Bush v. Gore on terrorism.

Bush v. Gore on terrorism.

Bush v. Gore on terrorism.

Politics and policy.
Sept. 24 2002 7:00 PM

Two Concepts of Anti-Terrorism

The party of fear vs. the party of goodwill.

On Monday, President Bush went to New Jersey to present his view of the war on terror. Meanwhile, former Vice President Al Gore went to California to make the case against Bush's plans for attacking Iraq. The two speeches illuminate the debate over Iraq, terrorism, and foreign affairs generally. It isn't necessarily between Democrats and Republicans or between isolationists and interventionists. It's between the party of fear and the party of goodwill.


The party of goodwill, led by Gore, believes that the behavior of foreign peoples and governments toward the United States is driven by whether they like us. If we're nice to them, they'll be nice to us. If we're mean to them, they'll be mean to us. "It is impossible to succeed against terrorism unless we have secured the continuing, sustained cooperation of many nations," Gore asserted. By angering these nations, he argued, a unilateral American attack on Iraq would jeopardize that cooperation.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Believers in goodwill tend to talk about foreign peoples and leaders the way you talk about friends, colleagues, or neighbors. Other nations will be friendly to us if we treat them as "equals," said Gore, but Bush treats them with "disdain." Instead of being "calmed down," they're suffering "apprehensions" about us. As Gore sees it, after Sept. 11, 2001, "We had an enormous reservoir of goodwill and sympathy and shared resolve all over the world. That has been squandered in a year's time and replaced with great anxiety" about American adventurism. "Look at the entire German election campaign," said Gore. "It revealed a profound and troubling change in the attitude of the German electorate toward the United States."

The party of fear, led by Bush, takes a different view. It believes that the behavior of foreign peoples and governments toward the United States is driven, as President Reagan put it, not by whether they like us, but by whether they respect us. Terrorists don't think the way your friends or colleagues do. They're "a bunch of killers," Bush declared Monday. As for our allies and potential allies, they respond more to forcefulness than to pleading. Lead, and they'll follow. Punish an upstart, and they'll fall in line. "Either you're with us or you're with the enemy," said Bush. It's "necessary to send a message to friend and foe alike that we're plenty tough, if you rouse this country." The Germans don't like us? Screw 'em. A few good slaps, and they'll come around.

Which party is right? Both are probably oversimplifications. For now, the important thing is to be aware of the dispute. They're completely different theories of psychology. Neither has been clearly articulated, challenged, or defended. My colleague Bob Wright thinks the world operates on goodwill. My friend Charles Krauthammer thinks the world operates on fear. Their prescriptions on how to fight terrorism are completely opposite, yet each man's analysis is logically compelling, once you accept its psychological premise. That's where the real debate needs to be joined.


Each school has its problems. If you believe in goodwill, you risk being manipulated and abused by foreign governments that don't. Say you want Russia's help to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution returning weapons inspectors to Iraq. Russia, which has a huge commercial stake in Iraq, says it will go along, but only if you remove the clause authorizing the immediate use of force in the event that Iraq blocks the inspectors. Russia also wants a free hand to crush Chechen rebels by means that will probably entail extensive civilian casualties. The price of goodwill turns out to be not just a weakening of the policy for which you seek support, but fear and misery for third parties.

Another problem with the party of goodwill is its implicit attitude of passivity and relativism. Describing the resentment of foreign leaders toward Bush's Iraq policy, Gore stipulated, "Now, my point is not that they're right to feel that way, but that they do feel that way. And that has consequences for us." This preoccupation with consequences others might impose on us, rather than with consequences we might impose on them, is lazy and self-debilitating. And Gore's suggestion that we should let that resentment affect our policy without judging whether it's right or wrong is irresponsible.

The party of fear, too, has flaws to answer for. The biggest one, illustrated by Bush's speech, is the radical disjunction between the mindset it attributes to Americans and the mindset it attributes to foreigners. Americans will do "good, because of the nature of our soul, the nature of our being," said Bush. "If you want to fight evil, do some good. … Love your neighbor; mentor a child; put your arm around an elderly citizen who is shut-in, and say, 'I love you.' … Societies change one heart, one conscience, one soul at a time."

Except foreign societies, that is. They change by being reminded that "we're plenty tough." As for terrorists and their sympathizers, they're a different species. "They hate and we love," said Bush. "We differ from our enemy because we love." This can't be a sufficient explanation of the behavior of terrorists or their sponsors, much less the behavior of Jordanians, Turks, or Germans. A psychological theory that takes no account of affirmative motivation can't, by itself, guide us to victory.

As Gore pointed out, a theory based on fear eventually bends back on itself. A bully tends to unite his victims against him. Bush understands this principle in the context of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people, but he doesn't consider whether, to a lesser extent, it might apply to the United States and the regimes we're now pressuring or threatening. "If what we represent to the world is an empire, then it is our enemies who will be legion," argued Gore.

If purchasing the goodwill of other regimes risks morally ugly consequences, embracing the exploitation of fear makes such consequences far more likely. "Two decades ago, the Soviet Union claimed the right to launch a pre-emptive war in Afghanistan," Gore noted in his speech. "If other nations assert that same right [of pre-emption], then the rule of law would quickly be replaced by the reign of fear." And the ultimate, if unlikely, peril is not that Russia or China will become an out-of-control empire, but that we will. In winning the war on terror, said Gore, we must "preserve not only ourselves as individuals, but our nature as a people dedicated to the rule of law."

The party of fear has made its case. Now the party of goodwill has replied. Let the debate begin. And let each side defend the theory of human nature on which its prescriptions and promises depend.