"Virtually Impotent": Bin Laden or Bush?
In the wake of the newest video from Osama Bin Laden, Bush homeland security adviser Fran Townsend feebly attempted to discount the importance of the still at-large Al Qaeda leader. Trapped in his mountain redoubt, she said, Bin Laden is "virtually impotent." But with the man he wanted "dead or alive" securely ensconced in his Pakistani safe haven and directing a reconstituted Al Qaeda network, it is President Bush who is looking impotent indeed.
To be sure, the American intelligence community sees Bin Laden's network as anything but flaccid. In the July 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, the CIA concluded that Al Qaeda had "rebuilt its operating capability to a level not seen since just before the 2001 terrorist attacks." Almost six years after the Twin Towers fell, the study suggested a failing report card for a Bush administration distracted by the war in Iraq and unable to pressure the Musharraf government over Al Qaeda's free reign in the northwest territories of Pakistan. As I noted in July:
Counterterrorism analysts produced the document, titled "Al-Qaida better positioned to strike the West." The document pays special heed to the terror group's safe haven in Pakistan and makes a range of observations about the threat posed to the United States and its allies, officials said.
Al-Qaida is "considerably operationally stronger than a year ago" and has "regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001," the official said, paraphrasing the report's conclusions. "They are showing greater and greater ability to plan attacks in Europe and the United States."
The group also has created "the most robust training program since 2001, with an interest in using European operatives," the official quoted the report as saying.
At the same time, this official said, the report speaks of "significant gaps in intelligence" so U.S. authorities may be ignorant of potential or planned attacks.
While Bin Laden's resurgent Al Qaeda is once again a potent threat to the United States, an increasingly unpopular and isolated President Bush seems ever less capable of retaliating. Just days after the publication of the NIE, Bush acknowledged the failure of his "no safe havens" policy, a cornerstone of the now-deceased Bush Doctrine:
"One of the most troubling [points in the NIE] is its assessment that al Qaeda has managed to establish a safe haven in the tribal areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. Last September, President Musharraf of Pakistan reached an agreement that gave tribal leaders more responsibility for policing their own areas. Unfortunately, tribal leaders were unwilling and unable to go after al Qaeda or the Taliban."
What a difference six years makes. In his address to Congress on September 20, 2001, a determined President Bush declared his "no safe havens" principle even as the World Trade Center towers still smoldered in lower Manhattan:
"We will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."
Unable to capture or kill Bin Laden and afraid to risk the ire - and future - of the Musharraf government, it's no wonder that President Bush and his amen corner downplay OBL's significance. After all, Bush has flip-flopped on the importance of Bin Laden, alternately claiming to "take him seriously" or being "not that concerned about him," as his political circumstances require. In May, Mitt Romney echoed Bush's on-again, off-again nonchalance, declaring "It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person." Even Fred Thompson, the latest entry into the 2008 GOP presidential sweepstakes, joined in the game by saying Bin Laden "is more symbolism than anything else."
President Bush may be burdened by his Iraq war strategy overwhelmingly rejected by the American people, but his inability to capture Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan may be his last trump card at home. Past Bin Laden videos, as the New Republic noted, served to reinforce the fear-mongering that is so central to the Bush/GOP message machine. Far from reminding Americans about Bush's failure to take out Bin Laden, the videos instead highlight our continued vulnerability to sudden and unexpected terrorist violence. As John Judis suggests, Bush's subliminal message plays on the fear of death.
Which should come as no surprise. Now increasingly powerless, George W. Bush has nothing to offer but fear itself.
UPDATE: Just one day after Townsend's trag-comic statement about Osama Bin Laden's impotence, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told the Senate of Al Qaeda, "They have regained a significant level of their capability. The threat is real."