Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A progress (?!) report on the fight against terror

The Bush administration essentially won a second term in 2004 by contending that it would keep America safe. So how’s that pledge working out these days?

Well, let’s see: Pakistan, which is supposedly working with Bush to eradicate terrorism, has instead become a safer haven for al Qaeda. The group, “is forging stronger operational connections” with its affiliates elsewhere in the world – this, according to Bush’s own intelligence chief, Mike McConnell, who ‘fessed up yesterday in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. McConnell also testified that Osama bin Laden is personally involved in the new efforts; this is the same Osama bin Laden who was dismissed by Bush as unimportant during a White House news conference in March 2002 ("I truly am not that concerned about him").

Pakistan, let us recall, was also treated to a visit the other day from Vice President Cheney, who warned its leaders that if they didn’t clean out the bad guys, the Democratic Congress would cut off their financial aid. (Which means that Cheney, who usually assails the Democrats as weak on terrorism, has suddenly found it useful to portray the Democrats on the world stage as tough on terrorism. Therefore, why should anybody believe he is sincere when he assails them?)

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan yesterday, a suicide bomber blew himself up a mile away from Cheney, taking out 23 people (merely the latest symptom of growing violence there), and clearly demonstrating that the country is experiencing “the resurgence of the Taliban.” That’s were McConnell’s words yesterday – in stark contrast to what Bush flak Tony Snow said yesterday, when he shrugged off the bombing thusly: “I’m not sure it says anything.” No doubt the White House would also argue that its fight against terrorists in Pakistan and Afghanistan has not been damaged by its decision to expend most of the nation’s military resources and firepower and funds ($2 billion every week) on its war of choice in Iraq.

It’s also not a good sign for the administration (or for us, as citizens seeking safety) when even people in the conservative camp seem willing to accuse Bush of botching the war on terrorism. I spied this little item yesterday on “The Corner,” a blog sponsored by the National Review; the author is longtime contributing editor Andrew Stuttaford: “Who is losing Afghanistan? George W. Bush, that's who. His watch. His administration. His incompetence. His arrogance. His failure to learn from failure.”

Then he quoted this passage from a British newspaper story: "British officials are worried about the consequences of U.S. proposals to eradicate Afghanistan's opium poppy harvest, which include spraying the crops from the air, a policy it adopted in Colombia. The fear is that tough anti-narcotic measures would alienate poor farmers who have no alternative livelihood, and drive more Afghans into the hands of the Taliban. Such a policy would further endanger British troops, military commanders say."

Stuttaford, having thus warned that Bush is hurting the troops, concludes in his own words: “As I've said time and time before, the decision by the Bush administration to prioritize the drug war ahead of the war against the Taliban is of course, madness. It's time for the Brits to take a stand, and announce that either Bush's drug warriors leave Afghanistan, or Britain's troops do. Ninety days would seem to be adequate warning.”

No doubt, if the British troops did leave Afghanistan, Dick Cheney would try to spin it as a sign of progress.

Indeed, one problem for the Bush team is that its top war-on-terror spinners don't have much credibility anymore. Which, I suppose, is why it decided the other night to tap one of its few remaining credible experts – that would be policy wonk Laura Bush – and put her on national television. (Although they did play it safe by sending her to the somnolent Larry King, who has far more snap in his suspenders than in his questioning.)

At one point, the First Lady offered her assessment of why Americans seem to be so sour about the war in Iraq. She said – big surprise – that it’s the media’s fault: “(M)any parts of Iraq are stable now. But, of course, what we see on television is the one bombing a day that discourages everybody.”

In reality, however, “what we see on television” merely scratches the surface. The Brookings Institution, which charts the Iraq violence on a monthly basis, using the best available government statistics, lately estimates that there are 80 car bombings every day in Iraq; that there are 185 insurgent and militia attacks each day; and that (as of January) the number of people, both soldiers and civilians, killed and wounded in bombings and other attacks are now the highest yet recorded – nearly 2000 last month alone. And the statistics don’t include all the civilians killed in sectarian reprisals, those who have been dumped on the street without their heads. Those casualties, for obvious reasons, are never shown on television at all.

Contrary to Laura Bush’s assertion, the TV coverage has actually been kind to the Bush administration. Rather than showing too much, it has actually shown too little of the realities on the ground that are undercutting America’s overall effectiveness in the war on terror.

Americans get the true picture anyway; in the latest ABC-Washington Post-ABC News poll, 52 percent say they trust the Democratic Congress to take the lead in the war on terror, while only 39 percent prefer Bush. RealClearPolitics blogger Tom Bevan puts it best: "(I)f someone had told you that, five and a half years after September 11, the Republican President who shepherded America through the worst terrorist attack in her history would be running 13 points behind Democrats in Congress on the question of who can better handle the war on terror, you probably would have thought that to be very unlikely, if not a bit nuts."