Ira Chernus  



Ira Chernus

Bush and Kerry have different plans for fighting the "war on terror." The split between them is big enough to see some daylight through. But the really important difference -- the royal gorge of U.S. foreign policy -- is the split between the foreign policy elite, which includes both candidates, and the general public.

The elite, Republican and Democrat alike, know that the terrorism can never be eliminated. They want to take us back to the cold war era, with its policy of endless containment. Neither side will admit it, though, because they fear it would cost them votes. So they have joined together in a solemn conspiracy of silence.

Occasionally the truth does leak out. A recent article in the New York Times Magazine quoted Kerry: ''We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance." Kerry likens terrorism to prostitution and illegal gambling. Weíll never end it. We can only try to reduce it and keep it contained, so that "it's not threatening the fabric of your life."

The Bush campaign jumped on this like duck on a junebug. Kerry doesnít want to win the war on terrorism, the Bushies screamed. The Kerry campaign shot right back, quoting W. himself. Just a few weeks ago, the president said that "you canít win" the war on terror. "You can only hope to make it "less likely that your kids are going to live under the threat of al-Qaida for a long period of time." How long a period of time? "I can't tell you," Bush confessed. "I don't have any Ö definite end."

Later that same day Rush Limbaugh, interviewing Bush, said that terrorism is "always going to happen because it always has." Bush simply replied: "Right."

Maybe thatís why, just nine days after the 9/11 attack, Bush called the war on terror "a task that does not end." Or maybe he was just parroting Vice-President Dick Cheney, who had already said: "There's not going to be an end date when we're going to say, ĎThere, it's all over with.í''

It was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who laid out the administration's view most clearly. After 9/11 he told the press that terrorism would never end. Victory in the new war means simply reaching "a point that you are satisfied that the American people are going to be able to live their lives in relative freedom." The U.S. will have won when "the American people and our interests and friends and allies and deployed forces can go about our business not in fear."

More recently, the first President Bushís national security advisor, General Brent Scowcroft, said that we could win the war on terror only "in the sense that we can win the war on crime. We can break its back so that it is a horrible nuisance and not a paralyzing influence on our societies."

All these Republicans sound a lot like Kerry, donít they?

They also sound a lot like the new Thomas Friedman. The liberal New York Times pundit proudly sides with Kerry: "I dream of going back to the days when terrorism was just a nuisance in our lives." He blasts the Bush administration for being "addicted to 9/11" and using its frightening legacy for so many political purposes. September 11 should be just another day on the calendar, he opines, not "a day that defines us."

Is this the same Tom Friedman who wrote, two days after 9/11, that it was the opening salvo of World War III? Thatís how far liberal opinion has shifted.

Both parties and their candidates agree that terrorism is now a permanent fact of life. They also agree that this is not what the public wants to hear. Victory in the war they care about most -- the one to be decided on November 2 -- requires FDR-style claims that we will fight until the terrorists surrender completely and unconditionally. So both sides duly make those claims, perpetuating a public fantasy of some future V-T (Victory over Terrorism) Day, when we will all dance in the streets and never have to worry about terrorism again.

Itís a dangerous fantasy for a lot of reasons. It gives us an unrealistic view of the present and unrealistic expectations about the future. It fosters a crusade mentality that gives the president, whoever he is, virtually unlimited license to do whatever he wants, as long as he calls it part of the "war on terror." Since both candidates agree that the enemy will be there forever, both expect to have that license forever.

The daylight between Bush and Kerry is the difference in what they would do with that license.

Kerry, and those who would join his administration, see terrorism and organized crime as two halves of the same global walnut, the "chaos" that threatens "civilization" everywhere. Thatís why they are so focused on building alliances. You donít fight this "chaos" with armies, they say, but with Interpol, intelligence (electronic and human), and weapons of high finance. That all takes help from governments everywhere.

The Bush neo-cons donít need allies. They do need terrorists. They want to use an endless "war on terror" as an excuse to keep ratcheting up the already overwhelming U.S. military superiority. And theyíll use that superior force to change a regime now and then, just to show the world who is boss. For those purposes, allies are a drag. They look like a confession of weakness.

Beneath this difference, though, is the common ground that both sides share. Both pander to that big chunk of the public who want the world to be as simple as the OK Corral, where itís white hats against black hats in a fight to the finish. That means we never get to discuss and debate the real issues as our leaders see them.

We certainly never get to question the basic premise of the bipartisan consensus: One way or the other, the forces of multinational corporate capitalism, dragging democracy along in their wake, must annihilate everything that stands in their way.

If we canít debate that premise, what good are free speech, free press, and all our other political rights? In the end, itís democracy that gets gunned down in the dusty streets of electoral politics.