Michael Hirsh Questions Clarity of Bush’s Words and Policies on Terrorism

Michael Hirsh has an excellent column at Newsweek on the “war on terror,” which he notes has become murky. “The truth is that, year by year, the so-called GWOT (global war on terrorism) has become less and less clear in its direction and goals—and less and less like any previous war. What began as a crystal-clear fight against a small, self-contained group of murderers has become a kind of murky, open-ended World War III in which the identity of the enemy is less certain and our allies seem to grow less reliable.”

Hirsh makes many excellent points and it is worth reading the full column. The most significant is in debunking Bush’s recent claims of success:

On Tuesday, speaking before the Military Officers Association of America, Bush exhorted his listeners to take bin Laden’s rants seriously, reminding them of what happened when the world powers of the day ignored “an exiled lawyer” (Vladimir Lenin) and a “failed painter” (Adolf Hitler) who laid out their bloody, revolutionary programs early on. “Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them,” Bush said. “The question is: Will we listen? Will we pay attention to what these evil men say?” Bush declared that “we will not rest … until this threat to civilization has been removed.”

In light of the facts that have since been confirmed, this description does not fully account for Bush’s own conduct over the past five years. Bin Laden, after all, didn’t just write a pamphlet on 9/11—he carried out his plans, directing his henchmen to kill thousands of Americans on their own soil. It was a moment of absolute, terrifying clarity: in retribution for 9/11, according to every Western code of justice and honor, bin Laden should have been relentlessly pursued until he was dead or captured. Yet we now know that the Bush administration allowed itself to be distracted from that task as the months passed after 9/11. Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer in charge of the operation, told me a year ago that he knows for certain that bin Laden was trapped in Al Qaeda’s Tora Bora hideaway after the fall of Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in late 2001. As Berntsen records in his 2005 book “Jawbreaker,” bin Laden told his followers, “Forgive me,” and apologized for getting them pinned down by the Americans. But Bernsten says, the Pentagon refused to put in the necessary troops.

This account is corroborated by Bernsten’s then boss, CIA senior officer Henry Crumpton (now the State Department’s counterterrorism chief), who made clear to Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that America’s Afghan and Pakistan allies couldn’t take out bin Laden. “We’re going to lose our prey if we’re not careful,” Crumpton told Bush and Cheney, according to Ron Suskind’s new book, “The One Percent Doctrine.” Numerous accounts have also established that, shortly after Tora Bora, the president began diverting Special Forces troops, Predator drones and other resources involved in the hunt for bin Laden to Iraq.

Yes, Bush sought this week to clarify his broader strategic goals in the war on terror. “The experience of September the 11th made clear, in the long run, the only way to secure our nation is to change the course of the Middle East,” he said. And that may well be true. But what about the short run and the medium run? The chief culprit of 9/11 and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are still free. And Bush administration officials concede, anonymously, that there is a good chance the two will never be caught, especially now that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, with the administration’s blessing, has pledged not to continue troop incursions into the tribal areas where bin Laden and Zawahiri may be hiding. . .

Then there is overarching issue of whether Iraq ever should have been part of the war on terror at all—or, instead, whether it made the GWOT hopelessly murky. In his speech Tuesday, Bush called Iraq the “capital” of Al Qaeda’s would-be totalitarian caliphate and said it “is the central battlefield where the outcome of this struggle will be decided.” But military experts now say that the continuing violence since the killing of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the top foreign terrorist in Iraq, last June is evidence that the insurgency there is mainly indigenous, largely unconnected to the larger war on terror. “This proves how small a part foreign fighters play in Iraq,” says John Arquilla, an intelligence expert at the Naval Postgraduate School. “There’s a real Lewis Carroll quality to all of this rhetoric, where what is up is down, and what is right is wrong. The president says that Iraq is the central front. But the president also says Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. A visitor from Mars just entering into this debate would surely be struck by the contradictions in these statements. And then to invoke bin Laden as a bête noire now while closing down Alec Station [the CIA’s bin Laden monitoring group, which was disbanded earlier this year] seems a contradiction as well.”

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