On the campaign trail, George W. Bush repeatedly notes that his administration is achieving progress in the war in Iraq and in the so-called war on terrorism. “We’re succeeding,” Bush declares. And he says, “We’re safer now.” Both statements, though, have a shaky basis in fact. They comprise an isn’t-it-pretty-to-think-so fairy tale that Bush is relying upon to retain control of the White House. And since truth, nuance, or a hardheaded recognition of reality might interfere with his reelection, Bush finds no need for them.
Against an enemy like al Qaeda–actually the enemy is now a global Islamic jidhadist movement difficult to track and target–there is no way to determine definitively if the United States is indeed “safer.” The country certainly seemed safe in the years between the first World Trade Center bombing and September 11. Bush’s “we’re safer” declaration is based on assertion not proof. Saddam Hussein, a despicable tyrant (but one who did not pose an immediate threat to the United States), is out of power. Yet the invasion of Iraq has sparked an expansion of the fundamentalist forces that consider America the number-one target. And if the enemy is expanding, can one say that the threat facing the United States is diminishing? With US troops stuck in Iraq and the United States’ standing in the world unquestionably tarnished, it is tough to define “safe,” let alone claim an increase in safety. And Bush’s parallel claim–“we’re succeeding”–has been undermined by recent revelations and reports.
The news of the day–that the Bush administration failed to secure 380 tons of explosives at an Iraqi military site after being warned before the war about these explosives, which could be used to demolish buildings and detonate nuclear weapons–shows the peril of declaring success in Iraq. Hussein might be in jail, but these explosives are now in circulation…somewhere. For years, international nuclear inspectors had watched over the materials and kept some of the stockpile under lock and key. But after the invasion, the US military did nothing to safeguard this site–as it did little to secure nuclear materials elsewhere–and the explosives vanished. There is a technical term that covers such a foul-up: oh shit. If terrorist enemies of the United States have come into 760,000 pounds of such powerful explosives, how would Bush rate that on his success-o-meter?
The missing explosives disclosure is only the latest in a series of reports that continue to raise alarming questions about recent trends in Iraq. It’s not just that the insurgency is mounting more attacks each week. Recently, American officials in Baghdad boosted their estimate of the strength of the insurgency. Earlier intelligence reports concluded the insurgents numbered between 2,000 and 7,000. Now military and intelligence officials believe there are 8,000 to 12,000 resistance fighters–and thousands more sympathizers and covert accomplices. On Friday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that the current surge in violence “is not news” and “we predicted [the number of attacks] would go up…as we move towards the Iraqi elections.” This is the standard Bush administration line: bad news is really a sign of good news. Elections are getting close, so violence is going up. But here’s an alternative explanation: there are more attacks in Iraq because there are now more attackers. Have Bush or Rumsfeld considered that? If so, not in public. The insurgents do not seem on the run, and their brutal strikes against the nascent Iraqi security forces appear to be growing in size and intensity. The insurgents have thoroughly penetrated the Iraqi security forces, and US reporters in Iraq note that American troops routinely distrust the Iraqi forces.
Other recent bad news: a poll in Iraq (which was financed by the International Republican Institute) found that the leaders of the nation’s religious parties are the most popular politicians and that the interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (who was selected by the United States and a UN envoy) is losing ground. If the elections scheduled for January do take place and the winners are fundamentalist religious leaders, how might that score on the success-o-meter? And last week Pentagon officials conceded that at least ten detainees released from Guantanamo Bay prison–after it was determined they presented little threat–rejoined the fight against US or coalition forces in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Imagine how congressional Republicans and their amen corner in the land of talk radio and cable news would have responded if the Clinton administration had permitted ten “terrorist” fighters to go free. Yet this blunder sparked little outcry.
The story on the long-gone tons of explosives dominated news at the start of the final week of the campaign, but an article that appeared in The Washington Post a few days earlier was far more devastating. If undecided voters in Ohio and Florida could be forced to read the piece, the election would be over. The 5,000-word article by Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer evaluated Bush’s performance in the war on terrorism. “The results,” they write, “are sufficiently diffuse–and obscured in secrecy–to resist easy measure.” But they cite numerous past and present counterterrorism officials who hardly offer a ringing endorsement of Bush’s record. They note:
[A]t least a dozen current and former officials who have held key positions in conducting the war now say they see diminishing returns in Bush’s decapitation strategy [aimed at al Qaeda]. Current and former leaders of that effort, three of whom departed in frustration from the top White House terrorism post, said the manhunt is important but cannot defeat the threat of jihadist terrorism. Classified government tallies, moreover, suggest that Bush and Vice President Cheney have inflated the manhunt’s success in their reelection bid.
Bush’s focus on the instruments of force, the officials said, has been slow to adapt to a swiftly changing enemy. Al Qaeda, they said, no longer exerts centralized control over a network of operational cells. It has rather become the inspirational hub of a global movement, fomenting terrorism that it neither funds nor directs. Internal government assessments describe this change with a disquieting metaphor: They say jihadist terrorism is “metastasizing.”
….Twenty months after the invasion of Iraq, the question of whether Americans are safer from terrorism because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power hinges on subjective judgment about might-have-beens. What is not in dispute, among scores of career national security officials and political appointees interviewed periodically since 2002, is that Bush’s choice had opportunity costs–first in postwar Afghanistan, then elsewhere. Iraq, they said, became a voracious consumer of time, money, personnel and diplomatic capital–as well as the scarce tools of covert force on which Bush prefers to rely–that until then were engaged against al Qaeda and its sources of direct support.
