Follow-Up On “Terrorism: What Kerry Should (But Will Not) Say”

My response to commenter Herb Richter on this thread became so long that I decided to make it into a new post.


Herb wrote:

Do you seriously believe that the terrorists would abandon months and months of planning because of a few statements by John Kerry saying that he would go after them as well?

I can’t prove that the terrorists would be deterred. However, I’d rather we didn’t run that risk, and it wouldn’t cost Kerry much to make such a statement. We are dealing with marginal effects here, not all-or-none. I think terrorists, on the margin, will be less likely to attack if we reduce the prospective payoff for an attack. One way to reduce that payoff is to eliminate any uncertainty about the harshness of our response.

As for your second point, I think it’s clear that the terrorists understand us in some respects but not others. They were, as you correctly point out, smart enough to plan and implement a large and tactically innovative attack on 9/11, yet they completely misjudged our response. I do not believe that we can predict reliably that they won’t attempt a Madrid-type attack on us. Indeed I am not certain that such an attack on us before the elections wouldn’t be effective in shifting votes away from Bush. I hope that it wouldn’t be but who knows. Given that Kerry is the only person who could state with authority what a Kerry administration would do, I think it would be prudent for him to make clear that a Madrid-type attack would not be effective. Subtlety and ambiguity on our part are not helpful in deterring an enemy who understands only explicit statements and forceful actions.

With respect to your third point:

While Al Qaeda may indeed perceive the Spanish election results as vindication for their tactics, should a democracy really let the fear of future terrorist attacks in other countries keep its citizens from ousting a government that it no longer trusts? If we no longer vote our conscience in an election because of how we think terrorists might perceive the outcome, democracy becomes a futile exercise.

The problem is that the terrorists are involved whether we want them to be or not. We no more have the option of ignoring how our domestic politics plays abroad than did Britons in 1940. Politics, as the famous aphorism puts it, is about the possible. Sometimes that means choosing the lesser evil. I don’t see why reelecting a flawed government that has a decent track record at waging war, as opposed to untested challengers whose alternative vision is, at best, indistinct, isn’t wise behavior for voters in a democracy.

Democratic politics means lots of people have a say in major decisions. Often the choices that voters get are between bad and worse, but the fact that the options aren’t as good as some theoretical alternative doesn’t make democracy a “futile exercise.” Nowadays the enemy gets a vote, too. Ignoring that fact won’t make it go away.

11 thoughts on “Follow-Up On “Terrorism: What Kerry Should (But Will Not) Say””

  1. “Often the choices that voters get are between bad and worse.”

    For people who hold principled positions, i.e. who have strong views on the issues, it wall always be a choice between bad and worse. This because politicians running for office in a community with millions of voters will necessarily have to assemble a coalition to win, and that coalition will require to the successful politician to adopt a range of positions which are not fully coherent and which will contain elements that anyone who has strong views will at least in part object to. Ideologically coherent politicians usually lose. Reagan and Thatcher were partial exceptions, and they disappointed their ideologically coherent supporters when they had to make unprincipled compromises to get part of what they wanted.

  2. We have had serious problems arise from failing to unambiguously declare that an action being considered by a foreign actor would result in a specific US reaction. Best recent example: the US ambassador to Iraq gave Saddam the impression that we would not consider an invasion of Kuwait to be a strike against our vital interests and would be met with force. We wouldn’t even be having this debate if the State Department had done its job in 1990 — 1991. Stating that we will respond with high explosives and bayonets may not discourage al Qaida; failing to state it will effectively invite them to attack.

    We came near making the same mistake with China and Taiwan in the Clinton administration. Link

  3. This may seem to be an aside but …

    Last night, Ted Koppel was interviewing Michael Moore on Night Line re: Kerry’s position on US troops in Iraq.

    The discussion was about Moore being kept at arms length from the convention floor while also being the elephant in the room re: F9/11.

    Moore seemed to be enjoying the juxtaposition of Kerry “building an international coalition to legitimize the endeavor” and knowing that
    such a coalition would be impossible to build since our “allies” aren’t interested. Ergo sum, we would have to withdraw, hope for the best
    and when it fails, it will be our national shame.

    Moore is pretending to be ideological – he’s not for the war, he’s not against the war; he’s for Michael, transgressor extraordinaire.

    Moore’s position is:
    – if Kerry says he’ll stay in Iraq, lots of pissed off delegates (80%, as per MM), mayhem a la Chicago ’68; there’s a movie in there
    somewhere …
    – If Kerry says he’ll leave Iraq, angriest election we’ve seen in a long time, no matter who wins; there’s a movie in there somewhere …

  4. I suggest that an ideologically coherent base position combined with adaptive dynamism in operations is the best we will come up with in the short term.

