Osama is voting for Kerry -- or is he?

Published September 27, 2004 9:05PM (EDT)

As far as we know, Osama bin Laden has never endorsed a U.S. presidential candidate. But leading Republicans redoubled their efforts during September to convince Americans that the nation's Public Enemy No. 1 is indeed behind John Kerry all the way.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, Sept. 21: Terrorists "are going to throw everything they can between now and the election to try and elect Kerry."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Sept. 18: "I don't have data or intelligence to tell me one thing or another, [but] I would think they would be more apt to go [for] somebody who would file a lawsuit with the World Court or something rather than respond with troops," Hastert said. Asked by a reporter whether he thought al-Qaida would operate more comfortably with John Kerry in the White House, Hastert replied, "That's my opinion, yes."

Vice President Dick Cheney, Sept. 7: "It's absolutely essential that on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that well get hit again, that well be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States," Cheney remarked, also suggesting that with Kerry as president the U.S. would not respond vigorously to a future attack. (After two days of uproar over his comments, Cheney insisted he wasn't implying that the country would be attacked if Kerry were elected. Meanwhile, his regular stump speech barely stops short of that claim: "We've gone on the offense in the war on terror -- and the president's opponent, Senator Kerry, doesn't seem to approve.")

Republican surrogates, of course, like Fox News regular Ann Coulter, are glad to help reinforce the theme: "I think it's unquestionable that Republicans are more likely to prevent the next attack," Coulter said on the Sept. 7 edition of "Hannity & Colmes," adding tastefully, "However, I will grant that John Kerry will improve the economy in the emergency services and body bag industry."

The political savvy of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida is well known to the U.S. intelligence community and beyond, and there can be no doubt that militant Islamists are keeping a close eye on the American presidential race. But while many security and policy experts have argued their cases in both political directions, it's anybody's guess as to whom the terrorists really want to win. In an article in the October issue of Harper's Magazine, editor Luke Mitchell points out (at times with an eyebrow arched) why the GOP's tarring of Kerry as Osama's man in fact approaches the absurd:

"The complexity of the Osama endorsement is compounded by the fact that Osama is a terrorist, and therefore may not be completely candid about his intentions. It is even possible that he will attempt to play our expectations against us. If he really wants Kerry to win the election, for instance, he might try to trick voters with reverse psychology by endorsing Bush. Or he might express an equal preference for both Bush and Kerry, in the hopes of boosting a third-party candidate -- if not Ralph Nader, then perhaps Prohibition Party candidate Gene Amondson."

Um, right. The consumption of alcohol does qualify one as an infidel.

Mitchell also touches on a post-election analysis with which we all hope to struggle: "And what if there is no attack? Would it be a sign of approval from Osama -- and therefore an endorsement -- of whoever was leading the polls at the time of the non-attack? Or, given that we might expect it to be an endorsement, would not the non-attack then be, in fact, a counter-endorsement?"

Indeed, if intelligence professionals must navigate a daunting river of terrorist "chatter," political theorists face an ocean of possible explanations regarding Osama's political preferences -- whether he states them or not. The GOP's "Osama-wants-Kerry" chant, then, can only be taken seriously for what it is -- an orchestrated campaign of fear mongering that is but the continuation of a Bush reelection strategy launched many months ago.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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