Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Fear Itself

When Franklin Roosevelt took office as president in 1933, the United States was in the middle of the Great Depression. In fact, there was a worldwide economic depression. Fascism was on the rise in Europe. Mussolini ruled Italy. In January, two months before FDR was inaugurated, Hitler had been sworn in as Chancellor of Germany. On March 4, 1933, the day before Hitler formally consolidated dictatorial power, FDR gave his first inaugural address. Roosevelt told a nation facing economic calamity at home and the growing threat of fascism abroad that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

For Americans in 1933, those must have been powerful, moving words. Even seventy years later, they stir emotion. They also might make today’s Americans wonder where leaders like FDR are to be found now. Today, leaders tell Americans “be afraid, be very afraid.” During last year’s presidential campaign, the Bush campaign ran a television ad, featuring a menacing pack of wolves, that accused John Kerry of weakening America’s defenses and leaving Americans vulnerable. Vice President Cheney warned that if Kerry was elected, “the danger is that we’ll get hit again, that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.” The message was clear: the Bush campaign wanted Americans to be afraid, and hoped that fear, not reason, would move them to vote for Bush.

Even after winning re-election, Bush still wants Americans to be afraid, to give in to the unreasoning, unjustified terror FDR warned Americans against. Earlier this month, in a speech before the National Endowment for Democracy, Bush warned that Islamic radicals have grandly sinister dreams. They seek “to end American and Western influence in the broader Middle East”. They have targeted Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Jordan for “potential takeover.” Bin Laden and his followers are fighting a “war against humanity”. They aim at establishing a “radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.” Militants would also like to “destroy Israel”, “intimidate Europe”, “assault the American people and blackmail our government into isolation.” Ultimately, Bush suggested, they seek dominion over all people—he quoted Al Qaeda’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as threatening to achieve “victory over the human race”. Other leaders are taking Bush’s cue. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney recently said that “Islamic terrorists want to bring down our government” and “put in place a huge theocracy.”

In the NED speech, Bush implicitly compared Bin Laden to Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot and solemnly intoned that “evil men obsessed with ambition…must be taken very seriously…” Of course, no one disputes that Bin Laden must be taken seriously. But he is not Hitler of 1939, or even 1933. He controls no state, no world class military. He does not have the ability to take over another country by force. He may threaten grandiosely evil deeds, but threats do not make it so.

Instead of rationally confronting the problem Bin Laden poses, Bush tries to make us terrified. Yes, Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are a danger. Americans remember what happened on September 11. (In fact, many Americans notice that Bush has not fulfilled his promise to capture Bin Laden “dead or alive”.) But we must not make Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda “franchise” into more than they are. Associating Bin Laden with lofty goals like restoring the Islamic Caliphate adds to the Bin Laden legend as a man who has stared down two superpowers. We do not need to give anyone a reason to believe Bin Laden’s own hype, that he is a once in a millenium hero in the mold of Saladin, the Islamic hero who defeated the Crusaders. That is only likely to make Al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts more fruitful.

The reality is that Al Qaeda has limited resources. Last year, the Institute for Strategic Studies estimated its total strength at less than 20,000. That does not mean Al Qaeda is something to be dismissed. Even a few terrorists can inflict horrible damage. But nothing is to be gained by making Al Qaeda into more than it is. Well, nothing helpful is to be gained. By scaring Americans, Bush may regain his grip on a presidency that is sliding away from him, after the failed response to Katrina, a hopeless war in Iraq, and scandals within the Republican party and possibly the White House itself. But political gain comes at an unconscionable price for Americans, who are asked not to reject fear, but to embrace it, and blindly to assign their trust to a leader who tells them he is the only one who can protect them.

Bush has told us what he thinks Al Qaeda is capable of doing. He neglects to consider what Americans, motivated by real leadership, rather than fear, are capable of doing. A leader who appeals to Americans’ better qualities might find a brave nation, ready to stand up to whatever threats it faces, and unwilling to give in to fear.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Not So Great Expectations for Miers

President Bush has benefited politically from low expectations. During his debates with Al Gore in 2000, absurdly low expectations allowed Bush to claim victory, or at least a respectable showing, by simply managing to show up, stand erect, and not drool on himself. Even in 2004, no one expected much from Bush in debates with his rival John Kerry and low expectations again aided the president.

Low expectations might also help Bush’s Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. Conservatives have described Miers as an unqualified mediocrity. Conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer bluntly stated that “if Miers were not a crony of the president, her nomination to the Supreme Court would be a joke.” Former Nixon loyalist Pat Buchanan described Miers’s qualifications for the Court as “non-existent.”

I am no fan of either Mr. Krauthammer or Mr. Buchanan, but I agree with their assessments. However, Ms. Miers now has nowhere to go but up. The reality is that Ms. Miers is an experienced lawyer who headed up a large law firm and has been White House counsel. Although she may not be John Roberts, she will probably be able to present reasonably coherent answers at her Senate hearing. Given the low expectations set for her, this could help swing the dynamic in her favor. The White House might be able to use even a merely competent performance by Miers at the hearing to argue that people have misjudged her.
If Democrats choose to oppose Ms. Miers (and it is not entirely clear that they will do so—Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid initially seemed to endorse Miers, though he has backed away from that position), they will want to consider how the expectations game might play out. They might want to start talking up Ms. Miers’s experience, predicting that she will do at least a competent job of answering questions from Arlen Specter and Joe Biden. She might not be John Roberts, but it is hard to see her dissolving in a pool of diffidence before the Judiciary Committee.

The point, Democrats might remind us, is not only whether Miers is basically qualified or generally competent. It is whether she will answer questions that tell Americans she is in the mainstream. Republicans have opened the door to challenging Miers on her ideology, and Democrats can now do the same. Republican Senator Sam Brownback has made clear he is skeptical of Miers because of her views, or because he cannot be sure what her views are. Brownback complained that when he met with Miers, she would not discuss Roe v. Wade and did not assure him she was prepared to consider overruling the abortion decision. Gary Bauer, a leading opponent of abortion, has said the fact that Miers is an evangelical does not comfort him—he wants to know what she will do about Roe. Senator Jeff Sessions, like Brownback a Republican member of the Judiciary Committee, worries Miers might be another Souter—someone who betrays conservatives on abortion and other issues: “I think conservatives do not have confidence she has a well-formed judicial philosophy, and they are afraid she might drift and be a part of the activist group like Justice Souter has”.

Republicans used to complain about a litmus test on abortion for Supreme Court nominees. Now they have their own test; no one supporting Roe need apply. Conservatives have made clear that they are willing to oppose nominees based on ideology, which means it can’t be off limits for Democrats to do the same. Democrats who oppose Miers should insist she makes at least some of her views known at the upcoming hearing—this can be done without asking for her opinion on specific cases that may come before the Court.

Americans don’t know much about Miers, who has not served as a judge and has not written about the important issues of the day, and we need to find out whether she is an extremist before we hand her a lifetime seat on the Court. The fact that ultraconservatives like James Dobson and Jay Sekulow have indicated they support her, and that Dobson has cited secret information as the basis for his support, suggests Miers may harbor some extreme views. Some Democrats have signaled that they will indeed focus on Miers’s ideology. Senator Dick Durbin says Miers needs to “explain who she is and what she believes.” Senator Charles Schumer said that Bush’s request that we “trust him” on Miers is not good enough.

Conservatives have given a golden opportunity to Democrats who choose to oppose Miers. Questions about ideology are not off-limits. If Miers refuses to answer such questions, Democrats can follow conservatives in saying that the president’s word here is not good enough and they cannot confirm a blank slate to sit on the highest court in the land.