War on Terror: A Political Liability in 2004?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, October 13, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

DAVID ASMAN, GUEST HOST: President Bush doesn't want the war in Iraq to become a political liability heading into the election. Fair or not, voters could become impatient with a war on terror.

Bruce Herschensohn (search) worked in various capacities for presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. His new book is called Passport: An Epic Novel of the Cold War.

He joins us from Los Angeles. And today's big question, can President Bush win the war of public opinion on Iraq? Mr. Herschensohn, what do you think?

BRUCE HERSCHENSOHN, AUTHOR OF PASSPORT: David, yes, I do, and I think he is doing exactly the right thing, but the difficulty is — the real problem is that much of the major media, the network media, is treating this like Vietnam, when really the comparison should be with World War II.

It's even worse than World War II. We're fighting it correctly, but the home front isn't a home front. I was a kid when World War II was in full play. It was the thought of everyone almost every minute, even for a child... rationing and gasoline rationing, sugar, milk, meat, everything. Everything was — everything was geared towards the home front. In this case, we act — and I think the major media act — for the good old days, the nostalgia of the '60s.

ASMAN: Let's talk about a war that we both remember, Vietnam. I remember it very well.


ASMAN: 1968. There was something called the Tet offensive (search). It was a military victory I think most military historians would admit for the United states, not for the Vietcong (search) whose flag we see from an old protest. And, yet, we lost the PR battle about the Tet offensive. Is that what's happening here? We're winning battles on the ground in Iraq but losing the PR battle here at home?

HERSCHENSOHN: That is exactly what's happening here. And it seems so terrible when you read polls that the top concern of Americans is the economy. Next, health care. Next, something else, but way down the list is the war on terrorism. This is a war that's going to decide the fate of the United States and even the fate of Western civilization, and we better realize it.

ASMAN: Well, it's because, I think, the critics of the Iraq war have succeeded in separating in a lot of the public's minds — not everybody — maybe half of them, the war in Iraq from the war on terror. That is, the connection between them has been — has been severed, and perhaps successfully so by a lot of the Democrats running for president.

HERSCHENSOHN: David, you are exactly right. But during World War II it would be like saying, "Gee, it's okay to bomb Tokyo, but not Berlin."

ASMAN: But the difference — I don't want to give too much credit to this argument. However, in World War II, I mean, there were so many fronts that we were fighting that war on. There were the fascists all over Europe ...

HERSCHENSOHN: Of course, of course.

ASMAN: There were the imperial fascists in the Pacific theater. This is a little different. We are picking our battles more specifically here. Afghanistan and Iraq. So far those are the only ones.

HERSCHENSOHN: Well, but we have troops in other places. As you know, we have them in the Philippines.

ASMAN: Right, but they are not actively fighting battles every day.

HERSCHENSOHN: I agree with you. We're not.

ASMAN: Now, Democrats are taking some mileage out of this, or at least, they are taking advantage of it. How far do you think they're going to go? So far Dennis Kucinich (search) is the only one that I know of who specifically said, "It's time to withdraw our troops from Iraq." Do you think that's a good — others will join that chorus?

HERSCHENSOHN: They will go further towards that chorus. They probably won't go that far, but they'll go further towards it. And that, in itself, is a very, very dangerous attitude. One thing I wish the president would do is not talk about the — about the economy. Not talk about those other things. He is a wartime president, and, again, if I can go back to when I was a kid, when FDR. was on the radio, boy, everyone would listen.

But we see so much of President Bush that we aren't running to the television set to see what he is saying because he could be talking about jobs or the economy, something — whatever it may be, the environment for that matter. He is a wartime president, and I think it's important that he give those addresses that deal with the war more than anything else.

ASMAN: But you know, some of his conservative critics say that the problem that he has had — he has created part of this disconnect between Iraq and the war on terror himself by disassociating any idea of terrorism that international terrorism that combined with our — at least as far as 9/11 is concerned.

HERSCHENSOHN: I don't quite follow you on that one, David.

ASMAN: Well, he has said that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. Other people say perhaps he did.

HERSCHENSOHN: Well, I think the one thing that he is proving — and I wish people would see it in this way — is that he has vision. Okay. They didn't have anything to do with 9/11. I don't think that's the issue. Vision is what we always ask of candidates, but when we get one that has vision, we don't like it.

Vision means that you do preemptive techniques. You must — if you have vision, you must do those things that to some are going to be unpopular, and Iraq as a battlefield — and it certainly has been a battlefield and still remains one — is terribly important. And I think that if anyone would look at this as a world war, which indeed it is, they could — it's important.

ASMAN: Some folks say we're getting very close to that point in which it could go either way. Either things get terribly worse, that is we begin to see a flood of these terrorists come into Iraq and create multiple problems, much worse than we're seeing now. Or things could get much better. If things go down in terms of what happens in Iraq, and it could happen, what happens to those critics of the president and that momentum that does seem to be trailing downwards now for the president in Iraq?

HERSCHENSOHN: I — obviously if things get worse, then the critics, the opposition to the president, are going to get louder and louder and say that we have to get out. That's a given. It's going to happen. It is — David, it is because I believe that those critics do not see this for the importance that it has, that this does determine the future of the United States and Western civilization. And in not seeing it, they can afford to say, "Gee, an American was killed today. Isn't that terrible?" Of course, it's terrible. No question about the fact that it's terrible. But this is war.

ASMAN: I'll leave it at that. Bruce Herschensohn, the book is called Passport: An Epic Novel of the Cold War. I look forward to reading it. Thanks very much for coming, I appreciate it.


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