Dominic Lawson: Democrats have overlooked one player: Osama bin Laden
What could possibly go wrong now for the Democrats? Barack Obama's campaign for the White House has just pulled off a tremendous double whammy: the endorsement of General Colin Powell (formerly George W Bush's Secretary of State) and the rush to the bedside of an ailing grandmother (helpfully demonstrating both Obama's youthfulness and his devotion to family).
Yet even as some bookmakers have begun refusing to take any more bets on an Obama victory, Democratic Party supporters are still all-a-quiver with anxiety. This is not altogether surprising. They had not imagined that dopey George W Bush could ever have beaten Al Gore – but he did. President Bush had also trailed John Kerry in the polls – but again managed to snatch the narrowest of wins in the electoral college.
While Bush's first victory is blamed by Democrats on funny goings-on down in Florida, a different deus ex machina is given as the reason for the Republicans' late rally in 2004: Osama bin Laden. Four days before that election, Al Jazeera broadcast a video tape in which America's most wanted finally took responsibility for the World Trade Centre attacks – and also ridiculed President Bush's response on the day: "It never occurred to us that the Commander-in-Chief of the country would leave 50,000 citizens in the two towers to face those horrors alone because he thought listening to a child discussing her goats was more important."
Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard is fearful of another "October surprise": "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 that Mr bin Laden was able to affect the election. From the al-Qa'ida 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."
On this interpretation of events, a tape from bin Laden is even now being conveyed to Al Jazeera, in an attempt to swing Americans behind John McCain. After all, Senator McCain is possibly even more belligerent than President Bush, while Senator Obama is the candidate who will speedily withdraw US troops from the Middle East and attempt to charm the world back to pro-Americanism.
The former director of counter-terrorism at the National Security Council, R P Eddy, is also of this opinion. In an article for yesterday's New York Daily News, Mr Eddy writes that "With so much at stake in these elections, bin Laden will probably attempt to make his opinion count... he probably realises it could be markedly more difficult to paint the United States as 'The Great Satan' with a new President who is admired internationally".
I am neither a Harvard professor, nor – self-evidently – a former director of counter-terrorism at the NSC; but on the basis of no qualifications whatsoever, I assert that these experts have misunderstood the character of Osama bin Laden, and therefore his motives.
The al-Qa'ida leader's ego is such that he would actually have believed that many Americans would find his 2004 broadcast persuasive, rather than repulsive. He would not have been denouncing Bush in order to induce people to vote Republican. He wanted Americans to share his view of the man in the White House. Why else would he have ridiculed George W for continuing to read My Pet Goat to a group of children after he had been told that America was under attack? This was bin Laden gloating that he was a greater war leader than blithering Bush.
It may well be the case, as Professor Nye asserts, that the CIA concluded that the tape was designed to help Bush win re-election in 2004; but that does not make it so. Indeed, given the CIA's track record on Middle Eastern intelligence, their view of the tape's real purpose should be treated with extreme caution.
If these anxious Democratic supporters are right, then we should indeed expect a bin Laden tape criticising John McCain, cunningly designed to cause Americans to reject Barack Obama instead. In that case, they must also accept the corollary: that if no such tape is sent to Al Jazeera, it would suggest that bin Laden really prefers that Obama became President.
This, however, will be a difficult proposition for them to take on board; it would mean in turn that bin Laden and those who advise him are more worried by the prospect of a continuation of the policies pursued by George W Bush and are desperately anxious for a President who might take the military heat off them.
The most recent authenticated leak of correspondence between the al-Qa'ida leadership suggests that their lives are not a bundle of joy, after seven years on the run. A December 2005 letter from Atiyah Abd al-Rahman to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi conceded that bin Laden and his colleagues are "weak" and "have many of their own problems".
On this analysis, bin Laden is a marginalised figure of exaggerated importance (as well as self-importance). After all, who could have believed that in the seven years after the outrages of 9/11, al-Qa'ida would have been unable to launch a single follow-up attack on the American mainland? That might be attributed in part to the security measures undertaken by the Bush administration, but it also reveals a complete inability on al-Qa'ida's part to recruit successfully in the heartland of their chosen enemy.
It is not the purpose of this column to bring succour to Osama bin Laden at such a moment; but there is one sense in which he is still wreakinghavoc on America and in a way which he can not have anticipated.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the US Federal Reserve cut its official interest rate to an extraordinary degree. In August 2001, the Fed's rate was 3.5 per cent, but by December it had been halved to a mere 1.75 per cent. This was designed to maintain business confidence – but it turned out to be far too much of a good thing. With interest rates at or below the level of price inflation, the Fed was in effect giving money away. The direct result was the inflation of a credit-based asset bubble which has now burst with cataclysmic financial violence.
The reputation of the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, has now undergone an exactly similar process: he was praised by politicians on all sides when he acted to boost the country's morale in 2001. Now he is seen as one of the prime authors of a crash all the more devastating for having been delayed.
It's true that in the wake of the dotcom implosion of 2000, Greenspan was already embarking on a series of interest rate cuts; but it's equally clear that al-Qa'ida's attacks in September 2001 caused the Fed to cut still more, with the ultimately dire consequences now observable on every high street.
So as we contemplate the image of an ailing Osama bin Laden, hidden in some Waziristan redoubt, perhaps we can also imagine hearing an unsettling sound: laughter in the dark.