The Permanent War Campaign

President Bush seems to be planning to run on Sept. 11 and its aftershocks straight through the 2004 election.

Back in 1980, a little-known writer named Sidney Blumenthal published a small book called “The Permanent Campaign.” Much of what Blumenthal laid out in that book about the evolution of political image-making has long since been accepted as conventional wisdom, and Blumenthal himself went from being an outsider at the Boston Phoenix to one of the more infamous Clinton White House insiders.

With George W. Bush in residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., however, it’s time to update Blumenthal’s contribution to the political lexicon. Even from several thousand miles away, it is clear that what we are seeing from the current administration is a skillful pursuit of another sort of permanent campaign — a Permanent War Campaign.

The brilliance of the Permanent War Campaign is that as long as the United States appears to be on the move against foreign adversaries, the question of whether any action is actually taken becomes of secondary interest. As Blumenthal suggested two decades ago, results and concrete proposals are less important than perception and image.

The targets of Bush’s State of the Union address, then, were not the governments of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, but the rhetorical evil of “Iran,” “Iraq” and “North Korea.” Bush’s critics — including several European officials — do the president and the American people a disservice when they suggest that the president’s speech was geopolitically sloppy. Bush most certainly said just what he meant to say when he drew up his “axis of evil” — ratcheting up the rhetoric as a rallying point for national unity.

There is little evidence to suggest the administration intends to actually reprise the Gulf War — which would require serious negotiations with key European allies and Russia. Rather, the administration plans to fight “Iraq,” which requires little more than political planning and will assuredly attract the broad support of the American public.

It is becoming evident that Bush plans to run on Sept. 11 and its aftershocks straight through the 2004 election. Few critics or commentators have been willing to say this, for fear of being branded a traitor, something the White House well understands.

The administration believes it can play the “wartime president” card as often as it chooses. Clearly, it can, and it will.

That the public will support this approach is understandable. America was attacked on Sept. 11. The terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon provoked this state of war. Those who helped and guided them should be pursued and punished. There exists a rare national consensus on this point, and that’s nothing to dismiss lightly.

But there are dangers to consider — dangers the American public is seemingly blind to in its anger and pain and isolation. The Permanent War Campaign is playing well at home, but not nearly as well here in Europe or elsewhere around the world.

Perhaps the sharpest divide has come over the US treatment of Taliban fighters held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The White House has repeatedly described its campaign as a “war” on terrorism, but the same administration rejects European calls to consider the captured fighters prisoners of that “war.”

The root of this controversy is simple enough: The administration does not always mean what it says. In the Blumenthalian world of image-making, media politics demands clarity and consistency, not sincerity or honesty.

Here in Europe, politicians and commentators are deeply divided on how seriously to take Bush’s unilateralist, interventionist stance. The president’s “axis of evil” comments have played poorly among Europeans. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was the first to question Bush’s phrasing and go-it-alone stance. In recent days, his criticisms have been echoed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Europe’s leaders are clearly torn between taking Bush’s statements seriously and dismissing them as a typically American political ploy. Jospin, Putin and Fischer have adopted the former attitude, and their expressions of concern about Washington’s indifference to Europe’s view are the result.

In the US, the important question seems to be whether the Permanent War Campaign leaves room for real pluralism, let alone real dissent.

The rules of politics say that if a sitting President has an 80 percent approval rating, he’s politically untouchable — on any issue. A recent Gallup poll showed that Bush is admired by more Americans than any person since pollsters began asking the question in 1948. We’re in uncharted territory.

The Permanent War Campaign brilliantly conforms to the needs of the American people. The last thing the American people want is to think too much about the rest of the world. They are willing to learn a few foreign names during the rare national emergency, but no one can expect them to pay close attention. The American people crave simply defined, easily understood objectives. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has lacked such objectives.

The administration understands this. In conjuring an essentially artificial alignment of enemies, Bush fills a psychological need.

The war on terrorism has domestic political calculations behind it, as well as moral and military necessity. If we can’t understand that, we are a long way from understanding the game the White House is playing and what it can mean for the rest of the world.


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