Black’s Faux Pas

26 June 2008

Black’s Faux Pas

By Gwynne Dyer

A “faux pas” is not a lie or an error. It is a truthful statement which, for political or social reasons, the speaker should not have made. But since he did make it, let us discuss it.

In an interview published in the July issue of Fortune magazine, Charlie Black, chief strategist to John McCain, observed that the Republican presidential candidate would benefit from a surge of support if there were a terrorist attack on the United States before the election. You could hardly make a more obvious statement. Hermits who have lived in caves since the Great Depression know that much about American politics. But you are not supposed to say it out loud.

It’s easy to see how Black was led into this faux pas. In the interview, he had mentioned the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto last December as an example of an emergency in which McCain’s experience would trump Barack Obama’s lack of same.

“(McCain’s) knowledge and ability to talk about it re-emphasized that this is the guy who’s ready to be commander-in-chief,” said Black, “and it helped us (in the polls).” So the interviewer asked the obvious next question: would the public also see McCain as the better man to deal with another terrorist attack on the United States?

What was Black supposed to say? “No, I’m sure that Senator Obama would deal with it every bit as well as my candidate”? This was a live interview, and he had inadvertently created an opening for the interviewer to ask the taboo question. So he put his foot in it: “Certainly it would be a big advantage to McCain.” Cue fake shock and synthetic horror as everybody on the Democratic side pretends that Black is playing the “politics of fear.”

This is “Gotcha” politics of the lowest order. It is why debate on certain key subjects in the United States since 9/11 has been reduced to bland and mindless slogans on both sides of the political divide. Obama cannot say that the “terrorist threat” to the United States has been inflated past bursting point for the past seven years, and that it is high time to shrink it to its real, rather modest dimensions and get on with the country’s other long-neglected agendas. He would be crucified by the Republicans as “soft on terrorism,” and the US media would uncritically echo the charge.

Instead, various Obama spokespersons condemned Black’s candid remark and, by extension, McCain’s tactics. “It is critical that the candidates debate national security…in an atmosphere free from fear tactics and political bluster,” intoned Richard Ben-Veniste, a former member of the bipartisan September 11 commission whom the Obama campaign trotted out for the media. What Black had said involved neither fear tactics nor political bluster, but at this level, hypocrisy rules.

Black himself, of course, had to make a grovelling apology, and McCain had to distance himself from Black as far as possible: “I cannot imagine why (Black) would say it. It isn’t true. I’ve worked tirelessly since 9/11 to prevent another attack on the United States.” But it IS true: a terrorist attack would obviously drive millions of American voters back into the arms of Mr Security, because a great many people assume that ex-fighter pilots are just better than first term senators at dealing with that sort of thing.

Nobody said that John McCain was hoping for a terrorist attack on the United States, but that is the implicit accusation he is denying when he talks about “working tirelessly” to prevent an attack. And that superficial and pathetic exchange of views is probably the closest that the United States is going to come to a genuine debate on security issues during this entire election campaign.

So let us move on to something more interesting. What would “the terrorists” really like to do in the United States between now and November, assuming that they had the ability to do something? Attack now, or wait until later?

We are not talking about confused juveniles with dreams of 72 virgins here. We are talking about senior leaders who think in strategic terms and plan years ahead. So if they want a McCain presidency, they give him the attack that Charlie Black quite accurately said would boost the Republican vote. If they want an Obama presidency, they do nothing.

I cannot read their minds, but I do know what would swing their decision one way or the other. If they want to collect their winnings now, they will favour an Obama presidency and an early US military withdrawal from the Middle East, after which they could reasonably hope to overthrow one or two regimes in the region and come to power themselves.

If they would rather keep the US mired in the region for longer, inflicting casualties on American troops and building up their own prestige with radical youth in the area, in the expectation of greater political gains later on, then they would back McCain So they would try to help his election by blowing something up in the United States.

But the bottom line is that they probably lack the ability to blow anything up in the United States, which makes it a rather moot point.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“Instead…rules”; and “Nobody…campaign”)