NEW YORK—If Americans were represented by an animal, it wouldn't be an eagle. It would be a tiny shrew, nervous and paranoid, and living in constant terror of being attacked by predators.
Our national prey mentality doesn't have much basis in reality. The last attack on U.S. soil took place two-thirds of a century ago; Hawaii wasn't even a state at the time. Before that, you have to go back to 1846—and we provoked that one. Whatever the historical basis—or lack thereof—for this innate fearfulness, U.S. voters look to their president as a Father Protector figure—someone who, if threatened, will ferociously defend what is now called, stupidly and horribly, das Homeland.
Republican candidates win elections in years when national security is a top concern. In 2004, it didn't matter that John Kerry volunteered for, fought in, and returned with medals from Vietnam. What mattered was that he turned the other cheek to the Swift Boat ads. He held his fire in the debates. If Kerry wasn't willing to stand up for himself, voters reasoned, how would he protect them? Bush may have been a coward during Vietnam, but his "dead or alive" cowboy movie bravado, not to mention starting a couple of wars from scratch, conveyed a comforting, if imbecilic bellicosity. The monosyllabic tough-guy act soothed a savage, terrorized electorate.
Hillary Clinton has figured this out. Her policy actions—voting for war twice, the Patriot Act, keeping silent about torture and Guantanamo—have been engineered to project Republicanesque hawkishness. She dresses butch and talks like a female prick—i.e., bitch. You don't like her. She doesn't want you to. She wants you to think that she's macho enough to deal with Them the next time They pick a fight at three in the morning.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, has already given away a store he doesn't yet own. He's the new century's version of Michael Dukakis.
"I would explicitly reach out to disaffected Republicans and remind them of some of their traditions," Obama told U.S. News & World Report. "Very rarely do you hear me talking about my opponents without giving them some credit for having good intentions and being decent people." "I think I can reach out to Republicans and independents more effectively than any other candidate," he said on Meet the Press, citing his "ability to focus on getting the job done, as opposed to getting embroiled in ideological arguments." No wonder Republican pundits love him. Not only will he be easier to beat in November—if McCain loses, they'll get the same love from President Obama.
Obama's attempt to transform himself into the living embodiment of girly-man wimpiness led him to throw his own priest under the bus. This latest display of X-Treme wussosity came in response to demands by Rush Limbaugh, The Wall Street Journal and other braying hounds of the right who feigned offense at quotes pulled from his pastor's old sermons. Jeremiah Wright, long-time leader of the Trinity United Church of Christ of Chicago, officiated at Obama's wedding and inspired the title of his book The Audacity of Hope.
"I reject outright the statements by Reverend Wright that are at issue," Obama said in a statement.
First rule of politics: never apologize. It won't satisfy your critics, and it makes you look weak. If Eliot Spitzer had followed that dictate, he'd still be governor of New York.
First rule of presidential politics: fight for those near and dear to you. Dukakis lost points when he was asked what he'd do if his wife got raped. (Correct answer: "I would kill the rapist.") If a man won't stand up for his own wife—or his own pastor—how can we trust him to fight the terrorists?
Obama's Sister Souljah act may erode his base of support: African-Americans and younger whites, many of whom agree with Reverend Wright's "controversial" homilies.
"Racism is how this country was founded and how it is still run," Wright said. Well, duh. The Journal's editorial page, which still thinks Iraq was the best idea ever, is particularly agitated about ... this ... this obvious fact. Who could say, with a straight face, that racism wasn't a founding principle of a nation with legalized slavery? Who could argue, after reading countless newspaper headlines announcing the acquittal of white cops for shooting unarmed black men, or while driving through urban slums, that we've put racism behind us?
Murdoch's right-wing rag, noted The New York Times, also criticized Wright for "accusing the United States of importing drugs, exporting guns and training murderers." These things are all true (please reference "Iran-Contra," "United States as top arms exporter," and "School of the Americas"). If Obama can't bring himself to speak the truth, he could at least support those who do.
Most damning of all, say Limbaugh et al., was Wright's post-9/11 sermon urging his flock not to yield to the urge "to pay back and kill" or act "holier than thou." His advice proved prescient—wars against Afghanistan and Iraq killed a million innocents, yet none of the criminals of 9/11. It also happened to be quintessentially Christian. "We have supported state terrorism against the Palestinians [true] and black South Africans [true], and now we are indignant because the stuff we have done overseas is brought back to our own front yards," he continued. "America's chickens are coming home to roost."
Chalmers Johnson wrote a bestselling book in 2000 about this phenomenon. It's called Blowback, named after CIA jargon for foreign policies that result in unexpected, negative effects. Johnson wrote that blowback "is a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the U.S. government's international activities that have been kept secret from the American people."
It is well-established that the radical Islamists who launched the 9/11 attacks were motivated by their contempt for American policy in the Muslim world and their desire to bring the war, as they saw it, to the United States. Everyone knows that al Qaida has its roots in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, which the Reagan administration funded and armed. Calling 9/11 a case of "chickens coming home to roost" isn't offensive. It's painfully, boringly obvious.
Obama found it necessary to state that "the violence of 9/11 was inexcusable and without justification."
Wright never said otherwise. Most of the victims of September 11th were office workers. They weren't responsible for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Many were opposed to it. As Johnson wrote: "Terrorism by definition strikes at the innocent in order to draw attention to the sins of the invulnerable."
People who deny that U.S. foreign policy mishaps provoke long-term consequences are liars. People like them—people like Barack Obama—are laying the foundation for the next 9/11.
Ted Rall is the author of the book Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?, an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.