"The war on terror goes on"

The attacks in London are a human tragedy, but it's hard not to think that there's a sense of relief at the White House.

Published July 7, 2005 2:25PM (EDT)

You hate to even think the thought so soon, and yet it's almost impossible not to. The explosions in London this morning are a human tragedy -- officials are now saying that at least 40 people have been killed -- and if we were anywhere near Kings Cross or Tavistock Square right now, we know that the political ramifications of the attacks would be the last thing on our minds. But we're 5,000 miles away from all that, and politics are what we do here. So even if we hate to admit it, we found ourselves thinking pretty quickly this morning about what the London attacks will mean for George W. Bush.

We're sure that the president, like all of us, is deeply concerned for the victims of the attacks -- the families who have lost loved ones, the hundreds of bus passengers and train riders who have suffered injuries, and the 7 million Londoners who are suddenly feeling the kind of shock and vulnerability that the residents of New York and Madrid know all too well. And yet, it's hard to imagine that Bush and his advisors aren't feeling something like a sense of relief this morning, too.

With the need for a strong stand against terrorism fading from our TV screens and our national consciousness -- a Gallup poll released late last month showed that only 35 percent of us fear an imminent terrorist attack, the lowest number since 9/11 -- Americans were beginning to look at what else the Bush administration had to offer, and they weren't happy with what they were seeing. They weren't satisfied with the economy, they were alarmed by the president's plans for Social Security, and -- despite the president's repeated protestations to the contrary -- they were thinking that the war in Iraq was a mistake in the first place and wasn't worth the 1,751 American lives that have been lost fighting it. The president's approval ratings were tanking; as of last week, 53 percent of Americans disapproved of the job Bush was doing, and that was before they came face-to-face with the notion that he may get to replace Sandra Day O'Connor with an anti-abortion extremist or began grappling with the news that Karl Rove may have been the one who broke the cover of a CIA agent for the president's political gain.

None of that changes this morning, but it all takes a backseat to what voters still perceive as Bush's strong suit: He's their wartime president. They may not like much else about the president now, but 55 percent of the American public still approves of his job performance when it comes to the way in which he handles terrorism. That's why Bush and his supporters have been working overtime lately to tie the war in Iraq back into the war on terrorism, to remind everyone who will listen that "America was attacked" on that beautiful Tuesday morning almost four years ago. The president referred to 9/11 six times during his big Iraq speech last week, and he brought it up again as he traveled to Scotland for the G-8 summit this week. "You know, for some in Europe, September the 11th was a tragic date, a terrible moment," Bush said during a press availability in Denmark Wednesday. "For me, and many in the American public, September the 11th was a change of attitude, a recognition that we're involved with a global war against ideological extremists who will kill the innocent in order to achieve their objectives."

The explosions in London today make that point in a way that Bush's words never could, and they do it without the cost to Bush that similar attacks in the United States would bring. It's one of the great unknowns of politics now: How would the American people respond to another attack here? Would they rally around the president again, as they did after 9/11, or would they blame him for not doing a better job of keeping them safe? With attacks on America's closest ally -- on people with whom Americans can identify -- Bush gets the benefit of the fear of terrorism without the risk of having to take responsibility for letting it happen again here.

The president, still in Scotland for the G-8 summit, just spoke briefly about the attacks. He sent his condolences to the people of London, and he reminded Americans that he's doing everything he can to prevent attacks back home. "The war on terror goes on," Bush said, and it was hard not to think that he likes it that way.

By Tim Grieve

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

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