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The Politics of Fear

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Rahmat Gul/AP Images
Afghans inspecting a house in Jalalabad damaged by a crashed drone, August 21, 2011

Seizing hold of this rather unpromising germ of sordid violence, the well-tuned scandal machinery of the right—the oversight committees in the Republican-controlled Congress working hand in glove with ardent publicists on Fox News and other outlets—probed and exploited its ambiguities and, with the considerable help of the administration’s own initial mistakes, inflated it into, in Governor Romney’s words, an “attack by terrorists…[that] calls into question the president’s whole policy in the Middle East.” In this task they were helped immeasurably not only by the ongoing inability of intelligence officials and reporters to answer definitively some critical questions—such as the group’s true relationship to al-Qaeda—but by an initial shading of the story by some Obama officials that may have been politically motivated, for the wedge needed to broaden the disputed events of Benghazi into this broad indictment was the implication, and later the assertion, that the administration lied. Though President Obama did refer vaguely to “acts of terror” in his Rose Garden statement the morning after the attack, the insistence by other officials that the attack was “spontaneous, not premeditated” led Republicans to charge what has become necessary for the construction of any respectable American political scandal: a cover-up.

What was being covered up? Since the White House was “trying to sell a narrative, quite frankly, about the Mideast that the wars are receding and that al-Qaeda’s been dismantled,” as Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina put it, acknowledging that “an al-Qaeda-affiliated militia” had attacked the US consulate in “the first successful terrorist attack on our country since September 11, 2001”—the words are Ari Fleischer’s, George W. Bush’s former spokesman—would not only have undermined that story but revealed instead “the absolute unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.” The Republican vice-presidential candidate went on to shape that argument in familiar terms:

What we are witnessing is the projection of weakness. And that projection of weakness emboldens our adversaries and scares our allies. You see, if we look weak, our adversaries are more willing and more brazen [sic] to test us, and our allies are less willing to trust us. It’s a dangerous world. We are at war with terrorists. Let’s not forget that.

The words recall not only President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign—when Vice President Cheney warned voters that “if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we’ll get hit again and we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating”—but echo cold war warnings not to “show weakness” before the monolithic power of the Soviet Union. Governor Romney expanded the analogy in his foreign policy address on October 8:

The attack on our Consulate in Benghazi on September 11th, 2012 was likely the work of forces affiliated with those that attacked our homeland on September 11th, 2001…. These attacks were the deliberate work of terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others…; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West….
This is the struggle that is now shaking the entire Middle East to its foundation…a struggle between liberty and tyranny, justice and oppression, hope and despair.
We have seen this struggle before. It would be familiar to George Marshall. In his time, in the ashes of world war, another critical part of the world was torn between democracy and despotism.

In the face of this challenge, as the governor put it during the second debate on October 16, “the president’s policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour and—and—and pursue a strategy of leading from behind, and this strategy is unraveling before our very eyes.”

The logic here is shaky indeed: that Obama officials shaped their early accounts for political motives has by no means been proved; indeed, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal published on the morning of the third and final debate, the president himself “was told in his daily briefing for more than a week after the consulate siege…that the assault grew out of a spontaneous protest.”10 One might expect this information would dim the ardor of Republicans convinced that the administration was trying to cover up the facts. Still, whatever new leaks may or may not tell us in coming days about what the government knew, what happened in Benghazi seems a very far cry from the unraveling of the country’s Middle East policy.

But the terms here preexisted the event; the constellation of words and symbols meant to elicit apprehension and vulnerability and fear have been established by long practice and only await the “content” that will set them in motion. Still, this content, at least what we know of it so far, seems unequal to the task. It is as if a large, mechanical monster, complete with frightful grimace and bared teeth, has been dragged, clanking and clattering, back out on stage, but though the great old beast still engenders apprehension, the figure its masters are hoping to fit inside to reanimate it is simply too small and too puny to put it convincingly through its paces.

