by nightfall. People shrugged at Desert Fox and the Tomahawk attack on empty Afghan camps. No one took it seriously until we were all sitting in a dark room at 1 AM staring at the TV, watching the crawl, wondering what was next, stunned and horrified and scared. Three moments: Bush's speech on the pile, the speech at the National Cathedral, and then the jaw-dropping State of the Union address, which was the moment when the national mood got off its knees and balled its fists and said that's not going to happen again."
Lileks further argues that Bush detractors have missed the essential purpose of the president's post-9/11 agenda, with various criticisms of Bush's high-stakes foreign policy adding up to nothing more than flimsy conspiracy theories.
"It's the war. That's what counts ... As I've said before: We can argue about the future of Western Civilization after we've ensured Western Civilization will survive ...
"The theme of the Democratic primaries was clear: Bush is the problem, not the war ... The 'war' is a smokescreen to keep us in fear while a few top-hatted plutocrats convene in Texas to complete their grand strategy: we'll invade Iraq for reasons we know will fall apart, and then we'll turn the oil revenue over to the people under UN supervision, and the publicity will cause Halliburton stock to fall so we can buy it back at artificially depressed prices. Let's all do the secret Mason handshake! Right. Paging Oliver Stone: you're needed to script-doctor the third act, where Karl Rove's shock troops put Bill Maher and Howard Stern in a trunk so they don't blow the whistle on the secret code in the electronic voting machines that returns a 99.9% mandate in the 2004 election."
For his part, National Review Online contributor and former Bush speechwriter David Frum asserts that John Kerry's "opposition" to the war on terror, above all else, makes 9/11 a campaign issue.
"Republicans rightly jeer at Democratic complaints about the use of 9/11 imagery in Bush campaign ads. Senator Kerry opposes the war on terror: He thinks we need instead a police investigation into terror -- which means that he himself has made 9/11 a campaign issue. Over the weekend he accused President Bush of 'stonewalling' the 9/11 investigation. If the meaning and cause of the 9/11 attacks is an election topic, why should only one side -- the Republican side -- be forbidden to talk about them?"
From there, Frum relies on a stock partisan refrain: that Dems, by nature, are weak on national security. Terrorists will be delighted, he says, if Kerry wins the White House.
"I'd go still further. Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma has been kicked around by Democrats for his remark at a fundraiser last week: 'It will be a boost to enemy morale, absolutely, if George Bush loses.' Now I can well understand a Democrat saying, 'A boost to enemy morale is a price well worth paying to remove George Bush from office.' I can even understand it if they said, 'Well, the enemy would be kidding themselves -- we'll quickly show them that we're just as tough as Bush was.' (I could understand it; I wouldn't believe it.)
"But it's simply blind to deny that America's terrorist enemies would rejoice to see Bush go -- just as it would have been blind to deny that the Soviets would have been delighted to see Ronald Reagan lose in 1984.
"And the administration needs to keep that awareness in mind -- because America's enemies may translate their eagerness to defeat Bush into action. Campaigns always fear 'October surprises.' But this year, the October surprise may be bin Laden's."
Nader cuts both ways
Last week Bush supporters were surely pleased to learn of the damage Ralph Nader might do to John Kerry's presidential bid: Though it's early in the race, the Associated Press reported that Nader was polling at 6 percent with Bush and Kerry only one point apart. But some conservatives, including John Samples of the libertarian Cato Institute, are applauding Nader for what his candidacy exposes about Bush's leadership.
"Against all hope and most of the conventional wisdom, Ralph Nader is running again for the presidency. He argues that the two major political parties are both dominated by corporate lobbyists and thus out of tune with the concerns of most Americans. He wants to give this overlooked majority a choice in November. Nader is right that Americans deserve more choices and more competition in elections ...
"For all his problems, Nader has a point about the lack of choice. The current president has contradicted many of the principles espoused by his party and his campaign. He has allowed government spending to explode without demurring and even pushed hard to add an expensive new entitlement to Medicare. His education law increased spending and ran roughshod over federalism. He advanced protectionism for the steel industry to garner votes. He signed a campaign-finance bill that he said violated the First Amendment.
"Finally, President Bush decided to spend over $100 billion on an optional war now justified by the unlikely prospect of bringing democracy to the Middle East. Had a Democratic president done all these things, Republicans devoted to limited government would be up in arms and rightly so."
"The first Shi'ite Islamic bomb"
Writing in the Washington Times, Mansoor Ijaz, a security technologies investor with close ties to Washington conservatives, says recent revelations about the global black market for nuclear arms underscore Iran as an urgent foreign policy problem. Interestingly, the American-born Ijaz's father, Mujaddid, was an early pioneer in Pakistan's nuclear program, whose technologies are now largely credited with fueling a dangerous new era of proliferation.
"The myth of protection offered by global antiproliferation regimes -- including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty -- was shattered last month when investigators for the International Atomic Energy Agency began unraveling a clandestine nuclear black market network run by a Pakistani metallurgist, Abdul Qadeer Khan ...
