Codependent No More
Can Bin Laden keep Bush in office?
Oct. 30, 3:00 p.m. ET: Well, it took him long enough, but Osama Bin Laden has finally repaid his debt. Maybe just in time.
The debt is to President Bush, who has spent the three years since the Afghan war doing everything he could, inadvertently, to help Bin Laden. He let Bin Laden get away, turned our attention to Saddam Hussein, and conducted both prewar diplomacy (if I may use that word) and the postwar occupation of Iraq in a manner perfectly calculated—or rather, not calculated—to discredit the United States and piss everyone off. Bin Laden couldn't have scripted it better.
It wasn't scripted, of course. Bush would gladly kill the leaders of al-Qaida with his bare hands. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he'd gladly do to them what he did to the North Vietnamese: send somebody else to kill them. Anyway, with the worst intentions, Bush did Bin Laden the best favor.
Now Bin Laden is returning the favor with poetic symmetry. With the worst intentions, he's brought Bush the best possible October surprise, short of turning himself over to the NYPD. Bin Laden would like to see Bush thrown out of office, like that Spanish prime minister with the mustache who served as our beard for the Iraq invasion. If Bush loses, Bin Laden thinks he'll have another scalp to hang on his wall, or cave, or whatever it is. He'll claim to have brought down the president.
Except he won't bring down the president. More likely, by showing up four days before our election, he'll scare Americans into re-electing Bush. The only thing that keeps a clear majority of us from recognizing Bush as the worst president in memory is that history has graced him with such an ugly adversary. Bush hasn't had to do anything well. All he's had to do is point out that he's on your side and that the guy on the other side is a mass-murdering lunatic. For a blissful month and a half, we managed to cut through that shtick and notice how badly Bush has run the country. Now Bin Laden has brought the shtick back. Bush can talk about his values instead of his record. He can stop running against John Kerry and go back to running against people who hate America and murder children.
I remember when Bush addressed Congress after Sept. 11. I thought history had given him a mission he couldn't screw up. Bush had only two virtues—moral clarity and resolve—and a terrorist attack on our country called for both of them. I didn't realize that his judgment was so bad it could turn these virtues into vices, confusing two enemies and letting the more dangerous one get away.
Later, I remember defending the buildup to the Iraq war. Some of my friends refused to support the war because it was Bush's. I thought that was petty of them. Now I understand. When you support a president going to war, you don't get your war. You get his.
That's the story of Bush. Clear intentions, lousy judgment, counterproductive results. I love his intentions as much as I hate Bin Laden's, but the two men turn out to be well-matched. Bin Laden pisses people off and drives them into the arms of Bush. Bush pisses people off and drives them into the arms of Bin Laden. Bush keeps Bin Laden in business; Bin Laden keeps Bush in office. With clear intentions and lousy judgment, Bin Laden has shown up on the eve of our election, full of the same impenetrable self-assurance Pat Robertson noticed in Bush. No doubt Bin Laden hopes to assist, or at least take credit for, the president's defeat. And no doubt the results will be counterproductive. I just hope they aren't counterproductive enough, because this is one codependent relationship the world can't afford.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.