16 Oct 2008

Beware an October surprise from bin Laden
By Joseph Nye
Published: October 15 2008 19:31 | Last updated: October 15 2008 19:31

Americans are transfixed by the aftermath of the September surprise in financial markets. Could there be a very different surprise coming in October?

The public thinks Democrats do better on economic issues, and the financial crisis erased the bounce in the polls that John McCain received from the Republican convention. After the second presidential debate, Mr Obama widened his lead, but dangers remain. Polls show that Republicans do better on the issue of terrorism. Last June, McCain adviser Charlie Black was reprimanded for having the temerity to point out that the intrusion of a terrorist event into the campaign would “certainly be a big advantage” for Mr McCain. Mr Black may have been politically incorrect but an objective analysis suggests he might be right.

On October 29 2004, four days before the last election, Al Jazeera aired an 18 minute video tape in which Osama bin Laden addressed the American people and threatened further retaliation and a desire to bankrupt the US. In the first poll after that tape was released, President George W. Bush opened up a six point lead over Senator John Kerry. The deputy director of the CIA commented that “Bin Laden certainly did a nice favour today for the president”.

Since the election turned on 120,000 votes in Ohio, it is plausible Mr bin Laden was able to affect the election. From the al-Qaeda leader’s point of view, Mr Bush’s policies were more useful for his efforts to recruit supporters than Mr Kerry’s might have been. Mr bin Laden is involved in a civil war within Islam. He wants the US to pursue policies that create the appearance of a clash of civilisations. Anything that polarises the mainstream of Muslim opinion helps his recruiting. As the deputy director for analysis at the CIA commented at the time: “Certainly, he would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years.”

From that point of view, Barack Obama must be unsettling for Mr bin Laden. An African-American with a father born in Kenya and a childhood spent partly in Indonesia presents a very different face to the world. A recent BBC poll of 22 countries found that if the world could vote, Mr Obama would win in a landslide. The pro-Obama margin varied from 82 percentage points in Kenya to 9 points in India.

Of course, Americans do not like outside interference in their elections. When Mr Obama attracted a crowd of 200,000 to a speech in Berlin last summer, Republican critics portrayed him as an elitist who appeals overseas but not to blue collar workers at home. On the other hand, in a recent poll that asked Americans to rate a series of foreign policy goals for the next president, 83 per cent ranked “improving America’s standing in the world” as most important. Certainly, the election of the first African-American as president would do wonders to restore the soft power that the Bush administration has squandered over the past eight years. That is why Mr Obama is such a threat to Mr bin Laden.

Some voters worry that even though Mr Obama might be good for US soft power, he might not understand hard power. Mr Obama’s statements in the two presidential debates suggest that he gets it. He has promised to give priority to finding and killing Mr bin Laden but there is more to the story. Niccolò Machiavelli said that it is more important for a prince to be feared than to be loved but we sometimes forget that the opposite of love is not fear, but hatred. Machiavelli made it clear hatred is something a prince should avoid at all costs. Smart power is the ability to combine hard and soft power into an effective strategy.

Both Mr McCain and Mr Obama have impressive hard power political and organisational skills, or they would not be where they are today. After all, Mr McCain has a military background and Mr Obama came up through the rough and tumble of Chicago politics. More over, Mr Obama’s campaign has set a new standard for political organisation. But on the crucial soft power skills of emotional intelligence, vision and communication, Mr Obama has the edge as reflected in the global polls and that must be giving Mr bin Laden a headache. In the next few weeks, as the remaining undecided voters have to make up their minds, Mr bin Laden may again be tempted to enter the fray. Given the scale of the financial crisis, it might take more than a video tape to refocus the attention of the American electorate this year but we should be alert to Mr bin Laden’s temptation and the danger it presents.

The writer is a professor at Harvard University and author most recently of The Powers to Lead



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