It is fair to say that a good many Americans perceive George W. Bush to be a doltish incompetent who does not know the first thing about fighting terrorism.
But, whatever the president’s actual level of competence may be, it is now clear that he has even less respect for the intelligence of the American people than his critics have for his cognitive capabilities.
As the president struggles this week to make a case for the staying the course that leads deeper into the quagmire that is Iraq, he is, remarkably, selling a warmed over version of the misguided take on terrorism that he peddled before this disasterous mission was launched.
Apparently working under the assumption that no one has been paying attention over the past two and a half years, Bush delivered a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy Thursday in which he dismissed calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. “Some observers also claim that America would be better off by cutting our losses and leaving Iraq now,” the president argued, before concluding that, “It’s a dangerous illusion refuted with a simple question: Would the United States and other free nations be more safe or less safe with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people and its resources?”That’s a scary scenario. Unfortunately, it is one that the president created. And it is one that the president still fails to fully comprehend.
To hear the president tell it, the U.S. went to Iraq to combat bin Laden’s al Qaida network.
The problem, of course, is that going to Iraq to confront al Qaida in 2003 was like going to the Vatican to confront Protestants.
Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party cadres were a lot of things, but they were never comrades, colleagues or hosts to the adherents of what Bush referred to in his speech as “Islamic radicalism,” “militant jihadism” or “Islamo-fascism.”
If any individuals on the planet feared and hated al Qaida, it was Hussein and his allies. The Iraqi Baathists were thugs, to be sure, but they were secularist thugs. Indeed, many of the most brutal acts of oppression carried out by the Iraqi regime targeted Islamic militants and governments aligned with the fundamentalists. The eight-year war between Iraq and Iran pitted the soldiers of Hussein’s secular nationalism against the armies of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s radical vision of Islam. That is why, while the United States remained officially neutral in the war that lasted from 1980 to 1988, it became an aggressive behind-the-scenes backer of Hussein. As part of that support, the U.S. State Department in 1982 removed Iraq from its list of states supporting international terrorism. That step helped to ease the way for loans and other forms of aid — such as the U.S. Agriculture Department’s guaranteed loans to Iraq for purchases of American commodities. It also signaled to other countries and international agencies that the U.S. wanted them to provide aid to Hussein — and if the signal was missed, the Reagan White House and State Department would make their sentiments clear, as happened when the administration lobbied the Export-Import Bank to improve Iraq’s credit rating and provide it with needed financial assistance. If any lingering doubts about U.S. attitude remained, they were eased by the December 20, 1983, visit of Donald Rumsfeld, who was touring the Middle East as President Reagan’s special envoy, for visits with Hussein and Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.