“Credible reporting now indicates that Al Qaeda is moving forward with its plans to carry out a large-scale attack in the United States in an effort to disrupt our democratic process.” With this announcement, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge intensified speculation around a question hanging over the November elections: How might a terrorist attack inside the United States change the American political dynamic on the eve of what is expected to be an extremely close presidential election?

The conventional wisdom has been that such an attack would produce the same public response the Sept. 11 attacks did. Americans – their patriotic defiance aroused – would rally to President George W. Bush and give him broad authority to focus American might on the destruction of an enemy abroad. But a look at the differences of context between the Sept. 11 attacks and a hypothetical attack this autumn suggests otherwise.

The initial public reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks was one of disbelief and incomprehension. A majority of Americans focused for the first time on the threat to the nation posed by Osama bin Laden, on the Taliban, and on the extent to which Saudi citizens were involved in terrorism. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld assumed the leading role in the American response. Along with then-CIA director George Tenet, he orchestrated the opening phase of a “War on Terror,” leading a broad coalition of sympathetic nations into Afghanistan to remove the Taliban from power and to crush Al Qaeda. Later, with fewer allies and less lasting domestic support, the focus shifted to Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

The response to a terrorist attack on, say, Sept. 11, 2004 would be radically different.

The public response would move much more quickly from shock to anger; debate over how America should respond would begin immediately. But it is difficult to imagine how the Bush administration could focus its response on an external enemy. Should the United States send 50,000 troops to the Afghan-Pakistani border to intensify the hunt for bin Laden? Far from instinctively rallying to the president’s side, many Americans would wonder whether that was precisely what the administration pledged to do in the wake of the attacks three years ago. The president would face intensified criticism from those who have argued all along that the Iraq war was a distraction from “the real war on terror.”

What if a significant number of the terrorists responsible for the pre-election attack were again Saudis? The Bush administration could hardly take military action against the Saudi government at a time when crude oil prices are already high and global supply is stretched to the limit.

So where might a response be credible? Washington’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its ties to Al Qaeda are rising. In its report, the Sept. 11 commission noted evidence of cooperation between Iran and Qaeda operatives – if not direct Iranian advance knowledge of the Sept. 11 hijacking plot. But, in the absence of an official Iranian claim of responsibility for this hypothetical terrorist attack – which would never happen – the domestic opposition to such a war and the international outcry it would provoke make quick action against Iran unthinkable.

In short, a decisive Bush administration response could not be external. It would be domestic. Instead of Rumsfeld leading a war effort abroad, Secretary Ridge and Attorney General John Ashcroft would pursue an anti-terror campaign at home.

Forced to use legal tools more controversial than those provided for by the Patriot Act, Americans would see stepped-up domestic surveillance and border controls, much tighter security in public places, and the detainment of a large number of suspects.

Many Americans would undoubtedly support enhanced law enforcement capability to combat terrorism. But concern for civil liberties and personal freedom would ensure that the government would have nowhere near the public support it enjoyed for the invasion of Afghanistan.

Far from bolstering a Bush candidacy, the polarizing pressure of elections would nullify the rally around the flag effect. Perhaps if an attack occurred in the final two or three days before balloting – as it did in Madrid – the national conversation about possible responses might not come into play, and Bush could receive the political benefit of undiluted anger at terrorists. But in any other circumstance, an attack would benefit Senator John Kerry, making an already tight presidential race even tighter.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.

Copyright © 2004 the International Herald Tribune