Entries from November 2004

Why Bush Is All Charm Now

David Frum November 30th, 2004 at 12:00 am Comments Off

WASHINGTON–George Bush’s event planners have learned something from history. When Ronald Reagan spoke to Parliament in 1987, he was interrupted by heckling from the NDP benches led by Svend Robinson. That was almost two decades ago, but the lesson has been absorbed: A presidential visit offers irresistible temptation to the small but noisy narcissist-leftist faction on the upper back benches. Robinson has had to make an abrupt exit from politics recently, but there are quite a number of Ottawa pols eager to take his place in somebody else’s spotlight.

The Bush planners must have figured: Why give these jerks a chance? Instead, the President will do a joint press conference with Prime Minister Paul Martin after a working lunch; deliver a toast at a gala dinner at the Museum of Civilization; and then give the major speech of his visit in Halifax.

I strongly suspect Bush’s Halifax address will make a strong impression on Canadians. The President’s pollsters consistently report that audiences like George Bush better the longer he speaks: He does better in a 60-second spot than in an 8-second clip, better still in a 10-minute appearance than in a 60-second spot, best of all when he is able to claim 20 or 40 minutes of airtime for a formal address.

His words in Halifax will be widely broadcast and closely heard–and I think they will surprise many Canadians.

The President is not coming to Canada to argue with Canadians about the differences that have divided the two governments in recent years. His private meetings with Prime Minister Martin and others will deal with those disagreements–and the need to work past them. He will go to Halifax for a very different purpose: to thank the kind people of Atlantic Canada who took stranded American passengers into their homes in the days after 9/11–and to showcase the gallant contributions of the Canadian Forces to the military campaigns in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. Sixteen of Canada’s 18 warships have done duty in the Gulf since the fall of 2001. HMCS Toronto returned just this past July from a six-month mission with the USS George, Washington’s battle group. Although Canada formally declined to play a part in the battles on Iraqi soil, the Canadian military has strained its capabilities to assist the United States in the larger global campaign against Middle Eastern terror. With the surprising eloquence he musters at important moments, the President will acknowledge this assistance and pay tribute to the sacrifices of the Canadian sailors, soldiers and aviators who delivered it.

This is right and proper in itself. It is also the first step in a larger campaign to reach out to America’s allies worldwide. The methods Bush is testing on this visit will, if successful, soon go global.

Bush is working on the assumption that many allied governments feel that they have allowed their disagreements with the United States to go too far. In 2002 and 2003, for example, Jean Chretien–like Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder and some other leaders as well–seemed to have decided he could earn some easy political points on the left-hand side of the political spectrum by running against George Bush. That decision may have been aided by a calculation that Bush was an accidental president likely to lose in 2004. Now that the President has been returned to office with great political power, those 2002-03 calculations are looking less shrewd. A minority Canadian prime minister does not want to spend the next four years quarrelling with a popular president backed by a congressional majority. Ditto for a German chancellor coping with an ailing economy. Ditto for European governments terrified by internal Islamist violence like the murder of Theo van Gogh, by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and by the aggressive Russian strategy on display in Ukraine.

Bush seems to have decided that allied anger over the decision to go to war in Iraq has subsided. Whether the allies liked the initial decision or not, they seem to agree that now that the decision has been made, Iraq cannot be allowed to fail. This may explain why–after a year of trying–the Bush administration last week succeeded in persuading the European allies and Russia to write off 80 percent of Iraq’s debt.

He is gambling too that he can reconnect with the broad sensible political middle of public opinion in these countries. He attempted to do so with some very powerful speeches in Britain on his state visit in November, 2003. Back then, anti-Bush feeling had risen so high–and the anti-Bush forces had mobilized so effectively–that he simply could not get a fair hearing. But if his message in Halifax resonates with the Canadian public, that may signal that the international audience is willing to listen again.

Foreign critics of U.S. policy often said in the first Bush administration that they had no problem with the United States; it was George Bush they could not stand. But if this last U.S. election means anything, it means that George Bush represents something strong and important in American life–something stronger and more important than any single human being, and something that will remain strong and important long after Bush retires to his Crawford ranch. That something demands attention and respect. Canadians, who intuitively understand America so well, are better able to engage this new American reality. The job begins in Ottawa today. It will continue on both sides of the Atlantic for many years. We all have a stake in seeing it done right.

The Question Of Cair

David Frum November 23rd, 2004 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Two weeks ago, the National Post and I were served with a notice of libel by the Canadian branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR. The Post and I are not alone. Over the past year, CAIR’s Canadian and U.S branches have served similar libel notices on half a dozen other individuals and organizations in the United States and Canada. Each case has its own particular facts, yet they are linked by a common theme: That we defendants have accused CAIR (in the words of the notice served on me) of being “an unscrupulous, Islamist, extremist sympathetic group in Canada supporting terrorism.”

