The Ad That Beats Bush

How Kerry could craft a Bin Laden commercial that makes him president

Anthony Gardner, who runs the WTC United Family Group, says the Republicans "don't refer to bin Laden much because it's an embarrassment that he hasn't been caught," and Colleen Kelly, who heads 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, says: "I think all the families would like to see justice brought to the real perpetrators. It seems we've gotten sidetracked from who we were supposed to be going after." These family leaders might be more powerful spokespeople on security than Swift boat crewmen.

And if the Kerry campaign were to decide to focus in speeches and commercials on Bush's strategic and homeland failures—beyond bin Laden—all the evidence they'd need is contained in the most saluted yet ignored document of our time: the 9-11 Commission report. The bipartisan commission's 41 recommendations are repeatedly rooted in shortcomings of current policy rarely, if ever, cited by the media:

Intelligence: "Thoughtful reform bills" have "foundered because the president did not support them" and the Defense secretary "opposed them."

Osama: If Kerry can pin bin Laden on Bush in his upcoming ads, he will finally connect with the fear that is driving this election.
Osama: If Kerry can pin bin Laden on Bush in his upcoming ads, he will finally connect with the fear that is driving this election.

Unifying national security information: "Only presidential leadership can develop government-wide concepts and standards," but "currently no one is doing this job," while the CIA "has no strategy for removing information-sharing barriers."

Reorganizing security institutions: "As presently configured," they "are still the institutions constructed to win the Cold War," and "Americans should not settle for incremental, ad hoc adjustments to a system designed generations ago for a world that no longer exists."

Private-sector preparedness: With this sector controlling 85 percent of the nation's critical infrastructure (e.g., chemical and nuclear plants), "witness after witness told us that despite 9-11, it remains largely unprepared for a terrorist attack" in part because the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has failed to push private-sector standards.

Homeland security funding: "Nothing has been harder for officials—executive or legislative—than to set priorities, making hard choices in allocating resources" to protect any real vulnerabilities, a failure that's "particularly afflicted DHS."

Transportation security: "Despite congressional deadlines" built into several laws, the administration "has developed neither an integrated strategic plan for the transportation sector nor specific plans for the various modes—air, sea and ground," with "great or greater opportunities to do harm."

Border screening: Though colossal immigration breakdowns were found to have facilitated the 9-11 attacks, "these weaknesses have been reduced but are far from being overcome."

Terrorist financing: Efforts to freeze terrorist assets "appeared to have little effect" and "have not been adequately enforced."

Nuclear proliferation: "Outside experts are deeply worried about the U.S. government's commitment and approach to securing the weapons and highly dangerous materials still scattered in Russia," and the bipartisan congressional program to reduce this threat is "now in need of expansion, improvement and resources."

Constructive relationships in the Muslim world: The prison abuse scandal "makes it harder to build the diplomatic, political and military alliances" needed and are tied to the U.S.'s unwillingness to apply the Geneva Conventions to terrorists though "they are commonly accepted" as "minimum standards" for "humane treatment."

Afghanistan as a continuing sanctuary: "Grave challenges remain," with Taliban and al Qaeda fighters having "regrouped"; warlords controlling "much of the country beyond Kabul"; "the land awash in weapons"; the narcotics trade booming; and warnings that the country is "near the brink of chaos."

Other than ending for all rational observers the invidious Dick Cheney efforts to tie Iraq to 9-11 or Al Qaeda, the commission explicitly says it did not examine the war's effect on the struggle against terrorism. But it does reject the rhetorical use of terrorism as "some generic evil," saying that "blurs the strategy." Instead, the threat is "Islamist terrorism—especially the al Qaeda network, its affiliates, and its ideology." Five Republicans and five Democrats agreed that this "first enemy" has been "weakened" since 9-11 "but continues to pose a grave threat." American efforts, the commission concludes, "should be directed at those individuals and organizations."

"If a president wanted to rally the American people to a warlike effort," the commission noted, "he would need to publicize an assessment of the growing al Qaeda danger." The government "could spark a full public discussion" of BL, his organization, intent, and capabilities. Had it already done so, the commission concludes, public opinion "and the range of options for a president" might be different. Instead, this president says almost nothing about our prime enemy, and the media mimics him.

The only one who can insinuate the real threat, and our lack of response to it, at the core of the American presidential debate is the man who has the most to gain by doing so. No fear of an October surprise should stop John Kerry—if it happens, he loses anyway. The only way to beat Bush is on the terrorist turf that pundits and polls say is Bush's. Kerry must do it because that's how Americans will decide this year and, ironically, because that's where the Texas swaggerer is all bluster.

Research assistance: Nathan Deuel, Deborah S. Esquenazi, Emily Keller, Eric Magnuson, and Ben Reiter

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