They go on to note that Bush, in a way, is in a world of his own:
Bush emphasizes force of will–determination to prosecute the enemy, and equally to stand up to allies who disapprove. Bush and his aides most often deflect questions about recent global polls that have found sharply rising anti-US sentiment in Arab and Muslim countries and in Europe, but one of them addressed it in a recent interview. Speaking for the president by White House arrangement, but declining to be identified, a high-ranking national security official said of the hostility detected in surveys: “I don’t think it matters. It’s about keeping the country safe, and I don’t think that matters.”
That view is at odds with the view of many career military and intelligence officials, who spoke with increasing alarm about al Qaeda’s success in winning recruits to its cause and defining its struggle with the United States.
When you’re done reading this article,visit David Corn’s WEBLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent entries on ignorant Bush voters, the latest kick-ass anti-Bush ads, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Bush’s reliance on the fear factor, and Bush’s belief he is on a (free-from-facts) mission from God.
The Post reporters found that Bush has apparently overstated his administration’s success in hunting down al Qaeda’s leadership. In citing his accomplishments in the war on terrorism, Bush has repeatedly stated that 75 percent of known al Qaeda leaders have been killed or captured. But the Post identified 28 of the approximately 30 names on the unpublished list of “high-value target” list. Of these, fourteen–almost half–are known to be dead or in custody. The article also discloses that as Bush shifted the focus from al Qaeda to Iraq in 2002 and early 2003, elite special units that were searching for Osama bin Laden in border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan were called home to prepare for missions in Baghdad. Retired Army Gen. Wayne Downing, Bush’s counterterrorism czar after 9/11, told the newspaper, “I support the decision to go into Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. But in fact it was a gamble of sorts because Iraq did take focus and energy away from the Afghanistan campaign.”
Remember, Bush has refused to acknowledge that the Iraq war drew attention from the fight against al Qaeda and bin Laden. “It’s been extraordinarily painful, very frustrating,” a member of one elite military unit told the Post, noting he believed he the main enemy–bin Laden and al Qaeda slipped away. And now, he said, the US forces chasing down al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan are “not getting as much attention from the home office as Iraq.”
In his campaign speeches, Bush routinely derides Richard Holbrooke, the former UN ambassador who advises John Kerry, for having once said that the war on terrorism is a metaphor. “Anyone who thinks we are fighting a metaphor does not understand the enemy we face,” Bush has said, “and has no idea how to win the war and keep America secure.” This is an absurd attack. More importantly, according to the Post, many experts do not share Bush’s nuance-free view of the struggle against terrorism.
“This is not a war,” [Downing] said. “What we’re faced with is an Islamic insurgency that is spreading throughout the world, not just the Islamic world.” Because it is “a political struggle,” he said, “the military is not the key factor. The military has to be coordinated with the other elements of national power.”
Many of Downing’s peers–and strong majorities of several dozen officers and officials who were interviewed–agree. They cite a long list of proposals to address terrorism at its roots that have not been carried out. Among them was a plan by Wendy Chamberlin, then ambassador to Pakistan, to offer President Pervez Musharraf a substitute for Saudi funding of a radical network of Islamist schools known as madrasas. Downing backed Chamberlin in the interagency debate, describing education as “the root of many of the recruits for the Islamist movement.” Bush promised such support to Musharraf in a meeting soon after Sept. 11, said an official who accompanied him, but the $300 million plan did not survive the White House budget request….
Most officials interviewed said Bush has not devised an answer to a problem then-CIA Director George J. Tenet identified publicly on Feb. 11, 2003–“the numbers of societies and peoples excluded from the benefits of an expanding global economy, where the daily lot is hunger, disease, and displacement–and that produce large populations of disaffected youth who are prime recruits for our extremist foes.”
The president and his most influential advisers, many officials said, do not see those factors–or US policy overseas–as primary contributors to the terrorism threat. Bush’s explanation, in private and public, is that terrorists hate America for its freedom.
[Former CIA official Marc] Sageman, who supports some of Bush’s approach, said that analysis is “nonsense, complete nonsense. They obviously haven’t looked at any surveys.” The central findings of polling by the Pew Charitable Trust and others, he said, is that large majorities in much of the world “view us as a hypocritical huge beast throwing our weight around in the Middle East.”
Bush’s campaign speeches–in which he accuses Kerry of being weak and falsely claims Kerry is willing to grant other nations a veto over US national security decisions–avoids all the key points raised in the Post article. On the stump, he refers to none of the fundamental problems precipitated by his invasion of Iraq. He insists freedom is on the march, he insists America is safer. Maybe he is right. But there’s absolutely no telling. He may as well be shouting from the platform, “Good will prevail over evil. Really, really, really. And I am good.” Kerry has assailed Bush for living in a state of denial. It is unclear whether Bush ignores the discouraging news and troubling signs because it would be politically inconvenient to recognize them publicly or because he simply does not–or cannot–see them. We’re safer! We’re winning! It sure sounds good. And it would be hard for an incumbent candidate to hit the stump and say, I invaded Iraq and all we got for it was less safety and more mess. Since Bush may end up winning, the hope is that he realizes he is flimflamming the public for political ends when he peddles these reassuring but divorced-from-reality nostrums. The fear is, he does not.
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