"But nowhere has the damage done by Mr. Khan's illicit activities been more apparent than in Iran, where sham elections two weekends ago returned hard-liners to power, and where now the real possibility exists of nuclear tests being conducted without political opposition.
"Iran's mullahs have longed for nuclear bombs since coming to power in 1980. Their pacifying statements and superficial compliance with IAEA inspection teams are masking an unrelenting drive to buy time for their scientists to complete work on the first Shi'ite Islamic bomb.
"There is not a minute to waste in stopping them ... The Powell doctrine of endlessly negotiating and maneuvering with Iran's clerics is a recipe for nuclear disaster ..."
Ijaz suggests freezing Iranian assets and using trade sanctions; if that doesn't convince the mullahs to drop their weapons program, he says, then the U.S. military will.
"At the first indication any atomic bomb tests were beyond initial planning stages, the U.S. could move the A2 carrier battle group into the Persian Gulf. To ensure the mullahs understand how near the end of their nuclear vision might be, visibly positioning several B-2 stealth bombers in Qatar might also send a clear message.
"Iran is on the verge of becoming perhaps the world's most dangerous nuclear state, one capable of proliferating without regard for international agreements and standards of state behavior. This is precisely what Mr. Khan had in mind when he first envisioned the metastasis of his nuclear cancer -- contaminate one cell and let others infect the rest. The disarray and confusion over Iran policy in Washington, Paris, London and Berlin must not allow nuclear tests to take place that could forever change the course of history."
Peter Brookes, a former CIA officer who is now a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, also emphasizes that the mullahs have long been duplicitous about their nuclear plans. He's equally worried that the Islamist state is fast closing on a nuclear weapon.
"Tehran's claim that its nuclear program is purely for peaceful purposes is ringing increasingly hollow: Nuclear weapons appear to be the mullahs' true goal. An Iran bristling with nuclear weapons wouldn't bode well for U.S. interests in the Middle East.
"Seeing through the fog of Tehran's nuclear antics, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton said, 'We are not going to reduce the pressure on Iran... We think the Iranians are still trying to conceal a clandestine [nuclear] weapons program, and that's why it remains a grave concern to us.'"
But Brookes seems cautious about calling upon the overworked U.S. military -- even as he airs some uncertainty about what the U.S. can do to solve the problem. Still, he says, it's an urgent issue that requires some sort of decisive action.
"The [Bush] administration clearly has its hands full with Iraq, North Korea, Afghanistan and terrorism. Dealing with Iran would be serious business as well ...
"The prospects for keeping the Iranian Pandora's box closed look pretty bleak. The EU's agreement appears doomed to failure. The Iranian case is particularly troubling because of the regime's sponsorship of international terrorism and its close alliance with Syria, another nuclear aspirant. Iran has been threatened before about being dragged before the Security Council, but threats demonstrably didn't win compliance. So it's probably high time to actually involve the council.
"Multilateral sanctions might do the trick. Economic sanctions can be painful and have worked in the past. Libya is (seemingly) turning over a new leaf because of them. North Korea is begging for aid because of sanctions. And sanctions clearly hurt Saddam's weapons of mass destruction programs. But continued threats, without genuine action, are as meaningless as Iran's promises have proven to be."
Salmon-colored ties! A 42-foot powerboat!
Many political analysts have been wondering whether John Kerry would have the right stuff to handle an all-out grilling during this year's presidential race. Now that he's the presumed Democratic nominee, his supporters have been bracing for a tsunami of GOP criticism -- and indeed, conservatives have begun dissecting him with newfound scrutiny. For her part, Peggy Noonan, a contributing editor for the Wall Street Journal, digs into allegations that Kerry has been indecisive on some political issues.
"John Kerry certainly looks like a president -- the thick steel-wool hair, the Lincolnian planes and shadows of his face. He is tall and slim and seems serious. He also has the guts to wear salmon-colored ties. A red tie is red and a blue tie is blue, and red and blue know what color they are. Salmon is a more delicate hue. Salmon can't decide what color it is. Sometimes it's pink and sometimes it's orange. It's like wearing ambivalence on your shirt. This is an unusual thing for a politician to do if it's thought through, and it takes courage.
"Mr. Kerry seems to me not a man of deep belief but of a certain amount of sentiment and calculation. One has the sense he is a liberal Democrat because of the time and place in which he was born, that he inhaled a worldview as opposed to struggling through to one."
Meanwhile, New York Times columnist David Brooks seems most concerned with Kerry's economic paradigm, and perhaps his environmental outlook:
"Most Democrats have trouble affording one home, so when they search for a leader who shares their values, of course they nominate a guy who is running for his sixth. Of course they nominate a guy whose 42-foot powerboat, the Scaramouche, sells for upward of $700,000. Of course they choose a guy famous for his Christophe haircuts and his Turnbull & Asser shirts. Of course they choose a couple who paid to have an unsightly fire hydrant moved from the front of their Boston house, and who sought to divert huge amounts of river water to supply their sprawling Idaho lawn."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.