Mark Danner, in this week’s New Yorker:
America has endured fierce electoral struggles over war and peace before, most recently over Vietnam in 1968. This “war on terror” campaign, however, in its focus on the critical question of “Who can make us safer?,” may come to more closely resemble the Red-baiting campaigns of the fifties or the elections after the Civil War in which rivals “waved the bloody shirt.” But this campaign includes a shadow player the others lacked. For nearly a decade, Al Qaeda has attempted not to defeat the United States militarily but to gain adherents by building its image among Muslims as the only effective counter to America and to the moderate regimes that American power sustains. To this political program the Bush Administration sought to offer what it thought of as a political response: to “transform the Middle East,” by way of war in Iraq. So far, the occupation has done much to diminish American prestige among the moderate Muslims it was meant to persuade — and has helped increase the prestige of those who make the claim, while they go on killing the occupiers, that they are the only effective opposition to American power.
In the United States, the debate over Iraq has encouraged a kind of corrosive, brutal politics that has at its center an appeal to personal fear. That leaves a powerful weapon in the hands of the terrorists, who gained enormously after the attacks in Madrid by appearing to swing Spain’s election against a major ally of President Bush. No one can say what effect a terrorist attack would have on the American election. But the tone and the terms of the evolving struggle for political dominance here present the possibility that such an attack could similarly strengthen those whom both candidates have pledged to destroy.