No Political Benefits to Gain from a Terror Attack


According to the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, the likelihood of a terrorist attack in the United States is “certain.”  This stunning admission has been met with a whimper from the media, probably because an attack is expected given the government’s anemic response to the last coordinated terror attacks in this country by Islamic extremists; the Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and the Ft. Hood shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan.  The executive has been far more concerned for the perpetrator’s constitutional rights and the country’s potential to exact retribution on innocent Muslims.  However, Blair’s admission before members of congress raises the question: is the DNI running political cover for an administration that has crippled the defense apparatus in record time and wants to make sure there are no accusations of poor pre-attack dot connecting following an event?  If that is the case, what would be the political impact of another successful mega-terror attack in the U.S.?


The following analysis is a glib assessment of the political impact of a significant terrorist attack and does not take into account the massive loss of human life and billions of dollars in infrastructure that would be lost in an attack anything remotely like 9/11.   When terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, some Clintonista’s publically lamented that they wish it could have happened on his watch so Bill Clinton could enjoy the outpouring of support from the country and be blessed with the unprecedented political capital to reshape the globe in the wake of such a disaster. Social scientists, and particularly political scientists, are a jaded bunch.  President Obama’s advisors are a special kind of political scientists; the kind with some skin in the game.  


Do they envision a similar increase in poll numbers and the freeing of the President’s hand, not just internationally but domestically as well? Rham Emanuel certainly would not let such a crisis go to waste.  This line of thinking is flawed and the poll numbers in the latest NBC/WSJ poll reflect the public’s low opinion of the President’s present efforts to protect the nation against terrorism.  The assumption that lock-step public support for the President inevitably follows such an attack is fallacious.  The public mood has changed significantly since 9/11 and so would their response to a similar attack today.


The immediate effect of an attack on the public mood would be horror and profound sorrow, as is to be expected.  The second reaction will be anger, and it will not only be directed at those in the broader Middle East that orchestrated the attack, but also at Washington.  This is not 2001 when attacks of that magnitude were unprecedented. In fact, their prevention has been the singular focus of the last decade, which makes the abdication of that duty all the more flagrant and inexcusable.  They will remember the lectures from the President on how the existence of Guantanamo Bay serves as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda, and only when efforts are made to close it will terrorism abate.  They will remember the litigious way in which terrorists were treated, prosecuted rather than interrogated, in 2009.  The public will see a criminally negligent Whitehouse as being complacent in this tragedy and it will inspire anger.


This anger will be compounded by the frustration by the lack of an immediate response to the attack; we are no longer a country that intervenes mindlessly abroad even following such an attack.


If the President and his advisors are forward thinking, they will reverse this policy head-spinningly fast: launching air attacks against the most logical place this attack emanated from in preparation for a stronger, ground-based response.  If they do not immediately project force abroad, the public’s anger will compound and direct itself at the only logical place, the defense department and the executive branch.  Democratic House members, already feeling the fire, will abandon the President with previously unseen alacrity. Democratic senators, too, will look to their own careers seeing a potentially vulnerable President moving closer to primary season.  It will be the nail in the coffin for the Obama administration. 


The President could avoid this scenario, of course, if he reversed his failing counter-terror policies.  Having begun the process of disarming this country’s intelligence apparatus, from putting CIA officers in the docket to giving terrorists defense attorneys, he has set himself up as the most preeminent source of blame for a successful attack.  If Obama abandons these polices, pursues the trial of Khalid Shake Mohamed in a Guantanamo detention facility and publically, even simply rhetorically, increased the strength of the national intelligence apparatus, he may offset the negative political effects of a terror attack…  Maybe.  The President has pretty well made his soft-on-defense bed and it could be too late to shed the descriptive adjectives that accompany such a condition.  


The ideologically motivated decision to try terrorists in civilian courts has eroded the President’s public support on his handling of terrorism, perhaps irrevocably.  Since 9/11, there has been a notion among Democratic political observes that a similar event on a Democrat’s watch would yield certain public goods that are desirable.  The evidence to the contrary has permeated the DIA it seems; Director Blair found it necessary to warn Congress of the coming storm.  Let’s hope the President’s advisors have disabused themselves of the craven idea that such a disaster has political benefits.  This president doesn’t like to watch the polls and govern accordingly, he sees himself as above the pedantic observance of limited indicators like public opinion.  If there was ever an opportunity to reverse course it is a clear and present threat to national security.  Director Blair has sent a warning to nation: prepare for a disaster.  The President, having abandoned preemption, should prepare for his response.