Lawyers for individuals and newspapers served with libel notices will normally urge their clients to avoid any comment on the matter — to avoid even any acknowledgement that they have been served. This is usually good advice. A notice of libel is not a lawsuit, but a warning of a lawsuit to come. If the potential defendant keeps quiet, the potential plaintiff will often drop the suit altogether.

But wise legal advice often comes at a cost, a cost in public information. So I was heartened that the National Post’s lawyers have encouraged the paper and me to continue with this important story.

CAIR is understandably protective of its reputation. Until recently, it has had considerable success winning acceptance in the United States and Canada as something close to an official spokesman for local Muslim communities. CAIR has been influential in advocating for a sharia court to arbitrate divorces and other family-law matters in the province of Ontario. CAIR’s strong criticisms of Canada’s anti-terror legislation have won respectful hearing in Ottawa. Any reporting or commentary that cast doubt on CAIR’s carefully cultivated image would deeply threaten the group’s mission.

What is that mission? The public record offers some clues:

CAIR was founded in 1994 by alumni of an older group, the Islamic Association for Palestine. The IAP, founded by senior Hamas figure Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, calls for the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamic state under Islamic law in Israel’s place. (In 1996, CAIR would condemn the U.S. government’s decision to deport Marzook as an “anti-Islamic” act.)

CAIR’s first executive director, Nihad Awad, publicly declared himself a supporter of Hamas at a 1994 forum at Barry University in Florida.

One of CAIR’s original advisory board members, Siraj Wahhaj, served as a character witness for Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman. Rahman is the blind Egyptian cleric convicted in 1995 of conspiracy to bomb New York landmarks. CAIR described Rahman’s conviction as a hate crime.

CAIR’s founding chairman, Omar Ahmed, also an IAP alumnus, is said to have declared at a public event in California in July, 1998: “Islam isn’t in America to be equal to any other faith, but to become dominant. The Koran … should be the highest authority in America, and Islam the only accepted religion on earth.” Ahmed has since disputed the accuracy of the quote –five years after it was reported by a California newspaper.

After the 9/11 attacks on the United States, CAIR’s Web site featured a link titled, “Donate to the NY/DC Disaster Relief Fund.” The link connected to the Web site of the Holy Land Foundation, a charity closed down by the United States three months later as a Hamas front.

Over the past 10 years, CAIR has grown rapidly. It now claims a total of 29 affiliates, including CAIR Canada. CAIR’s media savvy won it much official attention after 9/11. With that attention, however, also came a higher degree of scrutiny.

Since 9/11, three CAIR associates in the U.S. have been indicted on terrorism-related charges.

In September, 2003, CAIR community relations director Bassem K. Khafagi, pleaded guilty on immigration and bank-fraud charges, in Detroit. Khafagi interestingly co-owned a print shop with another man who has since been charged with illegally sending goods into Iraq.

Randall Todd Royer, a communications specialist at CAIR’s Washington headquarters, pleaded guilty in January, 2004, to belonging to the Kashmiri Lashkar-i-Taibi terrorist group and illegally acquiring firearms and explosives in order to train for terrorist missions against India. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

A founding member of CAIR’s Texas chapter, Ghassen Elashi, was convicted of conspiracy and money-laundering charges in connection with the shipment of high-technology items to Syria and Libya in July, 2004.

This record has drawn increasing notice in the United States. CAIR officials were invited to join President Bush at his September, 2001, visit to Washington’s mosque, but were omitted from the invitation list to the 2003 and 2004 White House Iftar dinners (an Iftar meal is the fast-breaking at the end of a day in Ramadan). New York Senator Chuck Schumer has charged that CAIR members have “intimate links to Hamas.” Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, a political leader noted for his sensitivity to Islamic concerns, has said that CAIR is “unusual in its extreme rhetoric and its association with groups that are suspect.”

CAIR Canada describes its relationship with CAIR as “close but distinct.” It is not clear what this means. On its Web site and in its publications, CAIR lists CAIR canada as one of its local affiliates, giving it the same stauts as a state or regional CAIR chapter. CAIR Canada has its own board; so do many of CAIR’s local chapters. It should of course be stated that no criminal charges have ever been filed gainst CAIR Canada or any of its officers.

These are the facts behind the commentary that the National Post and I have published. They are facts that the Canadian public and Canadian officials are entitled to know. The National Post and I are confident that Canada’s courts will agree that no proper interest would be served by suppressing them.

