George W. Bush is not necessarily the wittiest man to campaign for president since Abraham Lincoln's dry wit drove his detractors to distraction, but he's capable of the occasional zinger. When John Kerry finally answered a crucial question posed by the president and said that, yes, he would have voted to go into Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein even if he knew he wouldn't find a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, the president replied with deadly deadpan:
"I want to thank Senator Kerry for clearing that up," he said. "Although there are still 84 days left in the campaign."
The Kerry staff, recognizing that the race is over when one of the candidates becomes a recognized figure of fun, sent out the big guns to add a soupcon of nuance. The candidate would have waited longer, brought on more allies and worked from a detailed plan to win the peace. Exactly how, no one can say.
Adding insult to insinuation, Susan Rice, Kerry's chief foreign-policy adviser, accused the president of asking "silly questions." When a reporter asked why Mr. Kerry bothered to answer a silly question, she did not reply.
Of course, the question was not silly and it goes to the heart of the reasoning for why we went to war - it was the right time to stand up to Saddam Hussein. Sen. John McCain, campaigning with the president, got it right: The president "took the fight to the enemy ... in a noble and just cause."
Campaign rhetoric, for all of its flaws, forces the focus on the reasons for going to war, and for going to this war specifically, how to fight terrorism in general and what exactly to do next in the present circumstances. Language shapes understanding and analysis. But the language in the debate over the war on terrorism remains vague and imprecise. Walter Laqueur, who has written several books on the subject, reminds us that terrorism is hardly new. It merely comes at us from a new direction.
"Thirty years ago, when the terrorism debate got underway, it was widely asserted that terrorism was basically a left-wing revolutionary movement caused by oppression and exploitation," he writes in the current Policy Review. "Hence the conclusion: Find a political and social solution, remedy the underlying evil - no oppression, no terrorism."
That argument has died and gone to hell. What persists, however, is the argument that poverty is a root cause of terrorism even though it's now abundantly clear that the terrorists, particularly the authors of Sept. 11, grew up in prosperous, educated, middle-class families. In the Arab countries of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, the terrorists sprang not from poverty but from religious fanaticism, where radical imams preached Islamic jihad. The message was intellectual and cultural, not economic or social. This requires us to return the fight on the cultural and educational front. Both candidates must address how to do that.
Islamist terrorism in the Laqueur scenario will continue in the Middle East until the forces of civilization sap their confidence in their hope of forcing a malignant version of Islam on the world. The Islamists must be persuaded over time that they will lose more than they gain. This may be dawning on some of them already in Iraq and Afghanistan (and maybe Libya). But it won't happen overnight. Fanaticism mellows over generations. The harsh attitudes of young men and women may be mellowing now in Iran.
If democratic institutions can take hold in the Middle East - a big if - such institutions would offer future generations realistic alternatives to suicidal terrorism. None of this is rocket science, but modern campaigns, reduced to celebrity endorsements and television sound bites, don't encourage a discussion of issues.
The Democratic National Convention was a carnival of frothy appeals to remembrance of heroics of a distant war, with no consideration that times and wars have changed. We can be mildly reassured that John Kerry now stands by his vote to go to war on Iraq, but his subsequent vote against funding the troops, and his suggestion that he would bring them home before the Iraqis have established order, reinforces his reputation for sending "mixed signals."
George Bush has shown that we can destroy a ruthless dictator, disrupt terrorist camps and put intelligence to work to prevent future mischief. But we're dealing with a hydra-headed monster that grows a new head every time we behead one of them.
The president has an opportunity at the Republican convention later this month in New York to put "the vision thing" (as his father would call it) to work. He has an opportunity to frame the important issues of foreign policy without cluttering them with an excess of nuance.