Once upon a time we had a great wartime president who told Americans they had nothing to fear but fear itself. Now we have George W. Bush, who uses fear as a tool of executive power and as a political weapon against his opponents.
Franklin D. Roosevelt tried his best to allay his nation's fears in the midst of an epic struggle against fascism. Bush, as he leads the country in a war whose nature he is constantly redefining, keeps fear alive because it has been so useful. His political grand vizier, Karl Rove, was perfectly transparent the other day when he emerged from wherever he's been hiding the past few months - consulting omens, reading entrails - and gave the Republican National Committee its positioning statement for the fall elections: Vote for us or die.
Democrats "have a pre-9/11 worldview" of national security that is "deeply and profoundly and consistently wrong," Rove said. The clear subtext was that Americans would court mortal danger by electing Democrats. Go forth and scare the hell out of them, Rove was telling his party, because the more frightened they are, the better our chances.
To cultivate fear for partisan gain is never a political tactic to be proud of, but Rove's prescription of naked fear mongering is just plain reprehensible when the nation faces a shifting array of genuine, serious threats. This is a moment for ethical politicians - and, yes, these days that seems like an oxymoron - to speak honestly about what dangers have receded, what new dangers have emerged, and how the imperatives of liberty and security can be balanced.
From the likes of Rove, I guess, we shouldn't expect anything more noble than win-at-all-costs. But we do have the right to expect more from the president of the United States, and while Bush gives off none of Rove's Sith-lord menace, he has made the cultivation of fear a hallmark of his governance.
At his news conference, Bush was asked again about the domestic surveillance he has ordered the National Security Agency to conduct without seeking warrants - a program that seems to violate the law. In his meandering answer, the president kept throwing in the phrase "to protect the American people." I suspect that's a line that tests well in focus groups, but it doesn't really say anything. The fact that we expect any president to protect us does not obviate the fact that we expect any president to obey the law.
Bush mentioned the new tape from Osama bin Laden that surfaced the other day, calling it a reminder that we face "an enemy that wants to hit us again." That's certainly true, but the warning would carry more gravitas if Bush and his administration didn't brag so much about how thoroughly Al Qaeda has been routed and decimated. Is anybody keeping track of how many "No. 3" or "No. 4" Al Qaeda lieutenants U.S. forces claim to have eliminated?
And Americans would be better able to measure the threat from Osama bin Laden if Bush and the rest of his administration didn't argue - when it gives them an edge - that Iraq is the "central front in the war on terrorism." If Iraq is the main event, then Osama's, huddled in some cave in northern Pakistan, must be just a sideshow, right? But of course he's not a sideshow, he's the author of the Sept. 11 attacks, so what does that make Iraq? The answer seems to depend on whether, at any given time, Bush believes that cultivating fear of Osama bin Laden or stoking fear of a terrorist spawning ground in Iraq would better help his administration achieve its ends.
The thing is, fear works. The administration successfully invoked the fear of "mushroom clouds" to win support, or at least acquiescence, for the invasion of Iraq. By the time it was clear there were no weapons of mass destruction, the fear of losing to terrorists on the "central front" had been given primacy. We stopped hearing the name bin Laden so often - no need to bring attention to the fact that he remained at large - until reports emerged of secret CIA prisons, torture and domestic spying.
Osama bin Laden does remain a threat. He would hit the United States again if he could. We do expect the president to protect us. But a great wartime leader rallies his citizens by informing them and inspiring them. He certainly doesn't use threats to our national security for political gain. He doesn't just point at a map and say "Boo."
Eugene Robinson is an associate editor of The Washington Post and writes about politics and culture.
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