What nerve for President Bush to question the patriotism of his Democratic opponents, two of whom are highly decorated Purple Heart and Bronze and Silver Star veterans and all of whom have labored long to make this a better country.
But the television ad that the Republican Party is running on Bush's behalf in Iowa this week does just that, making the outrageous insinuation that critics of the president's policies are in fact supporters of terrorists.
"Some are now attacking the president for attacking the terrorists," the ad states. "Some call for us to retreat, putting our national security in the hands of others." The ad urges viewers to tell Congress "to support the president's policy of preemptive self-defense."
This is dirty politics at its absolute lowest, equating criticism with cowardice.
The irony is that the ad features the president delivering the 2003 State of the Union speech, which has turned out to be an enormous embarrassment of admitted distortions, including one claim, based on a forged document, that Iraq was a nuclear threat. It was in that speech that the president touted the imminent threat of Iraq's so-far-undiscovered weapons of mass destruction while implying that Saddam Hussein collaborated with Al Qaeda on the 9/11 attacks -- a charge that the president himself recently conceded was without foundation.
In fact, the Iraq war has proved to be a terrible test case for "preemptive self-defense" because the intelligence it was founded on is so much loose sand. If you say somebody is a threat and then it turns out they aren't, your "preemptive attack" is no longer "self-defense."
Worse, though, as Gen. Wesley Clark points out, is that the Iraq war and occupation have been a distraction from the war against Al Qaeda. "I'm not critical of President Bush because he's attacking terrorists," Clark said. "I'm critical of President Bush because he is not attacking terrorists."
If the president were serious about heeding the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001, the White House would not be refusing to send executive records to the independent commission that is trying to determine how those attacks were allowed to occur and what might prevent them in the future. Former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a member of that commission, has called the president's stonewalling "Nixonian," suggesting that Bush might not really want the truth to come out.
As Cleland, a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran, put it in an interview with Salon.com: "It's been painfully obvious the administration not only fought the creation of the commission but that their objective was the war in Iraq, and one of the notions that was built on was there was a direct connection between Al Qaeda and 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. There was not. So therefore they didn't want the 9/11 commission to get going.... They want to kick this can down past the elections."
A more ominous possibility is that the White House and intelligence records being kept from the 9/11 commission may indict the administration for indifference to the problem posed by Osama bin Laden's gang before the 9/11 attacks.
We do know that the incoming Bush team did not take very seriously the dire warnings passed on by President Clinton's outgoing national security advisor, Sandy Berger, and by FBI agents in the field. The Bush administration seemed more preoccupied with the war on drugs than terrorism, even congratulating the Taliban for its successful drug eradication program just weeks before 9/11. Furthermore, the U.S. failed to seriously confront Al Qaeda's sponsors in Saudi Arabia, before and after the terrorist attacks. Instead, we invaded Iraq.
The president has a lot to answer for in his failed war on terrorism.
Bin Laden is still at large, and Al Qaeda, according to the White House, is responsible for the series of devastating terrorist attacks in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. Bush has managed to turn formerly secular Iraq into a hotbed of religious fanaticism, while diverting attention from Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban and Al Qaeda to creep back in.
Although Cleland voted for the Iraq war authorization last year, that did not stop his Republican opponent, Saxby Chambliss -- who avoided service in Vietnam -- from defeating war hero Cleland in 2002 by using attack ads that questioned his patriotism.
In those ads Cleland's face was presented alongside pictures of Bin Laden and Hussein as if they were one and the same. As has been famously said, the appeal to patriotism is often "the last refuge of a scoundrel."
What would be truly unpatriotic -- and an abrogation of their responsibility to the American people -- is for the Democratic candidates to fail to take on Bush's record in subverting the fight against terrorism.
Robert Scheer writes a weekly column for The Times.