Cheney can't scare me anymore


A recent analysis of President Bush's popularity poll numbers startled me.

It noted, with apparent surprise, that Bush's approval rating didn't rise noticeably after the announcement that the British had foiled a terrorist plot to destroy 10 transatlantic passenger jets in flight from England to America.

I wondered, "Was it supposed to rise?"

The perception that Bush's popularity grows as the threat of terrorism rises remains a powerful one, particularly with Vice President and chief White House ideologue Dick Cheney. If news reports are correct, Cheney both pressured the British to reveal their investigation earlier than they felt necessary, then used this prior knowledge to try to frighten U.S. voters inclined to support anti-Iraq war candidates like Ned Lamont, who upset Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's recent Democratic primary.

This perception is built on the notion that a frightened, trembling America is a pro-Bush America. It certainly seemed so in the period after Sept. 11, when most Americans gave Bush high marks for his war on terror. And, as reflected by a compliant Congress, they also gave him carte blanche to fight it.

Americans wise up
But that was back when most Americans hadn't yet grasped that conventional warfare isn't the prescription for fighting terrorism. Kicking butt militarily felt real good for a while. That was before it became clear the extremist enemy had devised a counter-strategy previously tested against the Soviet Union: Bog down the opposing military machine far from home, then wear it down psychologically through expensive and bloody attrition.

Americans aren't falling for this ''only more war can protect you from the evil terrorists'' routine as easily as they once did, judging from Bush's abysmal popularity poll figures hovering in the one-in-three range. It has taken three-and-a-half years, the deaths of 2,600 U.S. military personnel and the wounding of 19,000 others, the waste of $400 billion perfectly good dollars, escalating worldwide terrorism and a virtual civil war in Iraq, but polls suggest even patriotic self-delusion eventually wears thin without evidence and results.

The foiled terrorist plot against transatlantic jetliners should have reminded Americans that yet another of the Bushian rationales for war in Iraq has fizzled. Bush and his cohorts have said it's better to ''fight the terrorists over there than have to fight them over here.'' Leaving aside the astounding gall of such a remark -- ''Let's go trash someone else's country and cause the deaths of tens of thousands of its people so we can live, shop and play in peace'' -- the comment is illogical.

Time to face facts
Terrorists don't fight over territory, as do conventional armies. They seek targets -- people -- and thus could strike anywhere people live or travel. All our efforts in Iraq failed to deter this plot; only the domestic vigilance of the British prevented this replay of Sept. 11. It's past time we faced facts: The U.S. invasion of Iraq and our continued presence there has done absolutely nothing to enhance American security -- and almost certainly has made us and the rest of the world less safe.

The neoconservative propaganda machine maintains that only supporters of the Bush team truly want to fight terrorists, while Democrats and progressives, for some mysterious reason, don't. Slowly, the American people are seeing that the issue isn't -- and never was -- who in America wants to fight terrorism. Rather, the issue is who among us understands the true nature of the fight. The neocon-controlled GOP opted for global military domination, but all that did was raise worldwide fears that America desires global military domination. That played right into the propaganda hands of our fundamentalist foes, and disenchanted many of our allies.

The more-promising strategy would be to hunt down terrorist operatives worldwide using police-style tactics, while cooling domestic passions, working in concert with allied nations. Patiently making friends of civilians around the world would encourage them to repel the terrorist organizations seeking to hide among them.

I'm not sure we're quite ready for this approach, but for the first time since Sept. 11, I see signs that America is gradually coming to its senses. The country is like the addicted gambler who, instead of continuing his doomed search for a game he can win, finally begins to wonder if the real problem is his presence in the casino.

Robert Steinback is a former columnist for The Miami Herald, now on a one-year sabbatical.