McChrystal vs. Bush on Bin Laden
Ever since the leaking of his confidential Afghanistan report in August, conservatives have used General Stanley McChrystal as a bludgeon against President Obama. Conveniently ignoring President Bush's repeated refusals to "listen to the commanders on the ground," GOP leaders in Congress continue to blast Obama for "dithering" in response to McChrystal's request for more troops. But lost in the predictable Beltway narrative about Obama and the generals in the wake of last week's escalation was a stern rebuke of Bush's failure to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden. And it came from General McChrystal.
McChrysal's assessment came just days after Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged there hasn't been good intelligence on the Al Qaeda leader's whereabouts in "years." Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee one week after a scathing report documenting the U.S. failure to capture Bin Laden when he was "within our grasp" at Tora Bora in December 2001, General McChrystal emphasized the costs of that defeat:
"I believe he is an iconic figure at this point whose survival emboldens al Qaida as a franchise organization across the world. I don't think we can defeat him until he is captured or killed."
That language is a far cry from President Bush's pooh-poohing of the Bin Laden threat in the aftermath of the Tora Bora fiasco. That nonchalance was on display during Bush's March 13, 2002 press conference:
Q: But don't you believe that the threat that bin Laden posed won't truly be eliminated until he is found either dead or alive?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, as I say, we haven't heard much from him. And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is. I -- I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run. I was concerned about him, when he had taken over a country. I was concerned about the fact that he was basically running Afghanistan and calling the shots for the Taliban.
Of course, when the threat to President Bush's political prospects rose, so did the specter of Bin Laden. As he faced a tough reelection fight against John Kerry, the same Bush who promised after 9/11 to get Bin Laden "dead or alive" pretended on October 13, 2004 he never claimed he was "not that concerned about him":
"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."
As revelations of his program of illegal domestic surveillance by the NSA swirled in January 2006, President Bush resurrected the Bin Laden bogeyman to attack 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."
As it turned out, that dire warning came just months after the CIA shut down its Bin Laden unit, a task force dedicated to tracking the Al Qaeda chief, in late 2005.
For his part, General McChystal acknowledged the inherent contradiction in his mission, telling the Senate that when the Al Qaeda leader moves outside of Afghanistan, chasing after him "is outside my mandate."
As for George W. Bush, now that his days of purportedly dreaming about nailing Bin Laden are over, it seems he could care less. As he put at a business conference in New Delhi six weeks ago:
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.
Sadly for the legacy of George W. Bush, if it happens at all, that "time" will be after January 20, 2009.