Friday, November 02, 2007

Bush's weakness in the war on terror

With so much attention being lavished these days on the perceived flaws and foibles of the ’08 presidential candidates, it’s easy to overlook the reigning master of disaster – until such moments when he reminds us why he still wears the crown.

That’s precisely what George W. Bush did yesterday, when he spoke at a conservative think tank (naturally), and uncorked one of his rhetorical whoppers, the kind that has a landslide majority of Americans counting down the days to his departure.

In remarks to a rapt crowd at the Heritage Foundation, he essentially argued that if the Democratic Senate doesn’t confirm Michael Mukasey for attorney general, it will mean that the Democrats are weak in the war on terror. (Those last eight words worked for Bush in the elections of 2002 and 2004, and apparently he still thinks they pack a punch, despite the fact that he was soundly repudiated in the election of 2006. But I digress.)

In the midst of suggesting yesterday that Democrats are terrorist-coddlers, he came out with this: “Some in Washington should spend more time responding to the warnings of terrorists like Osama bin Laden…”

He was basically arguing that the Democrats don’t take Osama bin Laden seriously, whereas he, as our vigilant protector-in-chief, does take Osama bin Laden seriously.

But wait a minute – I seem to recall that Bush, in past disquisitions about the war on terror, told us that things were going so swimmingly that we didn’t need to take Osama bin Laden seriously. Yep, that’s what the man said, in all kinds of ways:

“I don't know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority...I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run. I was concerned about him when he had taken over a country. I was concerned about the fact that he was basically running Afghanistan and calling the shots for the Taliban. But once we set out the policy and started executing the plan, he became - we shoved him out more and more on the margins...Deep in my heart I know the man's on the run...I just don't spend much time on it, really, to be honest with you…He’s a person who’s now been marginalized.”

Let's puzzle out this national security flip flop.

If Osama bin Laden in the past was "marginalized" and unimportant and thus not worthy of the president’s attention, yet now he is apparently so important that he warrants the president’s attention, it can mean only one of two things: either bin Laden is still on the margins and Bush is intentionally lying in order to serve his current political needs – or bin Laden is indeed resurgent, in which case Bush has fundamentally botched the war on terror.

I lean strongly toward the latter, based on the president's well-documented ineptitude. The Bush war team allowed bin Laden to escape from the Tora Bora mountains in December 2001 - a debacle initially documented in an April ’02 news report and confirmed three years later by CIA commander Gary Bernsten. In his ’05 memoir, Jawbreaker, Bernsten wrote that he and his team begged the Pentagon for 800 U.S. Army Rangers to help go after the bin Laden entourage, and to “block a possible al Qaeda escape into Pakistan.” He was turned down; instead, the bin Laden hunt was entrusted to Afghan warlords.

The hunt took further hits in 2002 when Bush shifted his focus to Iraq. American military units that had been geared to pursuing bin Laden and his key associates were pulled off the job and sent off to fight Saddam Hussein. As Bob Andrews, former head of a Pentagon special operations office, remarked in 2004, Saddam was a needless “distraction,” in his words, “a real diversion from the longer struggle against jihadists.”

And how has that Iraq diversion been working out for us? In April of last year, the National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iraq “has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.” And bin Laden is still out there, taking full advantage.

With a track record like that, it’s no surprise that Bush, and the GOP generally, have forfeited their traditional image as strong national security stewards.

The Republicans had held that advantage over the Democrats in the polls for more than three decades, sometimes by margins of 30 percentage points. Today, the polls show the two parties roughly at parity; they also show majority disapproval for Bush’s handling of the war on terror. For these reasons, it is almost presumptuous for Bush to think that he can stand in front of a conservative think tank, and lecture the majority Democrats (and, by extension, the American majority) about Osama bin Laden and the stakes in the war on terror. His own actions – and inactions – trump his tired rhetoric.

All of which means that if the Democrats can’t wage a strongly competitive ’08 presidential race, with such a strong wind at their backs, they should sell off their DC headquarters and take up residence in a historical museum somewhere, sharing a display case with the Whigs.