The second problem is that in place of Obama’s “unraveling” foreign policy Governor Romney offers little more than…Obama’s foreign policy, after adding a sprinkling of platitudes and a strong dose of nostalgia. A Romney administration would supply not a new initiative in the Middle East—an effort to address the Palestinian issue, for example—but…“leadership,” along with “confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose and resolve in our might.” In practical terms, this would seem to mean maintaining Obama’s sanctions on Iran, and perhaps tightening them; pursuing Obama’s “real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014” while “evaluat[ing] conditions on the ground”; supplying arms through third parties to some factions of the Syrian rebels, as the Obama administration is reportedly already doing; “reaffirm[ing]” the country’s “historic ties” to Israel; and “deepen[ing] our critical cooperation with our partners in the Gulf.” President Romney would add fifteen new ships a year to the US Navy, doubling the current building program, and would “roll back President Obama’s deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense”—though these do not in fact exist, having been agreed to with Republicans in a wholly notional budget deal (called “sequestration”). Finally, bringing together all these minute “initiatives,” we have the capstone in Romney’s foreign policy address:

There is a longing for American leadership in the Middle East…. It is broadly felt by America’s friends and allies in other parts of the world as well—in Europe, where Putin’s Russia casts a long shadow over young democracies…. I believe that if America does not lead, others will—others who do not share our interests and our values—and the world will grow darker….

The music is familiar here, the tunes a half-century old, but in the lyrics we find no new ideas, no creative policies—to deal with Egypt, for example, and the other challenges presented by the young, struggling democracies of the Middle East and North Africa. Here a new initiative on the Palestinian issue, vigorously pursued, might actually reduce the influence of extremist forces, and the anti-American sentiments on which they thrive, and help to stabilize struggling moderate governments of countries, like Egypt, that have long been allied to the US. But what we get is only a vague reference to negotiations and the hope, privately expressed and no doubt more sincere, that when it comes to this conflict a President Romney would “kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”

Though Obama’s policies in the Middle East, after the grand rhetorical gestures at the start of his term, have been largely improvisational and opportunistic—and though those policies are now dangerously “unraveling”—to replace them Romney can offer only a longing for an imagined past in which aircraft carriers and the “leadership” they convey could keep the old familiar order, autocratic, sclerotic, predictable, firmly in place. Whatever else one can say about today’s Middle East, that order is largely gone. In response to the roiling political struggles that have overtaken it, we hear only a pale conjuring of fear, and behind that only silence.

Against this inarticulate longing stands President Obama and his ferocious prosecution of the war on terror. If the politics of fear has lost its magic for the Republican right it is not least because its methods have been co-opted by the Democrat in the White House, who has been relentless in hunting down terrorists, and those who may look like terrorists, and killing them by the thousands. No one can criticize him for investigating the CIA for torture, for he has conducted no such investigation. No one can attack him for abandoning President Bush’s indefinite detention policy because he has, in the case of the prisoners who “can neither be tried nor released,” regularized and legalized it. And no one can denounce him for closing Guantánamo because Guantánamo has not been closed.11

Indeed, Republicans, who reportedly plan to reinstate “enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees” in a Romney administration, make the plausible claim that the president, after officially halting torture on his second day in office, has in practice avoided the knotty questions of interrogation, “enhanced” or otherwise, by managing during his war on terror to avoid taking prisoners.12 Drones have largely replaced the interrogation room. And our leaders and those seeking to replace them will not debate drone warfare because on this as on other pressing matters raised by our permanent war on terror there is no longer an opposition. Both parties have embroiled themselves full-force in the struggle to be tough, and tougher. If President Obama has made himself largely invulnerable to the politics of fear it is because he has to a great extent taken it over in advance by his cool and ruthless methods, and left little political space for discussion.

This then is the final silence of our election campaign, particularly resonant here in the hills of Palestine. Across eleven years of the war on terror, and two presidents, the politics of fear have not been forestalled, or banished, or defeated. The politics of fear have been embodied in the country’s permanent policies, without comment or objection by its citizenry. The politics of fear have won.

—October 24, 2012

  1. 10

    See Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman, “Intelligence Stressed Libya Protest Scenario,” The Wall Street Journal, October 22, 2012. 

  2. 11

    Today 166 detainees remain in Guantánamo, down from a peak of 779 under George W. Bush and 242 under Obama. See “ Guantanamo by the Numbers,” Human Rights First

  3. 12

    See “ Interrogation Techniques,” a campaign policy paper written by former Bush and Reagan officials, which notes that “Governor Romney has recommended for years that a sounder policy outcome is the revival of the enhanced interrogation program” and urges him to “expressly endorse such an outcome during the campaign,” or risk “signaling to the bureaucracy that this is not a deeply-felt priority.” Also Charlie Savage, “Election to Decide Future Interrogation Methods in Terrorism Cases,” The New York Times, September 27, 2012. 

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