Powell’s Loyalty The Real Issue

David Frum November 16th, 2004 at 12:00 am Comments Off

WASHINGTON – Colin Powell’s resignation as Secretary of State was one of those surprises that should have come as no surprise at all. Foreign-policy Washington has been gossiping for a week now about the new consulting firm Powell and his top aide and best friend Richard Armitage will soon be launching. Two mornings after Election Day a story went round town that Powell had gathered his assistant secretaries of state together to wrap up any project on which they wanted his help no later than the end of January.

But who needed gossip? Anybody with a library card could have foretold that Powell would have to leave in a second Bush term. It was all laid out in the black-and-white pages of Bob Woodward’s best-seller, Plan of Attack — a book you might call the best-selling letter of resignation in history.

“Relations [between Powell and Vice-President Cheney] became so strained that Powell and Cheney could not, and did not, have a sit-down lunch or any discussion about their differences. Never.”

“[After reading an unfavourable news story about him, White House political advisor Karl] Rove had figured that State — or Powell — wanted to strike back at the White House …. He was just collateral damage.

“[Powell] and Rumsfeld got into another big fight. This time it took a week to resolve …. Powell couldn’t believe the silliness.

“Both the president and she were ‘mad,’ [Condoleezza Rice] told the secretary of state. Powell had ‘given the Democrats a remarkable tool.’ … Powell did not particularly enjoy being dressed down by someone 17 years younger who held the job he had held 15 years earlier.

“Whenever anyone suggested that Powell should have pangs of conscience on the war, Powell said he had done everything in his power. In August 2002 he had nearly broken his spear, laying before the president all the difficulties of a war … He had warned the president. It was the president’s decision, not his.”

Cabinet officers frequently disagree with their colleagues and their president. Sometimes they disagree so strenuously that they resign. Sometimes they go into outright opposition to their former friends. But surely never has one Cabinet officer trashed so many of his colleagues so publicly while serving alongside them.

Powell’s resignation is now being reported as a story about ideology. The story line goes that Powell was too conciliatory for a unilateralist president and his hawkish advisors — and that his departure signals that the administration will continue along its neoconservative line.

The story line is wholly wrong. Powell’s departure is a story about loyalty, not ideology. Powell played politics by the rules of the George H.W. Bush administration — an administration in which aides used leaks as a routine weapon of bureaucratic warfare. As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell had some especially juicy secrets to give away, many of which appeared in Bob Woodward’s book about the Gulf War, The Commanders. In Powell’s own 1995 memoir, he recounts how his once-close relationship with Dick Cheney dwindled away during the war: It never seems to have occurred to him that Cheney had decided Powell was not a man he could trust.

Trustworthy or not, however, the incoming George W. Bush administration needed Powell. Polls suggested Powell was the most admired man in America. Shaken by the close result, the recount, and the uncertain public reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, the new President offered Powell the most honourable appointment in the executive branch.

Unbeknownst to Powell, however, the appointment came with strings attached. The younger Bush had worked the corridors of his father’s administration as an advisor-without-portfolio. He had been horrified by the undiscipline and self-seeking of the Bush 41 administration, and he had quietly made up his mind never to tolerate anything like it from any government he ever ran.

And by and large the President got his wish. Taken as a whole, the Bush 43 administration has been the most discreet and the most cohesive since Dwight Eisenhower’s. There was just one exception: Colin Powell and his senior aides at State. As the United States headed toward war in Iraq, Powell and his team moved toward open rebellion against the foreign policy of the United States.

Powell had every right to his own views. And he did the President and the country a great service by vigorously advocating those views within the councils of government. But once the President decides, the advocacy has to stop. In Powell’s case, it never did.

Powell’s over-enthusiastic advocacy at home left him little time to do advocacy for the United States abroad. Colin Powell has travelled less than any Secretary of State in 30 years: Just 180 days in his first 42 months as secretary, 45% less than the average of his recent predecessors. Powell’s supporters often praise him for his battles to uphold America’s image in the world, but the truth is that if he had battled less, he might have upheld more.

Powell must be given his due. He has great accomplishments to his credit as secretary, headed by his dedicated work to prevent an Indo-Pakistani war after terrorists based on Pakistani territory attacked the Indian Parliament in December, 2001. And certainly he has emerged with his own private reputation undiminished and even enhanced: He will have no trouble attracting clients to his consulting firm.

But there’s an old joke on Wall Street about the firm whose brokers all took pride in their splendid yachts: “Where,” the punchline goes, “are the customers’ yachts?” Colin Powell is sailing out of office more gilded and glorified than ever. If only he had done as much for the President he swore to serve.

