Would bin Laden prefer Bush or Kerry?

An article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution focused on an interesting hypothetical question: Who does bin Laden want to win the presidency?

Bin Laden hasn’t commented publicly about the presidential election. But that hasn’t kept partisans in the United States from divining the political desires of the terrorist mastermind.

While some Republicans claim that Osama wants Kerry, a recent Doonesbury comic suggests that bin Laden wants Bush. The strip blames the Iraq war for creating “an incubator for a whole new generation of holy warriors” and for “so carelessly squandering America’s moral authority.” “May he be re-elected! God willing!” the final captions read. “I’m Osama bin Laden, and I approve this message.”

Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan, sides with Doonesbury. “My guess is that al-Qaida wants Bush,” he said, adding that Bush has become the poster boy for jihadi recruiters seeking men, money and munitions to fight the invading American infidels. Cole cites Bush’s unequivocal support for Israel and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as fuel for bin Laden’s anti-American fervor. “Their message is that Americans are coming to invade your country, rape your women and humiliate your men. They wanted the U.S. to attack Afghanistan [and] Iraq,” Cole said. “Al-Qaida wants a series of escalating fights so that, ultimately, they’ll have a really big battle. They think Bush is a sucker for this.”

Bush projects the image of battle-tested commander-in-chief promising to protect Americans in a dangerous world. Kerry, who never fails to invoke his Vietnam experience, counters that Bush’s foreign policy has spawned hatred of the United States and exposed Americans to even greater danger from terrorists.

Patrick Basham, a senior fellow at The Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank in Washington, notes that foreign policy troubles during election years have often redounded in favor of the incumbent. Voters tend to trust a candidate more who has withstood calamity and kept the nation intact. “Historically, traditionally, a serious national security crisis, as any successful attack would be viewed, has helped the incumbent,” Basham said. “I still think, to go out on a limb, that the most likely type of attack would be a suicide bombing or a car bombing. And we would continue to see a rallying around the flag.”

John Zogby, a pollster, says that politically, “an attack won’t matter much.” “The country is split on George W. Bush and hyper-emotional on both sides. There’s not much pliability or elasticity here,” said Zogby, whose polling clients include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The CIA analyst who wrote “Imperial Hubris, Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror” says Bush gave bin Laden “a Christmas present” by invading Iraq. “The gift he received from Washington will haunt, hurt and hound Americans for years to come,” wrote the author, who is anonymous. “We are, overall, in a hell of a fix.”

But that doesn’t mean bin Laden necessarily wants Kerry to be the next president.

“If you take Kerry at his word, it would appear that he would do less to irritate, rightly or wrongly, the fundamentalist Arab world,” Basham said. But “there is every reason to believe that a Kerry administration, at this point in the nation’s political evolution and context, would pursue an equally aggressive policy against al-Qaida.”

Pollster Goeas said bin Laden doesn’t care who prevails on Nov. 2. “He’s not trying to help one side win or the other,” Goeas said. “He just wants to kill Americans.”

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