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