Paul Krugman says that the biggest selling point for the GOP candidates so far has been scaring the crap out of the electorate and turning Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” into “the only thing we have to run on is fear.”
Today, many of the men who hope to be the next president — including all of the candidates with a significant chance of receiving the Republican nomination — have made unreasoning, unjustified terror the centerpiece of their campaigns.
Consider, for a moment, the implications of the fact that Rudy Giuliani is taking foreign policy advice from Norman Podhoretz, who wants us to start bombing Iran “as soon as it is logistically possible.”
Mr. Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary and a founding neoconservative, tells us that Iran is the “main center of the Islamofascist ideology against which we have been fighting since 9/11.” The Islamofascists, he tells us, are well on their way toward creating a world “shaped by their will and tailored to their wishes.” Indeed, “Already, some observers are warning that by the end of the 21st century the whole of Europe will be transformed into a place to which they give the name Eurabia.”
Do I have to point out that none of this makes a bit of sense?
For one thing, there isn’t actually any such thing as Islamofascism — it’s not an ideology; it’s a figment of the neocon imagination. The term came into vogue only because it was a way for Iraq hawks to gloss over the awkward transition from pursuing Osama bin Laden, who attacked America, to Saddam Hussein, who didn’t. And Iran had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11 — in fact, the Iranian regime was quite helpful to the United States when it went after Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan.
Beyond that, the claim that Iran is on the path to global domination is beyond ludicrous. Yes, the Iranian regime is a nasty piece of work in many ways, and it would be a bad thing if that regime acquired nuclear weapons. But let’s have some perspective, please: we’re talking about a country with roughly the G.D.P. of Connecticut, and a government whose military budget is roughly the same as Sweden’s.
This raises another point: the Republicans and the right wing have not only used fear as their main rallying cry, they’ve also lost their sense of perspective. As Mr. Krugman notes, they’re trying to convince us that terrorism, specifically that from the Islamic world, is the greatest threat America has ever faced. Not only is that laughable, it makes you wonder whether the people who come up with these comparisons have the judgment or the the intelligence to be elected to a position of power. Comparing the Axis Powers of World War II or the nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union to Al-Qaeda is like comparing a Hummer to a donkey cart; yes, they have similarities — they have wheels, a place to carry things, and they are modes of transportation — but that’s it. Oh, they’ll tell us, Al-Qaeda is much more dangerous because they’re not a nation-state or organized like the Germans; they’re guerrillas who can slip in and out of countries and recruit in the dark recesses of the mountains of Afghanistan or wherever. That what makes them a greater threat; you never know where they are.
Aside from the almost palpable paranoia that kind of mindset invokes — I’m reminded of the cartoonish way the John Birch Society and Joe McCarthy used to tell us that commies were under our beds — it also proves the point that if Al-Qaeda had any power beyond their ability to organize rag-tag lunatics, you would think they would have been able to get the support of at least one virulently anti-American Islamic country — Iran or Syria — to back them. So far, neither has even tacitly endorsed the ragings of Osama bin Laden, nor has anyone ever proven conclusively that any government has actually aided them in their quest. All they’ve done is denied any contact with them and tried not to provoke them into attacking them; they know how crazy they are. If history is any guide, dictators and revolutionaries have needed some form of organizational model to follow and an infrastructure on which to build their revolution, such as taking over a weaker state and basically starting their own country. Al-Qaeda can barely come up with the means to fill out a loan application much less set up a “caliphate.” That they were able to pull off one tragic event such as the attacks of September 11, 2001, is testimony not to their enormous power but to their understanding that all they had to do was hit us once to terrorize us for a very long time. So far, everything we’ve done since then — failing to complete the job in Afghanistan to run off to attack Iraq, turning our civil rights and freedoms into a sham in order to protect those rights, and giving Al-Qaeda credit for everything from whacky shoe bombers to the California wildfires — has proven their point: scare us once, and we’re scared forever. The biggest favor we have done to the terrorists is to make them think they’re as big a threat to us and the world as they think they are.
Aside from failing to pass the laugh test, this hysteria of trying to make “Islamofascism” the new Communism has one sobering consequence; it’s made it tough to generate legitimate concern about the real threats we face. Like it or not, there are countries out there that do not like us for whatever reason — our evangelical missionaries, our bully-boy democracy, our exploitive capitalism, our culture of idolizing supercilious celebrities, and our condescending contempt for every other form of government — and they would like nothing better than to take us down a peg, or surpass us in some fashion. Being on guard against those threats has taken a back seat to this Hallowe’en masquerade from Al-Qaeda. What worries me is that when the next threat comes along, whether it’s another North Korea with a nuclear bomb and the means to deliver it or a religious faction in Africa performing ethnic cleansing, we’ll still be freaking out about the nutjob whose most effective weapon in six years has been a video camera. With all our threats, paranoia, and the macho bluster generated solely for the purpose of winning an election, we will have squandered any legitimacy in being able to confront them other than through the bombsight of a B-1.
(Minor edit after posting to correct a grammatical error.)