In the war on terror, the worst defense is a bad offense.

Politics and policy.
Sept. 9 2004 6:42 PM

Wrong-Way Bush

In the war on terror, the worst defense is a bad offense.

Tricky Dick
Tricky Dick

Seventy-five years ago in the Rose Bowl, a University of California football player named Roy Riegels picked up a fumble by the opposing team, spun around, and started running for the end zone. Unfortunately, he was heading the wrong way. He ran with such purpose that people in the stands, including the play-by-play announcer, doubted their own sanity. When a teammate tried to stop him, Riegels—who would go down in history as "Wrong-Way Riegels"—shook him off. He was a man on a mission.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

This is what's now happening in Iraq and the presidential campaign. President Bush and Vice President Cheney are framing the election as a choice between playing "defense" and going on "offense" in the war on terror. The attacks of 9/11 presented the United States with a grave new challenge. Bush picked up this football and started running with it—toward Iraq. But Iraq wasn't among the states closely linked to 9/11 or al-Qaida. Nor did it have the weapons of mass destruction Bush advertised. We've spent more than 1,000 American lives and close to $200 billion running the wrong way.

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Here's how Cheney put the argument three days ago:

We also have gone on the offense on the war on terror. But the President's opponent even seems to object to that. Senator Kerry has even said that by using our strength, we are creating terrorists and placing ourselves in greater danger. But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the world we live in works. Terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness.

And here's how Bush put it a week earlier:

We have a difference of opinion on the enemy, it seems. My opponent said that going to war with the terrorists is actually improving their recruiting efforts. The logic is upside-down. I think it shows a misunderstanding of the enemy. See, during the 1990's, the terrorists were recruiting and training for war with us long before we went to war with them. They don't need an excuse for their hatred. It is wrong to blame this country for staying on the offense. See, we don't create enemies and terrorists by fighting back; we defeat the terrorists by fighting back.

Those two quotes encapsulate the central question of this election. In the Bush-Cheney worldview, all foreign adversaries blur into one: "the enemy." All U.S. options simplify to two: "offense" or "defense." Going on offense shows "strength" and defeats the enemy. If the president starts running with the ball, and you criticize him, you show "weakness" and invite terrorism.

But what if there's more than one enemy? What if the enemy we're "fighting back" at isn't the one that struck or threatened us? What if the president turns away from the team that was trying to score on us, and he starts heading for another team that's sitting in the stands, behind our own end zone? What if his "offense" is losing yards with every stride?

That's the lesson of three years of investigations. The 9/11 commission has found "no evidence" of "a collaborative operational relationship" between Iraq and al-Qaida. Bush's handpicked chief weapons inspector, David Kay, says there "were no large stockpiles of WMD." What has this diversion done for the war on terror? A year ago, U.S. intelligence officials told reporters that "as much as half of the intelligence and special forces assets in Afghanistan and Pakistan were diverted to support the war in Iraq." While we've been bogged down in Iraq, Iran has revved up its own nuclear program, and North Korea has acquired the fuel for as many as eight nukes.

Bush screwed up. He picked the wrong target. He's been running the wrong way.