A New Style For A New Mandate

David Frum November 12th, 2004 at 12:00 am Comments Off

From almost the very second that the state of Ohio was awarded to President Bush, he and his party have been solemnly warned that they must “reach out” to their Democratic opponents.

Much of this advice is beyond absurd. Elections are how democracies decide things. The 2004 vote was an unusually unambiguous one: as one contributor to the fiercely anti-Bush British newspaper, the Guardian, put it, “If this doesn’t add up to a mandate, it’s hard to know what the word means.” In Latin, mandatum refers to an order or assignment given by a superior officer to a junior. The same really is true of our English “mandate.” The mandate is not a grant of power to the president; it is a commission of trust from the people. President Bush has not merely the right to pursue conservative domestic economic and social policies; he has the duty to do so.

But there is one sphere of public life where “reaching out” would not betray the president’s constituents–where, indeed, it is an essential part of his duty. That is the sphere of foreign policy. As commander in chief, the president bears the responsibility for waging and winning the nation’s wars. The ferocious partisan dissension that has broken out at home over the war on terror dangerously subtracts from the nation’s war-fighting effectiveness.

Partisan warfare at home has given credibility and confidence to America’s enemies abroad. It should have been sobering to everyone, Democrat and Republican alike, to hear Osama bin Laden alluding to scenes from Fahrenheit 9/11 in his pre-election videotape. Most Democrats privately have little use for Michael Moore’s conspiracy-mongering. But in their anger at President Bush, Democrats who really should know better (plus, of course, President Carter) have legitimized Mr. Moore’s work–and that of other anti-American haters.

Partisan disunity has damaged America’s alliances.It ought to have disturbed even Democrats to hear Europeans whispering that their willingness to support America in Iraq would vary according to the outcome of the presidential election. Instead, some Democrats responded by agreeing that the Europeans were justified in their attitude–inviting European governments to take sides in an American election in hope that they, not U.S. voters, could choose the president with whom they would cooperate.

Hyper-partisanship has weakened America’s own war-fighting strength. In every war, there will be mistakes, often very grave ones. It is essential to acknowledge mistakes and learn from them. But in this war, the Bush administration knew that any attempt to identify and fix errors would be savagely exploited by domestic opponents. Burdened by that knowledge, the administration has often succumbed to denial and intransigence when learning and improvement were most called for. The administration has won an election. But the anger left behind by the election risks making losers of us all.

Restoring Bipartisan Foreign Policy

So what to do?

At home, normal politics should continue–as it did even during World War II, when Republicans and Democrats differed over issues from union power to farm policy. President Bush has plans to reform Social Security and taxation and to nominate conservative judges. Democrats will do everything they can to stop him. That is the way the game is played.

But in this war on terror, we have to get Republicans and Democrats back on the same team. And graceful as were the concession and victory statements by John Kerry and President Bush, words alone will not get anyone very far. There are, however, some actions that might help President Bush introduce some useful bipartisanship to American foreign policy.

Listen. For months after 9/11, President Bush met once a week with the majority and minority leaders in both the House and Senate. The meetings ceased in the spring of 2002, after a series of goading remarks by then Senate majority leader Tom Daschle–apparently he felt that the Democrats had more to lose politically than to gain from standing so close to the president. It is time to revive these regular, informal conversations, this time with the majority and ranking members of the House and Senate committees that deal with the war: Armed Services, Foreign Relations, and Intelligence.
Meetings like this are more than just a courtesy. These powerful, independent congressional figures can tell the president things that his direct subordinates might fail to communicate. The case of former counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke is a warning: you do not have to admire the role that Mr. Clarke has played since leaving the administration to be concerned that he was unable to lay his views before the president while he worked in the administration. The more conduits there are for information to reach the president, the better the president and the nation will be served.

Learn. On 9/11, the United States was plunged into a new era for which it was radically unprepared. Ever since, the U.S. government has been improvising as it goes. Sometimes the improvisation has been very successful, as it was with the new military tactics used in the Afghan campaign. Sometimes the improvisation has led us into real trouble-as the lack of clear and accepted rules for the treatment of captured terrorists did at Abu Ghraib.
Americans have a big job of institution-building and rule-writing ahead of them. Writing these rules deep inside the administration and then applying them at the discretion of the executive practically invites the courts to review and rewrite them-a job that courts are not well suited to do. Much of the Patriot Act expires next year. It would be a terrible thing for the whole country if a successor law ended up being enacted on a party-line vote.

President Bush should be convening national commissions that include respected Democratic lawyers and elected officials-people like former solicitor general Walter Dellinger-to propose a comprehensive set of laws and rules to govern the war on terror at home and overseas.

