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Bush's Iron Law of Bin Laden Still Holds

November 2, 2009

Like a broken clock, even George W. Bush can be right twice a day. And so it was with his pronouncement on the fate of Obama Bin Laden before a weekend conference of business leaders in New Delhi, "I guess he is not dead." But the 43rd president wasn't merely stating the obvious regarding the Al Qaeda chieftain who escaped his under-resourced effort in Afghanistan. As it turns out, Dubya even out of office is following the same playbook he used in it: the threat posed by Bin Laden is directly proportional to the threat to President Bush's political standing. Call it Bush's "Iron Law of Bin Laden."
Bush's nonchalance this weekend reflects the simple fact that the danger posed by the 9/11 mastermind can no longer help - or hurt - him politically:

Asked whether al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden could be alive, Bush said "I guess he is not dead."
He, however, noted that Laden is hiding and "not leading victory parades" or "espousing his cause" on TV.
He expressed confidence that Laden will be brought to justice which "he deserves to be" and it was a matter of time.

But it was a different picture indeed in the wake of revelations that President Bush had authorized illicit surveillance of Americans by the NSA. Trying to fight back the growing public outcry over his illegal domestic wiretapping program, President Bush used the Bin Laden bogeyman once again during his remarks in January 2006 at the National Security Agency. Bush lashed out at his critics:

"All I would ask them to do is listen to the words of Osama bin Laden and take him seriously. When he says he's going to hurt the American people again, or try to, he means it. I take it seriously, and the people of NSA take it seriously."

Bush, of course, did not take Bin Laden seriously in four years previously. Questioned about his silence regarding Bin Laden in the months following the American failure to capture the Al Qaeda chieftain in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, a nonchalant Bush on March 13, 2002 downplayed his significance:

"So I don't know where he is. You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you...I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him."

Bush may have been embarrassed by his failure to capture Bin Laden in 2002, but by the fall of 2004, he faced the prospect of American voters who seemed to recall the murder of 3,000 of their countrymen. In the third presidential debate with John Kerry, a childlike Bush on October 13, 2004 tried for a "do over" of his statement two and a half years earlier:

"Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations. Of course we're worried about Osama bin Laden."

Which brings us full circle. In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush used the specter of Osama Bin Laden to rally what had been a faltering presidency. In a show of frontier bravado, Bush talked tough about Bin Laden just days after the 9/11 attacks:

"There's an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.'"

Ultimately, Bush later insisted, he came to regret "using bad language" like "dead or alive" or "bring 'em on." (That begrudging concession followed his stunning April 2004 declaration that " I'm sure something will pop into my head here...maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one" when asked to name his biggest mistake as president.) But President Bush seems blissfully unconcerned about his failure to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden, as his latest pooh-poohing shows. After all, George W. Bush doesn't need him anymore.
UPDATE: For older readers, Bush's recent announcement may sound like Chevy Chase's 1970's routine on Saturday Night Live, "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead."


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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