A "faux pas" is not a lie or an error. It is a truthful statementwhich, for political or social reasons, the speaker should not have made.But since he did make it, let us discuss it.
In an interview published in the July issue of Fortune magazine,Charlie Black, chief strategist to John McCain, observed that theRepublican presidential candidate would benefit from a surge of support ifthere were a terrorist attack on the United States before the election. Youcould hardly make a more obvious statement. Hermits who have lived in cavessince the Great Depression know that much about American politics. But youare not supposed to say it out loud.
It's easy to see how Black was led into this faux pas. In theinterview, he had mentioned the assassination of Pakistani oppositionleader Benazir Bhutto last December as an example of an emergency in whichMcCain's experience would trump Barack Obama's lack of same.
"(McCain's) knowledge and ability to talk about it re-emphasizedthat this is the guy who's ready to be commander-in-chief," said Black,"and it helped us (in the polls)." So the interviewer asked the obviousnext question: would the public also see McCain as the better man to dealwith another terrorist attack on the United States?
What was Black supposed to say? "No, I'm sure that Senator Obamawould deal with it every bit as well as my candidate"? This was a liveinterview, and he had inadvertently created an opening for the interviewerto ask the taboo question. So he put his foot in it: "Certainly it would bea big advantage to McCain." Cue fake shock and synthetic horror aseverybody on the Democratic side pretends that Black is playing the"politics of fear."
This is "Gotcha" politics of the lowest order. It is why debate oncertain key subjects in the United States since 9/11 has been reduced tobland and mindless slogans on both sides of the political divide. Obamacannot say that the "terrorist threat" to the United States has beeninflated past bursting point for the past seven years, and that it is hightime to shrink it to its real, rather modest dimensions and get on with thecountry's other long-neglected agendas. He would be crucified by theRepublicans as "soft on terrorism," and the US media would uncriticallyecho the charge.
Instead, various Obama spokespersons condemned Black's candidremark and, by extension, McCain's tactics. "It is critical that thecandidates debate national security...in an atmosphere free from feartactics and political bluster," intoned Richard Ben-Veniste, a formermember of the bipartisan September 11 commission whom the Obama campaigntrotted out for the media. What Black had said involved neither feartactics nor political bluster, but at this level, hypocrisy rules.
Black himself, of course, had to make a grovelling apology, andMcCain had to distance himself from Black as far as possible: "I cannotimagine why (Black) would say it. It isn't true. I've worked tirelesslysince 9/11 to prevent another attack on the United States." But it IS true:a terrorist attack would obviously drive millions of American voters backinto the arms of Mr Security, because a great many people assume thatex-fighter pilots are just better than first term senators at dealing withthat sort of thing.
Nobody said that John McCain was hoping for a terrorist attack onthe United States, but that is the implicit accusation he is denying whenhe talks about "working tirelessly" to prevent an attack. And thatsuperficial and pathetic exchange of views is probably the closest that theUnited States is going to come to a genuine debate on security issuesduring this entire election campaign.
So let us move on to something more interesting. What would "theterrorists" really like to do in the United States between now andNovember, assuming that they had the ability to do something? Attack now,or wait until later?
We are not talking about confused juveniles with dreams of 72virgins here. We are talking about senior leaders who think in strategicterms and plan years ahead. So if they want a McCain presidency, they givehim the attack that Charlie Black quite accurately said would boost theRepublican vote. If they want an Obama presidency, they do nothing.
I cannot read their minds, but I do know what would swing theirdecision one way or the other. If they want to collect their winnings now,they will favour an Obama presidency and an early US military withdrawalfrom the Middle East, after which they could reasonably hope to overthrowone or two regimes in the region and come to power themselves.
If they would rather keep the US mired in the region for longer,inflicting casualties on American troops and building up their own prestigewith radical youth in the area, in the expectation of greater politicalgains later on, then they would back McCain So they would try to help hiselection by blowing something up in the United States.
But the bottom line is that they probably lack the ability to blowanything up in the United States, which makes it a rather moot point.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.