In the same spirit, the president has long believed that America needs a new energy policy. In 2001, his administration produced a comprehensive plan that went nowhere. What the president might find, however, is that there are component pieces of his plan–federalization of the regulation of electricity, research into new technologies–that could appeal to both Democrats and Republicans. He would do well to find ways to put Democrats in charge of those individual items.

Finally, there is one crucial battleground of this war where even the administration’s staunchest supporters must concede failure: public diplomacy. The Bush administration has careened from disaster to disaster in this area. Republicans should not be too proud to admit that we may have something to learn here from Democrats-including that supreme Democratic communicator, former President Clinton. Unlike his vice president, the former president has behaved in impressively statesmanlike ways since 9/11. Now that President Bush has established his administration on a rock-solid political footing–winning a larger proportion of the vote than Mr. Clinton ever managed to do–he is superbly well placed to make use without qualm of Mr. Clinton’s great persuasive gifts on the world stage.

Hire. Mr. Bush is being advised from many quarters to put Democrats in his cabinet. This is not very helpful: there is a Democrat there now, Norm Mineta, and what good did that do in quelling Democratic anger this year? For that matter, how much did it benefit Bill Clinton to name Republican Senator William Cohen as his secretary of defense in 1996?

The only president to have derived political benefit from naming members of the opposing party to his cabinet was Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, when he named Henry Stimson secretary of war and Frank Knox secretary of the Navy. But Roosevelt was accepting a tough bargain: bidding for an unprecedented and shocking third presidential term, he tried to allay Republican fears by handing operational control over the pending war in Europe to the leading GOP foreign-policy figure of the day and over the pending war in the Pacific to the most recent Republican nominee for vice president. It would be as if George W. Bush made Richard Holbrooke secretary of state and John Edwards secretary of defense. Nothing remotely resembling that is called for in 2004.

On the other hand, there are a lot of qualified and capable younger Democrats well below cabinet-grade who are now facing a total of eight years in the foreign-policy wilderness. Many of these people have foreign-policy views surprisingly congruent with those of President Bush–more congruent than the views of some of those venerable registered Republicans who are now telling Mr. Bush to abandon the foreign policy on which he just got reelected.

Focus on the Goal-Victory

Ronald Reagan transformed American foreign policy in the 1980s by looking past party labels. George W. Bush has an even greater opportunity to build a new consensus on national security. To do so, though, he must instruct his personnel office that the first question it needs to ask foreign-policy candidates is not “What did you do to re-elect George Bush?” but “What can you do to realize George Bush’s foreign-policy vision of a Middle East transformed?”

Bipartisanship is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end: not mushy centrism, but victory in the conflict that defines our era.

The Perils Of A Rising Loonie

David Frum November 9th, 2004 at 12:00 am Comments Off

News reports say that President Bush has accepted an invitation to visit Canada. This is good news — a sign that the childish anti-Americanism of the Chretien years has been laid aside. It is news that comes just in time, for Canada now faces a stark new challenge from the United States: not war in Iraq, not security at the border, but a sudden decline in the value of the U.S. dollar.

After years of trading in the US60 cents range, the Canadian dollar has recovered to the low-80s. The Euro has surged from about US90 cents to almost US$1.30. The yen and British pound are gaining too — and many shrewd analysts expect the dollar to decline still further.

The Bush administration has welcomed the dollar decline. Treasury Secretary John Snow makes perfunctory noises about supporting a strong dollar, but unlike his Democratic predecessor Robert Rubin, Snow is not daily devising clever little traps and snares to punish speculators who bet against the buck.

It’s not hard to understand Snow’s thinking. If the dollar drops, American-made goods become cheaper and foreign-made goods become more expensive. American exports rise and imports fall. At least at the beginning, a declining currency can be very bullish for industrial production and industrial employment.

Which brings us back to Canada and Canada’s problems. In the mid-1990s, the Chretien government accepted a dramatic drop in the Canadian dollar — from US89 cents at the beginning of the decade to as low as US60 cents. The cheap Canadian dollar turbo-charged Canadian exports into the U.S. market, accelerated Canadian economic growth and tossed off government revenues by the billion. Along with spending controls and high taxes, the cheap dollar policy helped transform the massive government deficits of 1991-92 into giant surpluses.

But what happens to Canada as the U.S. government mimics the Canadian cheap-dollar policy?

The Chretien devaluation was sometimes defended as an emergency measure: a temporary across-the-board cut in wealth and incomes that would grant Canada time to get its finances and its economic structure back in good order. But the years were not well used. Canadian taxes remain crushingly high – as will the cost of doing business in Canada once the Canadian dollar returns to its historic valuations.

