Joe Gandelman: America's fleeting Arab Spring
It's a classic case of deja vu, and you get that sinking, ominous feeling. And then a (momentarily) optimistic one.
The sinking feeling: reports about a new al-Qaeda terrorist threat that sounded alarmingly like reports published in the summer of 2011 about confident terrorist chatter picked up by intelligence services prefacing 9/11 -- a catastrophe shown by history to be the culmination of managerial negligence on the part of administrations of BOTH parties. The optimistic feeling: the Obama administration's efforts to protect form and prepare for a possible attack received widespread bipartisan support.
Who would have thought it's still possible in mega-polarized America? Over the past few years that has become a serious question.
If America was genuinely threatened by another 9/11 could partisans put down their increasingly tiresome political posturing, agendas and 24/7 efforts to score points for their parties long enough to unite to back checkmating it? And if there was another big, terrorist bloodbath, could Americans come together like they did after 9/11, or within days would that become yet one more finger-pointing partisan battle and ratings-bait booster fought out by the likes of the Martin Bashirs and Sean Hannitys, and breathtakingly predictable partisan websites on the left and right?
It's the agony -- a serious threat. And the ecstasy -- signs that there are still moments when America's political parties aren't entirely consumed by optics, cover-your-you-know-what actions, or "playing to the base" -- a phrase increasingly meaning playing to the basest of emotions and instincts of the left and the right. It's America's (fleeting) political Arab spring as political players focused on protection and prevention.
In this instance, it's as if both parties seemed to have heeded the words of President Rutherford Hayes in his 1877 inaugural address: "He serves his party best who serves his country best."
But it's not entirely surprising. You've heard of "fight or flight?" This choice was divide or survive.
The threat sparked the biggest closure ever of U.S. embassies and consulates due to a terrorist threat: 21 were temporarily shuttered in North Africa and the Middle East. According to reports, electronic communications picked up between Osama bin Laden successor Ayman al-Zawahri and and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, indicated a specifically timed attack or attacks were slated. Some reports suggested fears of surgically implanted bombs that could easily thwart airport security.
Both parties have bungled on foreign policy over the years. Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson writes: "The truth is that U.S. foreign policy helped create the new decentralized al-Qaeda, a branch of which is believed to be trying to launch some kind of strike." He points to George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, Bush and Barack Obama's use of collateral-damage causing drones, and an "Arab spring" that bolstered jihadists.
Only a few in either party suggested this current threat wasn't serious. Texas's Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert said the administration was acting "like a bunch of cowards that go running away." Meanwhile, Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald suggested that the problem was being exaggerated by the administration, and the embassies closed, to try and distract from revelations about how the National Security Agency collects data -- revelations reported on by Greenwald in his exclusive interview with Russia's newest and most famous refugee, Edward Snowden.
Greenwald's kind of response is not new. Partisans or those heavily invested in an issue will often assume that if t-h-e-i-r issue is not totally front-burner, then another action or focus by the government is aimed at "changing the subject" -- when it may be actually because it's wise to change the focus.
Fortunately, in this instance, concern for the country's national security united both parties. And again it seemed as if they had listened to the words of a President, this time Theodore Roosevelt, who said: "Nine-tenths of wisdom is being wise in time."
Joe Gandelman is a veteran journalist who wrote for newspapers overseas and in the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.