In recent days, the Republican campaign has descended still further into unrestrained fear-mongering. Not only would John Kerry's election put America in greater peril from terrorism, cry the party's spokesmen and their media enablers, but terrorists themselves are actually hoping that Kerry will defeat George W. Bush.
Such raw demagoguery is scarcely surprising in an election season as soiled as this one -- and even less so emanating from the mouth of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the serial slanderer who insinuated last month that Democratic funder George Soros made his fortune from narcotics trafficking.
At an Illinois fundraiser on Sept. 18, Hastert said, "I think that the terrorists, the al-Qaida, would like to influence this election. They would like to influence this election just like they influenced the election in Spain, but the American people aren't going to let that happen." The terrorists, said Hastert, would operate with "more comfort" if Kerry wins.
Expecting intelligence and decency from the Speaker may be pointless by now. But what about other more reputable figures who echoed his slur against the Democratic nominee? The very next day, CNN political analyst and American Enterprise Institute fellow William Schneider endorsed Hastert's remarks about terrorists:
"Well, I can guarantee you, they don't like George Bush. Do they think there's a difference? I think Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida network, who I am certain follow American politics -- look at the messages coming out on their tapes -- they seem to follow politics very closely. They would very much like to defeat President Bush. But the question is: Can they pull off the same trick that they pulled off in Spain? What Dennis Hastert said is, 'They'd better not try that. It won't work here.' And my guess is, he's right about that."
Schneider didn't divulge how he knows that al-Qaida wants to defeat Bush. His expertise lies in the field of public opinion, not terrorist tactics, and he cited no poll that measured the preferences of Osama bin Laden's followers. To put it bluntly, the CNN analyst was talking out of his ass.
There is no evidence of any kind that indicates al-Qaida's preference in the presidential election (aside from a message posted last March by a dubious Egyptian terror cell suggesting that they would rather see Bush win). Let's assume for a moment, however, that our Islamist enemies care who prevails in November. What might sway their preference for one candidate or another?
Competent surveys of international opinion -- which might be of professional interest to Bill Schneider -- indicate an important reason why the crafty bin Laden might conceivably prefer Bush over Kerry. According to an EOS Gallup poll of Europeans and Americans released on Sept. 9 by the German Marshall Fund, support for U.S. foreign policy among our traditional allies has declined by 20 percent since 2002 -- with more than 76 percent of Europeans now expressing disapproval of the president.
The Europeans, whose assistance we rely upon in Afghanistan, and whose help we continue to need both there and in Iraq, believe that the invasion and occupation have "increased the threat of terrorism" around the world. (Incidentally, the same poll shows that 49 percent of Americans agree with that dismal assessment, while only 20 percent believe that the Iraq war has diminished the terrorist threat.)
It isn't that the Europeans don't worry about terrorism, since 71 percent of them said that international terror is an "important or extremely important" problem. It's just that they have lost confidence in the world's sole superpower to lead the war against the terrorists.
Thanks to Bush, the nations that united behind America after 9/11 are now divided and dispirited. Why would bin Laden want that to change?
The German Marshall Fund survey echoed similar findings earlier this year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which tested opinion across Europe as well as in four major, predominantly Muslim nations. In those countries -- Jordan, Pakistan, Morocco and Turkey -- Bush policies have stimulated grave doubt about the purposes of the war on terrorism, which they regard as "an effort to control Mideast oil and to dominate the world."
The same poll showed that large percentages view Osama bin Laden favorably in Pakistan (65 percent), Jordan (55 percent) and Morocco (45 percent). Although bin Laden himself is unpopular in Turkey, where al-Qaida's allies have committed murderous attacks, nearly a third of the Turkish population feels that "suicide attacks against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq are justifiable." As for Europeans surveyed by Pew, they too believe that the war on terrorism was damaged by the Iraq invasion -- and want their governments to pursue policies more independent of Washington.
So Bush has improved bin Laden's standing in the Muslim world and damaged America's standing from East to West. Why would bin Laden want that to change?
No doubt Bush would argue, as he has done repeatedly, that American action has led to the death or apprehension of hundreds of al-Qaida militants, including some of the organization's top leaders. He deserves credit for those efforts, even though his decision to invade Iraq diverted U.S. intelligence and military resources from the war against al-Qaida.
But in the view of real experts on terrorism, the bottom line of the Bush policies is less impressive than the president claims. A year ago, the respected International Institute of Strategic Studies in London released a paper warning that al-Qaida's ranks had grown in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. American claims that the terrorists were "on the run" showed unwarranted overconfidence -- and the IISS presciently predicted that postwar chaos and failure would help bin Laden recruit more young Muslims to his cause.
Michael Scheuer, the CIA analyst and terrorism expert formerly known as Anonymous, agrees with the IISS findings and goes further. He has suggested that al-Qaida is likely so pleased with Bush that its agents might try to help his campaign. In an interview last summer, Scheuer told the Guardian that the White House and Department of Homeland Security alerts about a possible pre-election strike by the terrorists are credible but wrong about the purpose.
The aim would be not to depose the Bush administration but to "mount an attack that would rally the country around the president" and "keep the Republicans in power." As he put it, "I'm very sure they can't have a better administration for them than the one they have now."
Like Schneider and Hastert, of course, Scheuer doesn't really know what al-Qaida wants. The terrorists are sure to continue their jihad against the United States and the West regardless of which party wins power -- but any realistic assessment of the "war on terrorism" is hardly flattering to those in power today.