Given Canada’s uncompetitiveness, it may seem surprising that the Canadian dollar should be rising at all. There’s a very short explanation: oil and gas prices. Rising prices for Canadian commodities mean rising demand for Canadian currency with which to buy those commodities. Alberta’s boom portends bust in Ontario and Quebec.

Bush’s re-election compounds these problems for Canada. As president, John Kerry would have tried to hike taxes in the United States, narrowing the cost gap between the U.S. and Canada. Stephen Harper has pressed Paul Martin to work harder to address U.S.-Canadian trade disputes. In fact, the combination of low Canadian competitiveness and a rising Canadian dollar will do more than diplomacy ever could to put an end to trade frictions: As Canadian goods and services get priced out of U.S. markets, there will be less and less for American competitors to complain about.

So the Martin government will have to act — and fast. But what will it do?

Over the medium and long term, a government determined to improve its people’s competitiveness will want to consider many policy reforms. It will want to toughen educational standards and upgrade its transportation and communications networks; simplify its bureaucracy and remove barriers to internal trade.

But in the very short run, which is the run Canada must be concerned with today, there is just one thing such a government can do: reduce taxes, especially taxes on investment.

From the point of view of the individual Canadian company, the most obvious effect of a rise in the Canadian dollar is to increase the real cost of labour — without any offsetting improvements in productivity. There are two obvious responses to a cost increase like that: (1) shift operations overseas to someplace where the unit-cost of labour is lower or else (2) invest in new technologies to substitute for labour. But a company contemplating a big new investment in plant or equipment will ask itself some very hard questions about where that investment should be placed — and the decision tends to go against high-tax environments like Paul Martin’s Canada.

When the President comes, he and Prime Minister Martin will have a great deal to talk about: Iraq, homeland security, trade. But before he bids the President good-bye, Mr. Martin should reserve a minute to ask him: “So tell me — this tax reform idea of yours — you wouldn’t happen to have an extra copy handy, would you?”

Astonishing Night When America Chose The Strong Man

David Frum November 4th, 2004 at 12:00 am Comments Off

Election day began badly for the Republicans. At 1pm, the first exit polls began to circulate on the internet. They showed startling leads for John Kerry. Another round of polls circulated at 2, then a third a little past 4.

True, there were peculiarities in these early exit poll numbers. One exit poll suggested that 63 per cent of the population of North Carolina was female. Another found a 10-point drop in the proportion of white Catholics in the voting population of Wisconsin.

But reporters dismissed these peculiarities because the polls’ bottom lines jibed with their previous reports of heavy early voting and a surge in new registration. It’s an old political rule of thumb that higher turnout favours Democrats – and the Associated Press was associating that turnout in 2004 might rise by as much as 15 million ballots over 2000, to 120 million in total. And didn’t everybody agree that Democrats felt more intensely about this election than Republicans – and that young people had been jolted into activism by Howard Dean and the anti-war movement?

Reporters try to be fair. But they cannot help being creatures of their environment. The national political press tend to live in places where Bush is only slightly more popular than unvaccinated flu: Northwest Washington DC and its Maryland suburbs, Manhattan and media-favoured towns just outside of New York, and other places well served by commuter trains, latte bars, and ethnic restaurants. I live in such a place myself, and I can testify first hand to the effort it takes to remember that your neighbours do not necessarily speak for America as a whole.

So as the polls closed on the east coast after 7:30pm, a media consensus grew that Kerry was sure to win, and maybe win by 300 electoral votes or more. The images on television reinforced the consensus.

Heavily Democratic downtown DC switched into party mode. I had to cross town through funky Georgetown a little before seven o’clock: the mood felt like New Year’s Eve, revellers spilling out of bars, cars packed in their lanes.

But then things began to move. President Bush picked up one of Maine’s severable electoral votes, a gain from last time. Word began to filter into the newsrooms that the lines had extended just as long in Republican precincts as in Democratic ones. Voters in Georgia, Kentucky, and Ohio approved by heavy margins state constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage; the voters of eight other states would follow by midnight. The single most important issue in the election, according to a 22 per cent plurality of voters: morality. The much ballyhooed youth vote did not turn out in droves; the evangelical vote did. Republicans began picking up Senate seats, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle’s, and increasing their advantage in the House.

The faces on the European news broadcasts grew longer. A little past 11:30, the networks called Florida for George Bush; at 12:30 Fox News called Ohio for the President too. By then, President Bush had achieved a three million popular vote lead. It was all over bar the litigating.

This election is not a landslide re-election of the incumbent like 1972 or 1984. And yet in its own way, it may be more astonishing. President Bush had to climb a razor-wired wall of media hostility, with the New York Times and CBS in particular hurling allegation after allegation at him.

