Thursday, July 22, 2004

Soft Target

The Guardian today publishes a commentary by Timothy Garton Ash, who uses his experience to travel to the US on a J-1 visa to write on all the hassle he experienced (J-1 visa were the visa-of-choice of some of the 9/11 terrorists) and linking it to yet another Bin-Laden-Wants-Bush-To-Win-In-November theory.

To explain his theory, he tells us that the US is rapidly losing its 'soft power' in the world, by which he refers to "its power to attract others and to get them to do what it wants because they find it attractive". To roughly determine 'soft power', Garton Ash uses what he calls the 'Statue of Liberty test': the number of people trying to get in, divided by the number of people trying to get out (or, in the case of the US, just leaving).

He could have used US exports (up), or Free Trade Agreements signed (Morocco, Australia, Chile,ASEAN countries, Thailand, among others) or things like that, but I guess he wanted to stick with the coat hanger for his comments, and settled with immigration divided by emigration.

Which of course, produces the highest rating of any large country in the world.

Not thrown off by this, Garton Ash reaches deeper:

But this is more than just a personal grouse. Heads of leading American universities have publicly complained that such bureaucratic and intrusive procedures are reducing the number of foreign students willing and able to come to study in the US. (I have heard it argued in London that this creates a significant opportunity for British universities.) This raises the larger question of whether the United States' "soft power", its power to attract others and to get them to do what it wants because they find it attractive, has been diminished by the way the Bush administration has reacted to the 9/11 attacks. That, in turn, raises the even larger question of who is winning this "war": al-Qaida or the US?
So, because some American universities may find it harder to recruit students in foreign countries (which countries he doesn't say), Al Qaeda is winning the War on Terror?
Yet its overall attractiveness surely has been diminished, not just by such bureaucratic procedures, but by Guantánamo, by Iraq, by a certain harsh, militarist, nationalist approach to world affairs, and by a mistaken belief that the "war on terror" can be won mainly, if not solely, by military, intelligence and police means.

If you look at the results of the worldwide survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre, you can see that resentment of America around the world has reached unprecedented levels in the last two years. The Bush administration has imperilled the economic dimension of American power, by running up $500bn trade and budget deficits while increasing military spending to $400bn, and it has largely neglected the third, soft dimension. Meanwhile, even the one in five Americans who possess a passport have become more reluctant to travel outside North America. To give just one small example: American customers of Avis car rentals in Europe are down 40% on 2000 levels. There's a real sense of a "Fortress America".
Hehe, gotta love that effort to put the 'á' in Guantánamo. The Pew survey I recall is about a year old, and as to the economic dimension of American power, it made me think of another successful US President. But wait, it's the Soft Dimension (ie. heads of certain US universities)! How he links all this to Americans' reluctance to travel abroad (go figure) backed up by lower car rentals in Europe and weaves it into the concept of 'Fortress America' is beyond me, frankly. Kind of comes off as a guy being bored at an airport, with some old newspapers around and a friendly Avis hostess nearby.

He then goes on to make a case for Kerry (to whom he refers as "the liberal, multilateralist, French-speaking John Kerry"), hoping that he can restore the "Kennedyesque glow" to America. He thinks it might be too late for Europe, though:
I find many people in Europe already answer that question with a firm no. Something deeper has changed, they say. Even if America reverts to its previous form, attitudes towards America will not.

But I wouldn't be so sure. Perhaps it's just the effect of sitting here in the Californian sunshine, watching this extraordinary multi-ethnic society working all around me, but I think America's underlying attractions are still all there - damaged by 9/11, diminished by economic competition from booming Asia, but still formidable. If Kerry can summon a spark of charisma, aided by his appealing running mate John Edwards, and if the monstrous ego of Ralph Nader will kindly fall under an appropriately eco-friendly bus, the Democrat has a chance of reminding us that the other America still exists. And much of the world, even the Arab and Muslim world, will respond.
Yep, and we all know how certain elements in the Arab and Muslim world responded the last time the US had this magical Kennedyesque glow and we all felt history was over.

Which leads us to his conclusions, and if you've read this far, you've probably given up on finding any logic in his reasoning, and you'll love this bit:
Which is why, if Osama bin Laden is still in a fit state to make political calculations, he must be backing an election victory for George Bush. The object of the terrorist is often to reveal the "true" repressive character of the state against which the terror is directed, and thus win further support for the terrorists' cause. If the United States had just acted in Afghanistan, and then concentrated on hoovering-up the remains of al-Qaida, the United States might clearly be winning the war on terror today. But, as bin Laden must have hoped, the Bush administration overreacted, and thus provided, in Iraq and Guantánamo, recruiting sergeants for al-Qaida of which Osama could only dream.

So in this looking-glass world of backhanded ironies, Republicans are covertly supporting their most extreme opponent, Ralph Nader, because he will take votes from John Kerry, and al-Qaida terrorists will be backing Bush, because he's their best recruiter. But can they do anything to affect the outcome of an American presidential election? Of course they can. A major terrorist attack on the American homeland a few days before November 2 would almost certainly not have the effect that the Madrid pre-election bombing had, sending swing voters to the anti-war opposition.

In a recent opinion poll for the Economist, handling the war on terror was one of the few areas in which American voters favoured Bush over Kerry. It seems likely there would be a wave of patriotic solidarity with the incumbent. In short, Bush's election chances may depend on the ruthless ingenuity of al-Qaida, while Kerry's election chances may depend on the ability of Bush's department of homeland security to combat it.
If the United States had just acted in Afghanistan, as Garton Ash states, then most probably he would have been telling us now that if only we had lobbed a few nukes into his training camps, then we surely would be winning the War on Terror today. Instead, according to him, we did exactly what Bin Laden hoped for by going all out after them. That makes Bin Laden sound a lot like a dumb fighter, blocking punches with his face.

And finally, he argues that an attack right before the elections in November, would probably drive voters en masse into the Republican camp, leading Garton Ash to think that this would be exactly what Al Qaeda would want to see happen. Seems to me he's trying to do the following: first, he's hedging his bets, by setting up the stage so that in a case of a Republican victory, with or without a terrorist attack prior to November 2, afterwards he's able to claim either the President's hand in letting an attack take place. Secondly, he's portraying Al Qaeda and the Republicans as being on the same level, each needing the other to survive, opening the door to all those relativists who will want to decry them both in equal terms after a re-election victory for President Bush.

And do you really think he'd be mentioning the Department of Homeland Security after a Kerry win?

Hat tip to W.