Sunday, August 3, 2008

If I Were Al-Qaeda

If I were Al-Qaeda, I would want John McCain to defeat Barack Obama in November. Between the two, McCain seems much more likely to perpetuate Bush Administration policies and attitudes that have been so disastrous for American influence. McCain does not presently look likely to win. It was remarked not long ago, however, that a terrorist strike would help his candidacy. The concept appeared to be that McCain is seen as more of a commander-in-chief than Obama, and a threat to the nation would tend to remind voters of the need for an experienced and steady hand at the tiller in times of crisis. One challenge, for Al-Qaeda, would be to time such an attack just right. If it came too soon, voters might recover and see it in perspective. That seems especially true in the wake of 9/11. That was, in some ways, the first time; that was the true shocker. People would less likely be stunned and at a loss this time; the effect would likely be more short-lived. There is a possible exception if the attack was truly huge. A terrorist attack could be counterproductive for Al-Qaeda, if it conveyed the message that the Bush Administration approach has failed after all. A truly huge attack would be especially likely to send that sort of signal. Obama could easily point out that, all these years after 9/11, the terrorists retain the ability to attack so powerfully because the Republican approach has not really worked. Probably the more successful approach, for Al-Qaeda, would be to mount a more modest attack that would nonetheless be large enough to make voters worry. It may be possible to do so without simultaneously raising the concern that Bush Administration methods are failing. One approach would be to make it a counterattack, in retaliation for some action taken by the Americans. That is, if the U.S. appears to have achieved some telling strike against Al-Qaeda, then an Al-Qaeda counterattack could threaten voters and yet could seem to confirm that the U.S. is winning the war on terror. Suppose, for example, that the U.S. has been free at any time to undertake airstrikes on Al-Qaeda leaders on Pakistani soil. It is intriguing that the U.S. has only now done so, killing several leading Al-Qaeda figures in a recent attack there. Why now -- why not years ago, when we enjoyed a cozier relationship with Musharraf? It would be most interesting if the U.S. launched several more successful attacks of that nature, or captured Osama bin Laden, or otherwise facilitated the widespread belief that we are winning both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. McCain could then argue, with ever more confidence and persuasiveness, that the Bush Administration's approach is working, and that Obama displayed cowardice and inexperience in opposing it. The capture of bin Laden, to use that example, could easily be played up as a dire offense against Al-Qaeda -- as an act that calls for retaliation. Their retaliatory terror strike against the U.S. -- taken, say, in the week before Voting Day in November -- could prompt voters to rally around the flag. Moreover, if it was not a massive strike, it could also permit McCain to say, "See? We captured their biggest guy, and this is the best they can do. This is not the World Trade Center over again. We have weakened them." This little scenario is in the nature of a conspiracy theory. I do not have any information to suggest that the White House and Al Qaeda are in any way cooperating with each other. I do read news reports, and I am puzzled at the belated timing of this recent Pakistan strike. I also believe bin Laden has long had enemies who would long ago have turned him in, in exchange for that U.S. reward money. But there may be good explanations for such things. Be that as it may, it does seem that a McCain victory in November would be better for Al Qaeda, not in terms of military tactics on the ground, but in terms of long-term global strategy. I have no idea if Osama bin Laden thinks along such lines. But there may be shrewd and powerful people -- not only in the Mideast, but also in Russia, China, and elsewhere -- who share, with Al Qaeda, an interest in weakening the United States. I would expect persons of that sort to be seeking out ways to continue to reduce U.S. influence around the world. It is conceivable that they would render direct or indirect support to John McCain's campaign. A series of positive developments for the U.S. in Afghanistan could serve such a purpose. So could a well-timed terror strike in the United States itself. Most likely, the autumn presidential campaign will unfold without any such drama. But if events of these types do begin to unfold, it may be appropriate to ask, not what is Al Qaeda doing now, but what will Al Qaeda be doing on the day after the election? John McCain may make a very good general in a war. But as they say, politics is often the continuation of war by other means. Or as Vietnam should have taught us, war is too important to leave to the generals.