Americans disregarded it all. They voted for the man they saw as the strongest on defence and who showed the greatest respect for traditional morals and beliefs. They voted to curb the excesses of unelected judges. They voted to reply to Osama bin Laden’s threats and bluster that they would not be intimidated – that they would see the war on terror through to its end.

In 2000, Democrats lost control of the White House, the Senate, and the House, but they could console themselves that they had put an asterisk beside those victories: George Bush failed to win the popular vote and the Senate was split. Then in 2002, the Republicans broke through in Congress and won a majority in both House and Senate.

It was defeat in 2002 that sent the Democrats spiralling over the edge into bitterness and fury. This election forces that party into a painful debate over its future – and forces the world to reckon with a George Bush who is no aberration, but a decisively re-elected leader of a nation at war.

A Terrorist At Twilight

David Frum November 2nd, 2004 at 12:00 am Comments Off

As Yasser Arafat reviews his life from his Paris hospital bed, what do you think he thinks? Does he regard himself as a success or not?

In some senses, he must feel he has failed. He has been waging war on Israel for four decades, and yet Israel is still there, richer and stronger than ever. He has personified Palestinian Arab nationalism — and he has led the Palestinian Arabs from one disaster to another.

Yet the old murderer surely also has abundant cause to feel successful. Once a pariah, a killer, a terrorist, he is now a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a billionaire. His agents hijacked planes, massacred civilians, organized the murder of schoolchildren and Olympic athletes — and even the assassinations of American diplomats. Yet he forced the world to recognize him as a legitimate head of government, and hundreds of millions of people worldwide regard him as the leader of a righteous cause. President Bill Clinton met with Yasser Arafat 24 times in eight years, more often than with any other international political figure. And though recent months have gone badly for him, Arafat has good reason to feel confident that he and his movement will in time recover.

Consider just this one fact: the world media’s astonishing lack of curiosity about the nature of the disease for which he has sought treatment in France. He has suffered a dramatic weight loss, memory loss and periods of disorientation, loss of muscle control and recurring nausea. His doctors tell us that his blood platelet count has dropped dramatically, but that he does not have leukemia. These symptoms sound remarkably AIDS-like, don’t they? An AIDS diagnosis would certainly accord with what is widely known about Arafat’s personal way of life. (Some of the lurid, homoerotic details can be found in the memoirs of Lt.-Gen. Ion Pacepa, former head of Romanian intelligence under Nicolae Ceausescu. See page 36.)

And yet, even as the international media reports on Arafat’s condition with the kind of attention normally reserved for ailing popes, unwelcome possibilities like an AIDS diagnosis go unmentioned.

Thus Arafat’s number one reason for confidence: his command of the world press. Israel may win battle after battle on the ground, but it is losing the battle for global public opinion outside the United States. From the silence concealing Arafat’s own personal corruption to the suppression of unwanted images like those of Palestinians celebrating on 9/11, Arafat has cajoled and intimidated much of the world media into covering the Middle East as he wishes it covered.

Likewise, Arafat has enjoyed amazing success in persuading the world’s governments to draw a distinction between al-Qaeda terrorism and his own supposedly more acceptable brand. After the 9/11 attacks, the United Nations adopted Resolution 1373 calling on all member states to suppress terrorism. Yet European governments have acquiesced in the demands of Islamic states to exempt terrorist acts carried out during an “armed struggle for liberation and self-determination.”

Arafat’s diplomatic success has had important and — for him — positive political consequences. Thirty years of Palestinian terrorism have dulled the world’s moral outrage. At Nuremberg, the victorious Allies hanged German generals for atrocities against civilian populations. But atrocities against civilians are the only kind of war Arafat knows. Arafat’s forces have rarely if ever taken the field against the Israeli military. They have instead waged a war of kidnappings and random murder, very similar to that practiced by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. Yet this record has not isolated Arafat. To the contrary, the world has accepted Arafat’s terrorism — an acceptance symbolized by the fact that Arafat was allowed to wear a gun on to the rostrum of the United Nations in 1974, the only world leader ever to do so or try to do so.

So will he die content? That depends on how he defines success. To the extent that he was ever concerned about the plight of the Palestinians, ever wished to build institutions to help them, ever cared about their prosperity and freedom — then no, he must be regarded as one of history’s pre-eminent losers.

But if one sees him as a man motivated by the spirit of destruction — as someone who hated his enemies without ever much loving his own people — who measured his success in the grief he inflicted on others without much caring what his supporters suffered in return: In that case, Arafat scored success after success.

