The terrorist "nuisance": Global Test, Part II

Published October 11, 2004 6:36PM (EDT)

The comment came late in Sunday's long New York Times Magazine piece on Kerry's vision on the war on terror. Asked what it would take to make Americans feel safe again, Kerry said that the United States needs to "get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance." He explained: ''As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life.''

It's a perfectly reasonable, if nuanced point of view, but anyone reading it had to know what was coming next: Global Test, Part II. In the first presidential debate, Kerry said that the United States should launch a pre-emptive war only if it is prepared "to prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons." The Republicans had a field day with the comment -- or at least their distorted take on it -- slamming Kerry for believing that the United States must "pass a global test" before defending itself. It's not what Kerry said, but that hasn't stopped the Republicans from repeating the charge virtually every day on the campaign trail.

It took the Republicans all of a day to give Kerry's "nuisance" line a similar misreading. The Bush-Cheney campaign launched a new TV ad Sunday suggesting that Kerry had called terrorism a "nuisance," and Bush-Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt said Monday that Kerry's "characterization of terrorism as a 'nuisance' shows that he doesn't recognize the threats facing this country."

To his credit, Bush himself has come pretty close to characterizing Kerry's remarks correctly. At a rally in New Mexico this morning, the president said: "Senator Kerry talked of reducing terrorism to -- quote -- "nuisance" -- end quote -- and compared it to prostitution and illegal gambling. See, I couldn't disagree more. Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of nuisance. Our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive, destroying terrorists, and spreading freedom and liberty around the world."

But in his interview with Matt Lauer in August, Bush said that goal was unattainable, and he sounded a whole lot like John Kerry in the process. When Lauer asked about the war on terror, the president said: "I don't think you can win it. I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world." Bush subsequently explained that what he really meant was that the war on terrorism isn't a conventional war that will end with the signing of a treaty.

Somehow, it all reminds us of something our president once told us: "The president must speak clearly, and when he says something, must mean what he says." It also reminds us of something Kerry advisors Mike McCurry and Tad Devine have been saying a lot lately: George W. Bush isn't running against John Kerry; he's running against a the Bush-Cheney caricature of him.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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