SYNOPSIS: Contrary to popular dogma, George W. Bush has been doing an abysmal job in the war against terrorism, that is aside from exploiting its media coverage for political gain
The central dogma of American politics right now is that George W. Bush, whatever his other failings, has been an effective leader in the fight against terrorism. But the more you know about the state of the world, the less you believe that dogma. The Iraq war, in particular, did nothing to make America safer — in fact, it did the terrorists a favor.
How is the war on terror going? You know about the Riyadh bombings. But something else happened this week: The International Institute for Strategic Studies, a respected British think tank with no discernible anti-Bush animus, declared that Al Qaeda is "more insidious and just as dangerous" as it was before Sept. 11. So much for claims that we had terrorists on the run.
Still, isn't the Bush administration doing its best to fight terrorism? No.
The administration's antiterror campaign makes me think of the way television studios really look. The fancy set usually sits in the middle of a shabby room, full of cardboard and duct tape. Networks take great care with what viewers see on their TV screens; they spend as little as possible on anything off camera.
And so it has been with the campaign against terrorism. Mr. Bush strikes heroic poses on TV, but his administration neglects anything that isn't photogenic.
I've written before about the Bush administration's amazing refusal to pay for even minimal measures to protect the nation against future attacks — measures that would secure ports, chemical plants, nuclear facilities and so on. (But the Department of Homeland Security isn't completely ineffectual: this week it helped Texas Republicans track down their Democratic colleagues, who had staged a walkout.)
The neglect of homeland security is mirrored by the Bush administration's failure to follow through on overseas efforts once the TV-friendly part of the operation has come to an end. The overthrow of the Taliban was a real victory — arguably our only important victory against terrorism. But as soon as Kabul fell, the administration lost interest. Now most of Afghanistan is under the control of warlords, the Karzai government is barely hanging on, and the Taliban are making a comeback.
Senator Bob Graham has made an even stronger charge: that Al Qaeda was "on the ropes" a year ago, but was able to recover because the administration diverted military and intelligence resources to Iraq. As former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he's in a position to know. And before you dismiss him as a partisan Democrat, bear in mind that when he began raising this alarm last fall his Republican colleagues supported him: "He's absolutely right to be concerned," said Senator Richard Shelby, who has seen the same information.
Senator Graham also claims that a classified Congressional report reveals that "the lessons of Sept. 11 are not being applied today," and accuses the administration of a cover-up.
Still, we defeated Saddam. Doesn't that make us safer? Well, no.
Saddam wasn't a threat to America — he had no important links to terrorism, and the main U.S. team searching for weapons of mass destruction has packed up and gone home. Meanwhile, true to form, the Bush team lost focus as soon as the TV coverage slackened off. The first result was an orgy of looting — including looting of nuclear waste dumps that, incredibly, we failed to secure. Dirty bombs, anyone? Now, according to an article in The New Republic, armed Iraqi factions are preparing for civil war.
That leaves us facing exactly the dilemma war skeptics feared. If we leave Iraq quickly it may well turn into a bigger, more dangerous version of Afghanistan. But if we stay for an extended period we risk becoming, as one commentator put it, "an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land" — just the recruiting tool Al Qaeda needs. Who said that? President George H. W. Bush, explaining his decision not to go on to Baghdad back in 1991.
Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish leader, isn't afraid to use the "Q" word, worrying that because of America's failure to follow up, "this wonderful victory we have achieved will turn into a quagmire."
The truth is that the pursuit of televised glory — which led the Bush administration to turn its attention away from Al Qaeda, and to pick a fight with a regime that, however nasty, posed no threat — has made us much less safe than we should be.
Originally published in The New York Times, 5.17.03