Joe Lieberman on Face The Nation says “our enemies will test the new president early. Remember that the truck bombing of the World Trade Center happened in the first year of the Clinton administration. 9/11 happened in the first year of the Bush administration.” This sounds more like a coincidence to me than a deliberate strategy. If congress had repealed the 22nd amendment and Bill Clinton had won a third term in 2000 (which he surely could have done) then would al-Qaeda really have abandoned its plans?
But if you think Lieberman’s right about this, then it’s not really clear what follows. If terrorist attack frequency is a function of the efficacy of counter-terrorism policies, then clearly you want to pick a president who has good counter-terrorism policies. I say that’s Obama, Lieberman says that’s McCain and then we have the argument. But if Lieberman’s right and an attack is just going to happen one way or another because the enemy wants to “test” the new president, then what’s supposed to determine our choice? What counts as passing the test? I guess Lieberman wants to imply that we haven’t been attacked again (except, of course, for the thousands of Americans who’ve died in Iraq) because Bush passed the test of 9/11, but do we really think al-Qaeda works this way? They’re just kind of probing us, testing, checking us out, and then giving up their efforts?
It doesn’t make sense and it’s a big deal. I’m sure there’s political calculation here and a view that talking about terrorism, no matter how nonsensically, helps conservative candidates. But there’s also a very real underlying incoherence in the conservative conception of how to think about the al-Qaeda phenomenon, an unwillingness to understand efforts to destroy the enemy and secure the United States as a practical problem that requires actual knowledge and reasonably crafted policies. Instead, they prefer to see it as a kind of grown-up version of a staring contest or a power ring battle.
But the fundamental thing to recall about al-Qaeda is that they’re not in a position to “test” us. We are a giant country full of huge cities with a GDP of over $13 trillion, a population of around 300 million, nuclear weapons, aircraft carriers, tanks, etc. and allies that include such major countries as Japan, Britain, France, etc. They are a smallish band of maybe thousands with no heavy weapons whose allies include some tribal leaders in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. Horrible as 9/11 was, they can’t seriously harm the United States except by baiting us into doing incredibly stupid things like responding to fear of their pinpricks by resolving to endlessly prolong a wasteful and pointless military engagement on the other side of the world.