WASHINGTON -- First came the pre-emptive military policy. Now comes the pre-emptive campaign strategy.
Before the president even knows his opponent, his first political ad is blanketing Iowa today.
"It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known," Mr. Bush says, in a State of the Union clip.
Well, that's a comforting message from our commander in chief. Do we really need his cold, clammy hand on our spine at a time when we're already rattled by fresh terror threats at home and abroad? When we're chilled by the metastasizing Al Qaeda, the resurgent Taliban and Baathist thugs armed with deadly booby traps; the countless, nameless terror groups emerging in Turkey, Morocco, Indonesia and elsewhere; the vicious attacks on Americans, Brits, aid workers and their supporters in Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey? The latest illustration of the low-tech ingenuity of Iraqi foes impervious to our latest cascade of high-tech missiles: a hapless, singed donkey that carted rockets to a Baghdad hotel.
Yet the Bush crowd is seizing the moment to scare us even more.
Flashing the words "terrorists" and "self-defense" in crimson, the Republican National Committee spot urges Americans "to support the president's policy of pre-emptive self-defense" — a policy Colin Powell claimed was overblown by the press.
"Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike?" Mr. Bush says.
With this ad, Republicans have announced their intention: to scare us stupid, hoping we won't remember that this was the same State of the Union in which Mr. Bush made a misleading statement about the Iraq-Niger uranium connection, or remark that the imperial idyll in Iraq has created more terrorists.
Richard Clarke, the former U.S. counterterrorism chief, told Ted Koppel that Mr. Bush's habit of putting X's through the pictures of arrested or killed Qaeda managers was very reminiscent of a scene in the movie "The Battle of Algiers," in which the French authorities did the same to the Algerian terrorists: "Unfortunately, after all the known Algerian terrorists were arrested or killed, the French lost. And that could be the thing that's happening here, that even though we're getting all the known Al Qaeda leaders, we're breeding new ones. Ones we don't know about and will be harder to find."
This view of Al Qaeda was echoed by a European counterterrorism official in The Times: "There are fewer leaders but more followers."
The president is trying to make the campaign about guts: he has the guts to persevere in the war on terror.
But the real issue is trust: should we trust leaders who cynically manipulated intelligence, diverted 9/11 anger and lost focus on Osama so they could pursue an old cause near to neocon hearts: sacking Saddam?
The Bush war left our chief villains operating, revved up the terrorist threat, ravaged our international alliances and sparked the resentment of a world that ached for us after 9/11.
Now Mr. Bush says that poor Turkey, a critical ally in the Muslim world, is the newest front in the war on terror. "Iraq is a front," he said. "Turkey is a front. Anywhere the terrorists think they can strike is a front." Here a front, there a front, everywhere a terror front.
In his Hobbesian gloom — "Fear and I were born twins," Hobbes said — Dick Cheney thought an Iraq whupping would make surly young anti-American Arab men scuttle away. Instead, it stoked their ire.
James Goodby and Kenneth Weisbrode wrote in The Financial Times last week that the Bush crew has snuffed the optimism of F.D.R., Ronald Reagan and Bush père: "Fear has been used as a basis for curtailing freedom of expression and for questioning legal rights long taken for granted. It has crept into political discourse and been used to discredit patriotic public servants. Ronald Reagan's favorite image, borrowed from an earlier visionary, of America as `a shining city on a hill' has been unnecessarily dimmed by another image: a nation motivated by fear and ready to lash out at any country it defines as the source of a gathering threat."
Instead of a shining city, we have a dark bunker.
But the only thing we really have to fear is fearmongering itself.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company