Bush Is Badly Screwing Up the War on Terror
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Despite the sacrifices in lives, treasure and liberties, the painful reality is that the United States is losing the "war on terror" -- in large part because too many people in the Middle East and across the globe view George W. Bush as a bully and a hypocrite.
Bush has become the ugly face of America, mouthing pretty words about freedom and democracy while threatening other nations and bludgeoning those who get in his way. Perhaps even worse, Bush has shown himself to be an incompetent commander, especially for a conflict as complicated and nuanced as this one.
Indeed, it is hard to envision how the United States can win the crucial battles for the hearts and minds of key populations if Bush remains President. Arguably, Bush has become a "clear and present danger" to the interests of the American people -- yet he still has almost two years left in his term.
This predicament -- the desperate need for new U.S. leadership and the difficult fact of being stuck with Bush -- was underscored by the Feb. 19 lead article in the New York Times describing the revival of al-Qaeda as a worldwide terror network operating out of new bases in remote sections of Pakistan.
"American officials said there was mounting evidence that Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan," the Times reported.
"As recently as 2005, American intelligence assessments described senior leaders of al-Qaeda as cut off from their foot soldiers and able only to provide inspiration for future attacks. But more recent intelligence describes the organization's hierarchy as intact and strengthening," the Times wrote.
The Times quoted one American government official as saying "the chain of command has been reestablished" and that al-Qaeda's "leadership command and control is robust."
In the face of this al-Qaeda comeback, the Bush administration is reportedly debating whether to launch military strikes inside Pakistan. But that would risk destabilizing the dictatorship of Gen. Pervez Musharraf and conceivably provoking the nightmare scenario of Islamic fundamentalists gaining control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
In other words, more than five years into the "war on terror," Bush has overseen a strategy that has simultaneously alienated world public opinion -- with scandals over Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and secret CIA prisons -- while fueling Islamic extremism and giving new life to the 9/11 masterminds.
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group described the situation in Iraq as "grave and deteriorating." But the same description would fit for the broader strategic position of the United States in the Middle East.
The U.S. military is facing a worsening crisis in Iraq; the Taliban is on the rise again in Afghanistan; Hezbollah is gaining strength in Lebanon; Iran is defying international pressure over its nuclear program; and now al-Qaeda -- having resettled in Pakistan -- is rebuilding its capability to strike targets beyond the Middle East.
Much of today's crisis can be traced to Bush's arrogance and impatience. In 2001, even before the 9/11 attacks, Bush insisted on a "unilateralist" approach toward the world, asserting U.S. global hegemony under a strategy laid out by the neoconservative Project for the New American Century.
At the center of this grandiose scheme was the belief that the oil-rich Middle East could be remade through violent "regime change" in hostile countries like Iraq. Bush later broadened his target list to the "axis of evil," tossing in Iran and North Korea and making clear that other lesser enemies included the likes of Syria, Cuba and Venezuela.
While this neoconservative plan wrapped itself in the noble language of "democracy," the concept was always less about respecting the will of indigenous populations than in restructuring their economies along "free market" lines and ensuring compliant leaders.
In all of this, there was little room for compromise or negotiation with the "bad guys." It was as if the macho rhetoric of AM talk radio and Fox News had swallowed U.S. foreign policy. Real men don't negotiate with people who get in the way; you jail or kill them.
Bush also grew enamored with his "gut" instincts about war, especially after U.S.-backed forces ousted Afghanistan's Taliban leaders more quickly than many expected. Even after he let top al-Qaeda leaders slip away from Tora Bora in late 2001, Bush ignored warnings that he needed to finish the job there before turning America's attention elsewhere.
Instead, Bush redirected U.S. military assets to Iraq, a country that wasn't involved in 9/11 and actually had served as an important bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism, both the strains from Shiite-ruled Iran and Sunni-dominated al-Qaeda.
But Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was something of a Bush family obsession since he defied President George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. In March 2003, Bush launched an invasion of Iraq and toppled Hussein's government in three weeks.
After basking again in public adulation as the victorious "war president," Bush stubbornly refused to acknowledge the growing seriousness of an Iraqi insurgency that rose up to challenge U.S. forces.
The U.S. occupation of Iraq -- combined with abuse scandals at U.S.-run prisons -- also fed popular anger across the Middle East. Thousands of young jihadists rallied to the cause of ousting the Americans from Muslim lands.
As the body counts grew -- thousands of U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis -- Bush dug in his heels deeper. When Iraq slid into chaos and then civil war, Bush again refused to acknowledge the facts in a timely fashion.
Bush also encouraged Israel to wage an ill-conceived war in southern Lebanon in summer 2006, further alienating the Muslim world. That was followed by the grisly execution of Hussein in December and new military tensions with Iran in early 2007.
