By Corey Pein

Those are words you’re not going to be hearing this election year — nor probably next year, nor the year after that.

But why? The campaign press frequently reminds us that international terrorism may be the single biggest issue in this election, and the candidates seem to be engaged in a contest of oratory to one-up one another in real or imagined “toughness.” (Remember John Edwards at the Democratic convention, vowing “We…will…destroy…you”? And last-month’s quickly-backed-away-from leak that the Bush administration might “postpone” the election in the event of an attack?)

It seems to us that both the candidates and a complicit campaign press corps are dodging a fairly essential question — what drives the presumed enemy in this “war” that both Bush and Kerry have embraced? As the 9/11 Commission’s report noted: “The history, culture, and body of beliefs from which bin Laden has shaped and spread his message are largely unknown to many Americans.”

You can’t blame the faltering public education system here. You can’t even entirely blame the candidates, who always prefer garish caricatures of the enemy to detailed portraits. But you can blame the press. In the rare cases when al Qaeda’s motives are characterized, the U.S. press has been content to portray “the terrorists” as a vague, “shadowy” amalgamation of “jihadis” whose horrific plots are fueled mainly by hatred for American freedoms and by whatever charities and dope pushers the Justice Department has fingered this week. The truth, as usual, is more complex, though the effort needed to explain al Qaeda is surely deserved. By default, Osama bin Laden is a major player in the election, but we know more about P. Diddy’s struggle to get out the vote than we know about what drives bin Laden or what his goals are.

And that’s too bad, because, while OBL isn’t likely to sit down with Tim Russert any time soon, he does indeed have a manifesto. The 9/11 Commission’s report put his agenda concisely enough to fit as a context paragraph in a newspaper story:

Seizing on symbols of Islam’s past greatness, [bin Laden] promises to restore pride to people who consider themselves the victims of successive foreign masters. … His rhetoric selectively draws from multiple sources — Islam, history, and the region’s political and economic malaise. He also stresses grievances against the United States widely shared in the Muslim world. He inveighed against the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest sites. He spoke of the suffering of the Iraqi people as a result of sanctions imposed after the Gulf War, and he protested U.S. support of Israel.

The Tampa Tribune, seized by one of those periodic fits of reason that strike the press from time to time, recently ran an editorial titled “Exactly What Does Bin Laden Want?” In it, the Trib quoted an NBC interview with “Anonymous,” the now-muzzled CIA officer whose book Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror spurred yet another odd alliance between national-security bureaucrats and anti-war Democrats.

Granting that bin Laden despises America’s libertine culture, Anonymous goes on to say:

To think that he’s trying to rob us of our liberties and freedom is, I think, a gross mistake. What he has done, his genius, is identify particular American foreign policies that are offensive to Muslims whether they support these martial actions or not — our support for Israel, our presence on the Arabian Peninsula, our activities in Afghanistan and Iraq, our support for governments that Muslims believe oppress Muslims, be it India, China, Russia, Uzbekistan. Bin Laden has focused the Muslim world on specific, tangible, visual American policies.

Some of those grievances are not perceived but real. The U.S. does prop up Saudi Arabia’s corrupt monarchy, arguably a worse tyranny than the one that colonial Americans threw off by force. And high-ranking military men like Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who equated Islam with Satan and said God installed George W. Bush, sure make it seem like this is a war on Muslims.

Anonymous’s “solution” is a little bizarre itself: To bomb the Arab nations to pieces. This, he concedes, “will yield large civilian casualties, displaced populations, and refugee flows. Again, this sort of bloody-mindedness is neither admirable nor desirable, but it will remain America’s only option so long as she stands by her failed policies toward the Muslim world.” Yikes! Many in the public would be surprised to know that a leading alternative to Bush’s foreign policy is a dressed-up version of advice heard from many a GED in International Affairs after 9/11: “Nuke ‘em all.” But such is the press’s failure. We don’t know what’s at stake, let alone why.

Corey Pein was an assistant editor at CJR.