In the words of his fairest and best informed biographers, Barry Rubin and Judith Colp Rubin: “This was the ultimate irony of his life: Arafat, the man who did more than anyone else to champion and advance the Palestinian cause, also inflicted years of unnecessary suffering on his people, delaying any beneficial redress of their grievances or solutions to their problems.”

For those people — for us all — the world will be a better place if he had never lived and will be a cleaner place after he is gone.

The Final Push

David Frum November 2nd, 2004 at 12:00 am Comments Off

“Whatever it takes.” – From George W.Bush’s acceptance speech at the Republican Convention, September 2, 2004

“Not necessarily.” – John Kerry’s reply to Mr Bush’s charge that Mr Kerry would have left Saddam Hussein in power, October 8, 2004

In case anybody needed reminding of what this US election is all about, Osama bin Laden popped up on the world’s television screens to remind us all. Different eyes saw different realities in the face of the old killer. Some saw he was still alive and at liberty, despite George W. Bush’s pledge to find him “dead or alive”. Mr Bush’s critics accuse him of mistakes in the war on terror. Mistakes have surely been made, as in every war ever fought. There have been successes too: al-Qaeda prefers to communicate with murder and terror; it is a sign of how badly the network has been damaged that it has been reduced to broadcasting threats by videotape.

Yet ultimately it is not anger at the president’s mistakes, real or imaginary, that motivates Mr Bush’s critics, domestic and international. It is outrage at his goals. Mr Bush responded to the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 as a world-changing catastrophe, one that demanded a rethinking of US policy in every realm, from nuclear proliferation to global alliances. For a short period, most world leaders and nearly all US Democrats pretended to fall in with that view. But many privately dissented and have since voiced their opposition with growing force. These dissenters agree with mainstream American opinion that 9/11 was a moral atrocity whose perpetrators had to be punished. Strategically, however, they grant 9/11 much less importance. For them, it was essential that the US avoid over-reaction; that it resist the impulse to retaliate in ways that could destabilise a global economic and political system that functioned pretty well.

This is the viewpoint for which Mr Kerry speaks. This is what he meant by his remark to the New York Times: “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives but they’re a nuisance.” No wonder Mr Kerry and his supporters see Mr Bush as an agent of disruption. For Mr Bush has utterly rejected this cautious view of terrorism. The temptation that the president has been determined to resist at all costs is that of under-reaction. He has responded to the 9/11 attacks with fury and policy radicalism.

Domestic counter-terrorism has been hauled into the modern age by Mr Bush’s Patriot Act. Security agencies scattered about the government are being welded together into a Department of Homeland Security. Mr Bush vetoed the US military’s first battle plan for Afghanistan as too unwieldy and slow. He gambled his presidency on a plan that relied primarily on air power, special forces and ad hoc alliances with local Afghan groups. As a result, Kabul fell in less than 60 days and a looming famine averted.

In Iraq, Mr Bush had to confront the utter collapse of the policies of the 1990s. Saddam Hussein had manoeuvred inspectors out of the country in 1998; sanctions were discredited; and France and Russia stood in the way of any renewed United Nation action against Mr Hussein. US troops on his borders pressured Mr Hussein to re-admit inspectors in 2002 but the inspectors would have remained only as long as the troops did. Critics may complain that Mr Bush gave short shrift to the UN and other international institutions. But as the UN “oil for food” scandal reminds us, these institutions gave short shrift to the US.

Mr Bush has become a bitterly controversial figure around the world. Consider the words of an American observer who lived in Britain for years: “London was altogether beside itself on one point, in especial: it created a nightmare of its own and gave it the name of (George W. Bush). Behind this it placed another demon, if possible more devilish, and called it (Paul Wolfowitz). In regard to these two men, English society seemed demented. Defence was useless; explanation was vain; one could only let the passion exhaust itself. One’s best friends were as unreasonable as enemies, for the belief in poor (Mr Bush’s) brutality and (Mr Wolfowitz’s) ferocity became a dogma of popular faith.”

As the brackets probably warned you, I have played a little trick. The American I am quoting is Henry Adams. The war during which he lived in London was the US civil war, and the names that originally appeared were not “Bush” and “Wolfowitz”, but “Abraham Lincoln” and “William Seward”, Lincoln’s secretary of state.

I am not going to compare Mr Bush to Lincoln. But I will note that Lincoln was the last US president to seek re-election in the middle of a big war whose outcome remained uncertain. He was disliked in Europe because he too was seen – and correctly seen – as a disturbing and destabilising force in the world, who spurned peace in favour of victory. And he was, finally, the author of the words that best sum up how millions upon millions of Americans feel about the 43rd president: “We cannot spare this man. He fights.”