In short, Bush appears determined to stampede the United States into a Middle Eastern box canyon -- after offending most Muslim allies and offering little more than military solutions to essentially political and diplomatic problems.
Al-Qaeda's favorite president
Over the past six years, the wily and ruthless leaders of al-Qaeda also came to understand that Bush was their perfect foil. The more he was viewed as the "big crusader," the more they could present themselves as the "defenders of Islam." The al-Qaeda murderers moved from the fringes of Muslim society closer to the mainstream.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Qaeda's leaders transformed the conflict into both a rallying cry and a training ground. Bin Laden and Zawahiri believed the longer the Iraq War lasted the better it was for al-Qaeda.
So, in fall 2004, with Bush fighting for his political life against Democrat John Kerry, bin Laden took the risk of breaking nearly a year of silence to release a videotape denouncing Bush on the Friday before the U.S. election.
Bush's supporters immediately spun bin Laden's tirade as an "endorsement" of Kerry and pollsters recorded a jump of several percentage points for Bush, from nearly a dead heat to a five- or six-point lead. Four days later, Bush hung on to win a second term by an official margin of less than three percentage points.
The intervention by bin Laden -- essentially urging Americans to reject Bush -- had the predictable effect of driving voters to the President. After the videotape appeared, senior CIA analysts concluded that ensuring a second term for Bush was precisely what bin Laden intended.
"Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President," said deputy CIA director John McLaughlin in opening a meeting to review secret "strategic analysis" after the videotape had dominated the day's news, according to Ron Suskind's The One Percent Doctrine , which draws heavily from CIA insiders.
Suskind wrote that CIA analysts had spent years "parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, Zawahiri. What they'd learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden speaks only for strategic reasons. ... Today's conclusion: bin Laden's message was clearly designed to assist the President's reelection."
Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for intelligence, expressed the consensus view that bin Laden recognized how Bush's heavy-handed policies were serving al-Qaeda's strategic goals for recruiting a new generation of jihadists.
"Certainly," Miscik said, "he would want Bush to keep doing what he's doing for a few more years."
As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts were troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. "An ocean of hard truths before them -- such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected -- remained untouched," Suskind wrote.
Even Bush recognized that his struggling campaign had been helped by bin Laden. "I thought it was going to help," Bush said in a post-election interview about the videotape. "I thought it would help remind people that if bin Laden doesn't want Bush to be the President, something must be right with Bush."
Bin Laden, a well-educated Saudi and a keen observer of U.S. politics, appears to have recognized the same point in cleverly tipping the election to Bush.
Prolonging the war
Al-Qaeda's leaders understood that a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq might mean a renewed assault on them as well as the loss of their cause celebre for recruiting new jihadists. With Bush ensconced for a second term, that concern lessened but didn't entirely disappear.
According to a captured July 9, 2005, letter, attributed to Zawahiri, al-Qaeda leaders still fretted over the possibility that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could touch off the disintegration of their operations, as jihadists who had flocked to Iraq to battle the Americans might simply give up the fight and go home.
"The mujahaddin must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal," said the "Zawahiri letter," according to a text released by the office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence.
In another captured letter, dated Dec. 11, 2005, a senior al-Qaeda operative known as "Atiyah" wrote that "prolonging the war [in Iraq] is in our interest."
Now, it appears al-Qaeda's "Bush-second-term" strategy is paying big dividends. Bush is stretching U.S. forces even thinner by escalating the American troop commitment in Iraq while also deploying military assets to threaten Shiite Iran, another enemy of the Sunni fundamentalists in al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda's Taliban allies are on the offensive against embattled NATO contingents in Afghanistan, and new al-Qaeda units are undergoing training in Pakistan. In Iraq, al-Qaeda still makes up only a small percentage of the armed insurgency -- probably less than five percent -- but it benefits from the arrival of new recruits and the opportunity to test out military tactics against the Americans.
Overall, time and momentum appear to be on al-Qaeda's side. As long as Bush remains America's leader and al-Qaeda's poster boy, there seems little chance for a more effective U.S. counterinsurgency strategy.
Unlike the Iraqi insurgents who are proving to be highly adaptive in the field, Bush can't seem to get beyond his tough-guy rhetoric and his obsession with military force. He remains bin Laden's favorite President.
According to one recent Newsweek poll, 58 percent of Americans wish the Bush administration were over. But there is a long way between wishing for a desperately needed change and the slow process of the electoral calendar.
The trickier questions are: Can the United States afford 23 more months of Bush in the White House? Does his incompetence in the face of today's fast-moving crises demand extraordinary action to remove him from office through impeachment?
If impeachment is impossible, given the sizable Republican minorities in both the House and Senate, is there at least some hope for legislative remedies that can begin to correct Bush's many errors? Could patriotic Republicans confront the President and Vice President about resignations?
Or must the American people wait two more years as today's "clear and present danger" grows only more acute?