    The unifying base concept required is quite clear.

    Do we wish to preserve this greatest of social experiments in the form in which we presently envision it?

    On the subject of operational dynamism, the amount of serious discourse coming from the left is dismal in my opinion.

    The only examples of dynamic adaptability I’ve seen on their part is in the number and degree of rhetorical contortions to which they are willing to subject themselves and the public in maintenance of their continued oppostion to the liberation of Iraq.

  5. “…an an ideologically coherent base position combined with adaptive dynamism combined with adaptive dynamism …”

    This can work if you can get something close to a majority to concur with your an ideologically coherent base position, or benefit like Reagan and Thatcher, benefit from the disintegration of your opponents.

    The problem is always the same. You are sure you are right on some major issue — guns, abortion, capitalism, socialism — but those idiot voters who constitute the majority can’t get it through their thick skulls that you are right. One problem with ideologically committed people is that they lack the touch needed to reach a majority and get them to either agree with you or put up with you. That is why ideologically committed people are always working on the margins in modern democracies.

  6. Mitch,

    Here’s a transcript of April Glaspie’s discussion with Hussein:

    If memory serves me well (less each day unfortunately), at the congressional hearings after the debacle, she said “well, we didn’t think he’d take the WHOLE country”.

  7. Okay, Jonathan, here’s a hypothetical for you: Let’s say you are firmly intent on voting for George Bush in November’s presidential elections. Now let’s say Al Qaeda released a statement (which could be confirmed as authentic) in October saying that they would unleash another major attack in the U.S. in December if Bush got re-elected. Obviously it would be impossible to verify if Al Qaeda would follow through on their threat. Would this threat make you not vote for Bush (but rather, for his main opponent to maximize the chances that Bush would be defeated) in order to help deter this potential attack?

  8. Lex,

    You missed my point. The only thing we need to agree upon in order to defend ourselves against the Islamist threat is our mutual desire to preserve our way of life.

    The how-to or operational part must be an adaptive process, in support of this central desire. This part is open to contribution from all corners, so that we’re able to take best advantage of our tremendous human resources and ingenuity.

    It clearly must be adaptive because the threat is adaptive or viral in nature. Our enemies will continue to alter their tactics and methods to best exploit their advantages and our vulnerabilities at any given time.

    We are apparently unable in this election year to unite on the fundamental issue of whether we wish to preserve our way of life.

    An example of this quandary is the Left’s demand that we take no unilateral action overseas, and their concurrent insistence that there be no restriction of civil liberties at home.

    The determination of the Left to cede to the international commmunity our right to act unilaterally in our own defence overseas, increases our vulnerability to futher attack. More attacks would ultimately result in an outcry from an outraged public for greater police powers, and further civil rights restrictions.

    Assume for a moment that the Bush policies are, theoretically, the most rational choice for the U.S. at this time.

    Is it the role of the party in opposition to act against the best interests of the U.S. because it is in their short term political interest?

    Or is their obligation first and foremost the preservation of the greater good?

  9. Herb,

    In your hypothetical, of course I would vote for Bush. Why should I change my behavior? Ignoring the fact that my individual vote is trivial, and looking only at the implied deal, I think it should be obvious that giving in to blackmail doesn’t deter anything. All it does is put you under the control of the blackmailer and make additional demands by him inevitable.

    You can’t make a deal with someone who threatens you. You can pretend to make a deal while you prepare your counter-attack, but a coerced agreement is meaningless. Blackmail is a form of attack using initially nonviolent means with an implied or explicit threat of violence. We should respond to it as we do to other attacks — forcefully.

  10. Jonathan,

    I don’t see how your last answer squares out with your reply to my third point of a prior post. In that post you responded to my comment on the Spanish elections by stating “The problem is that the terrorists are involved whether we want them to be or not. We no more have the option of ignoring how our domestic politics plays abroad than did Britons in 1940.”

    What you are saying, if we take those two posts together, is that you should STILL vote for Bush EVEN IF this might increase the chance of another terrorist attack. But you also say that the Spaniards should NOT have voted for Zapatero BECAUSE this might increase the chance of another terrorist attack. I think the word “hypocritical” is grossly overused, so I’d call this logic inconsistent.

    Of course I agree that you should still vote for Bush in the hypothetical scenario I proposed, and of course I think that the Spaniards were right in voting for Zapatero if they felt so inclined. In a democracy, we cannot let what we think the terrorists might think about this or that candidate deter us from voting for the candidate we think is best for the job.

  11. What I am saying is that people and nations should not give in to blackmail. Aznar understands this principle, I don’t think Zapatero does. Saying that terrorists can influence some of the electorate isn’t the same as saying that we should do what the terrorists demand. I think the candidates who are best for the job nowadays are the ones who can best explain why we should fight.

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