Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Politics of Fear

It was widely reported in the independent press and blogs (see here and here) that the Bush administration used terror alerts during the 2004 presidential campaign to create an atmosphere of fear that would make Americans less likely to elect John Kerry to replace George Bush. The tactic worked exactly as they planned, and the corporate media never really picked up the story (although Time eventually did a story about it -- in 2006).

Now comes more evidence of their tactics in the form of memos issued by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. As reported in the Washington Post:

In a series of internal musings and memos to his staff, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld argued that Muslims avoid "physical labor" and wrote of the need to "keep elevating the threat," "link Iraq to Iran" and develop "bumper sticker statements" to rally public support for an increasingly unpopular war.

The memos, often referred to as "snowflakes," shed light on Rumsfeld's brusque management style and on his efforts to address key challenges during his tenure as Pentagon chief. Spanning from 2002 to shortly after his resignation following the 2006 congressional elections, a sampling of his trademark missives obtained yesterday reveals a defense secretary disdainful of media criticism and driven to reshape public opinion of the Iraq war.

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Under siege in April 2006, when a series of retired generals denounced him and called for his resignation in newspaper op-ed pieces, Rumsfeld produced a memo after a conference call with military analysts. "Talk about Somalia, the Philippines, etc. Make the American people realize they are surrounded in the world by violent extremists," he wrote.

A major part of the Bush administration's post-9/11 strategy has been to keep Americans convinced that they are unsafe in a world filled terrorist threats. Like all false-truths, there is an element of truth in their claims, but there has been no evidence that we are only just barely keeping the barbarians at bay, which is what they would have us think.

The downside for all of us in this strategy is that the administration has used this manufactured climate of fear to systematically eliminate our Constitutional rights, one by one, many of them in signing statements.

From Gary Hart and Joyce Appleby, writing at George Mason University's History News Network:

George W. Bush and his most trusted advisers, Richard B. Cheney and Donald H. Rumsfeld, entered office determined to restore the authority of the presidency. Five years and many decisions later, they've pushed the expansion of presidential power so far that we now confront a constitutional crisis.

Relying on legal opinions from Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and Professor John Yoo, then working at the Justice Department, Bush has insisted that there can be no limits to the power of the commander-in-chief in time of war. More recently the president has claimed that laws relating to domestic spying and the torture of detainees do not apply to him. His interpretation has produced a devilish conundrum.

President Bush has given Commander-in-Chief Bush unlimited wartime authority. But the "war on terror" is more a metaphor than a fact. Terrorism is a method, not an ideology; terrorists are criminals, not warriors. No peace treaty can possibly bring an end to the fight against far-flung terrorists. The emergency powers of the president during this "war" can now extend indefinitely, at the pleasure of the president and at great threat to the liberties and rights guaranteed us under the Constitution.

Or this book review from Truthout:

In a new book, "Less Safe, Less Free: Why America Is Losing the War on Terror," law professors David Cole and Jules Lobel argue that the problem lies in the aggressive "preventive paradigm" the Bush administration adopted in the wake of 9/11.

The authors note that the administration "is fond of reminding us that no terrorist attacks have occurred on domestic soil since 9/11," but they ask, "Has the administration's 'war on terror' actually made us safer?"

Their answer: "While the 'preventive paradigm' can point to few gains in our security, it has come at great cost to our ideals. In the name of preemptive security, the administration has undertaken torture, indefinite detention without trial, extraordinary renditions, disappearances into CIA 'black sites,' warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, and an illegal and disastrous war in Iraq."

These measures, they add, "constitute the core of the 'preventive paradigm,' and have compromised the most basic commitments of the rule of law. And by doing so they have actually impeded our efforts to bring known terrorists to trial, limited our long-term options for security, sparked anti-American resentment and terrorist recruitment, and undermined relations even with our closest allies."

The politics of fear have served the Republicans well over the last seven years. Among the current crop of contenders for the GOP nomination, Rudy Giuliani -- more than anyone else -- is relying on the same tactic. He has positioned himself as the 9/11 candidate, making nearly constant references to his "leadership" following the 9/11 attacks. No matter that his mistakes made the rescue effort less effective.

Even Hillary Clinton is making use of this tactic. She refuses to recant her support of the Iraq War and has talked tough in regard to dealing with Iran. She is positioning herself as the only Democrat who has the toughness to deal with the falsely-termed "war on terror." As a woman, she may feel she has to do this, but I think it is more a case of doing what works.

I have a sense that people respond more to fear than to hope. Maybe there are some evolutionary psychologists somewhere who can she light on this topic, but my fear is that politicians have learned this lesson so well that we will be faced with fear-mongering for the near future as the primary election tactic.

Rove, Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld refined the approach in ways it had never been used before (which is not to say it is a new approach, only that they have made it an art). It makes me sad to think that we elect leaders based on fear rather than on hope for a better future.

What a different country this might be if we had leaders who appealed to our better angels.

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