What do the terrorists want in a president?

At the center of the Bush re-election campaign is a constellation of arguments that attempt to show that electing Kerry is tantamount to losing the “war on terror.” Some of these arguments focus on Kerry’s character specifically his lack of resolve; Some focus on his supposed unwillingness to do whatever is necessary to protect the United States when it runs in the face of world opinion. The most interesting and probably the most pernicious arguments, however, are those that suggest or outright assert the identity of Kerry’s electoral success and the terrorist’s success. This raises hackles. There seems to be something suspicious, manipulative, and morally suspect about this argument and with good reason, some have recognized a certain similarity to the political tactics of Joseph McCarthy.

Charles Krauthammer (Source: WaPo 10/08/04), however, is incredulous that anyone could even doubt that the terrorists aren’t cheering for Kerry.

>Do the bad guys–the terrorists in their Afghan caves and Iraqi redoubts–want George Bush defeated in the election?

>Of course, the terrorists want Bush defeated. How can anyone pretend otherwise?

Even though we don’t know who the American people want with our incessant polling and analysis, Krauthammer believes that the evidence is so overwhelming that we can know with virtual certainty the electoral preferences of the terrorists.

Michael Kinsley “with his usual drollery” ridiculed this argument in a recent WaPo editorial [(Source: WaPo 9/25/04)](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A49281-2004Sep25.html), suggesting first that we have no reason to conclude that Osama bin Laden would prefer one candidate over the other, and second that there is little reason to think that he would prefer Kerry rather than Bush.

But we should examine Krauthammer’s evidence for this conclusion:

>We know the terrorists’ intent and strategy. We saw it on display in Spain, where a spectacular terrorist attack three days before the national election set off the chain of events that brought down a government that had allied itself with the United States. The attack worked perfectly. Within weeks Spain had withdrawn its troops from Iraq.

>Last month, terrorists set off a car bomb outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, in the middle of a neck-and-neck Australian election campaign and just three days before the only televised debate between the two candidates. The prime minister, John Howard, is a staunch U.S. ally in both Afghanistan and Iraq. His opponent, Mark Latham, has pledged to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas.

It seems at first reasonable, perhaps, to conclude that these two acts directed as they were against members of our “coalition” have as their goal affecting the electoral outcomes in these countries. In one case, at least, we know that it did. Whether it was the intention of the perpetrators is perhaps a different question. This could almost become a version of the *post hoc propter hoc* fallacy, if there was not any other evidence (as in fact there is) to support it: The Madrid bombing affected the outcome of the Spanish election. The bombing occured right before the Spanish election. Therefore the intention of the bombing was to affect the Spanish election.

Nevertheless, I am not equipped to to examine the truth or falsity of these premises, only their logical connection to Krauthammer’s conclusion. Let’s grant Krauthammer that the perpetrators of these acts intend or intended to influence these elections. Does that provide any reason to suppose that the terrorists want Bush to lose the election?

I think the interesting step in the argument occurs in a series of rhetorical questions:

>Why are we collectively nervous about terrorism as the election approaches? Because, as everyone knows, there are terrorists out there who would dearly love to hit us before the election. Why? To affect it. What does that mean? Do they want to affect it randomly? Of course not.

Here Krauthammer suggests that the terrorists want to perpetrate an act similar to the Madrid bombing. By analogy this suggests that they want Bush out of office, just as they wanted Jose Marie Aznar out of office. Undoubtedly we are collectively afraid of a similar act on the eve of the presidential election. But do we have reason to be afraid? And more importantly does our fear have any significance in the argument for Krauthammer’s conclusion?

I suspect that this fear plays a significant part in any willingness to grant Krauthammer’s inference. It is extremely hard to separate the truth of the statement once we are afraid of it: the fact that we are afraid of it, suggests immediately to us that it is true (or else we would no longer be afraid). A child who is afraid of the monster under the bed is afraid because he or she thinks that there is or might be a monster under the bed. Our fear of a terrorist attack to upset the election, however, does not mean that the terrorists want to upset the election with an attack. (Of course, it is still possible that there is a monster under the bed).

In a nutshell Krauthammer argues:

1. Terrorists influenced the Spanish election against the incumbent.
2. Terrorists have committed a terrorist act directed at Australia on the eve of the election.
3. Spain, Australia and the U.S. are enemies of the terrorists.
4. We are afraid of a terrorist attack right before the election.
5. Therefore, the terrorists want Bush defeated.

Yet after seemingly drawing this analogical inference, (buttressed by the appeal to our fears) Krauthammer has to point out that the essential point of analogy in fact doesn’t hold in the case of the U.S.

>As Sept. 11 showed, attacking the U.S. homeland would prompt a rallying around the president, whoever he is. America is not Spain. Such an attack would probably result in a Bush landslide.

If this is so, then perhaps there is no reason to infer that because the terrorists aimed to remove Aznar (again assuming that is true) they are aiming to remove Bush. (And we can note in passing that the document found on the internet from December 2003 outlining the strategy of undermining the coalition explicitly distinguishes between Britain, Poland and the U.S. and the remaining nations. The strategy of affecting policy through terrorism is formulated only for the latter (Source: New Yorker, August 2, 2004)).

But once he has drawn the analogy, he believes that he has shown its truth and thus uses the fact that the terrorists want to oust Bush to explain the escalation of violence in Iraq:

> The enemy is nonetheless far more likely to understand that the way to bring down Bush is not by attack at home but by debilitating guerrilla war abroad, namely in Iraq. Hence the escalation of bloodshed by Zarqawi and Co. It is not just aimed at intimidating Iraqis and preventing the Iraqi election. It is aimed at demoralizing Americans and affecting the American election.

There are many things wrong with this last step, but I will limit myself to two comments:

First, even if it is plausible that part of the intention among some of the insurgents in Iraq is to affect the election, it is seemingly implausible that this is the motivation of the increase in attacks. The causes are far more complex than Krauthammer suggests. Does he really believe that if Bush won, or if there was not an election this year, the insurgency would stop or even just decrease or not have increased in the first place? There is a fundamental confusion about correlation and causation here I think.

Second, there is good reason to question Krauthammer’s use of this elastic and amorphous term “terrorist” to include both al Qaeda and its associates, and the various factions fighting the insurgency in Iraq. It is entirely possible that Osama bin Laden and the insurgency in Iraq have very different desires and interests in this case. Osama bin Laden has it seems been immeasurably benefitted by the invasion of Iraq (as Kinsley plausibly argues) and might prefer it to continue indefinitely. The insurgents are presumably less pleased with Bush’s occupation.

So what reason do we have to believe that Krauthammer is right? None whatsoever is supplied by Krauthammer. His argument is ultimately an appeal to the obviousness of the claim contained in the quote with which I started. Everything else is smoke and mirrors. This does not, of course, mean that he is wrong. Only that he has not given us reason to believe that he is right.