The resurgent menace of Al Qaeda should unify Democrats and Republicans against a common threat, not serve as another example of partisan rancor.
It would be enormously beneficial to his credibility if President Bush admitted to the public that his mistakes – including the decision to go to war in Iraq – stimulated Al Qaeda’s recovery.
Americans also have every right to expect a coherent strategy for fighting Al Qaeda (including its branch in Iraq, AQI) from Democrats, especially presidential candidates. Pummeling Bush on the issue is not a strategy.
A joint strategy should consist of keeping U.S. forces in Iraq until: the Al Qaeda threat there is eliminated; a more notable push is made to create a democratic transition in Pakistan, Al Qaeda’s present stronghold; and a stepped-up effort is engaged to bolster the weak pro-Western regime in Afghanistan.
But instead of treating the latest National Intelligence Estimate (concluding that Al Qaeda is again a growing threat to U.S. security) as a dire warning and a clarion for unified action, it was used as a trigger for more partisan wrangling.
As Washington Post columnist David Ignatius observed shortly before the report came out, there’s every reason to fear that if another successful terrorist attack occurred on U.S. soil., Democrats and Republicans would use it as an excuse for recrimination.
Democrats likely would charge, as they repeatedly have, that Bush: diverted resources from fighting Al Qaeda to invading Iraq; created a terrorist rallying point and recruiting ground there where none existed beforehand; and inflamed Muslim sentiment around the world.
They would be correct, of course. According to Lawrence Wright, whose masterful history of Al Qaeda, “The Looming Tower” (Knopf, 2006), reportedly is Bush’s favorite book on terrorism, “Al Qaeda was essentially dead” in 2002 after its ouster from Afghanistan.
In a September 2006 New Yorker article, Wright cited a leading jihadist theoretician, Abu Musab al-Suri, as saying that “the American occupation of Iraq inaugurated a ‘historical new period’ that almost single-handedly rescued the jihadi movement just when many of its critics thought it was finished.”
As Wright says, “Jihadists fighting in the conflict in Iraq have been trained in vicious urban warfare against the most formidable army in history. They will return to their home countries and add their experience to new cells springing up in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and many European nations.”
And, as the NIE warns, Al Qaeda’s Pakistan-based leaders “will probably seek to leverage the contracts and capabilities of AQI, its most visible and capable affiliate, and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the (U.S.) homeland.”
The NIE also warns, “We assess that Al Qaeda will continue to try to acquire chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear material in attacks and would not hesitate to use them if it develops what it deems a sufficient capability.”
Wright told radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt in April that “if you read Al Qaeda the way I do, they see terrorism as theater, but also they have an appetite for blood. ... They want to kill as many people as they can. So, they would like to have a big spectacular, and I think that’s one of the reasons we haven’t had smaller attacks in the U.S.”
Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that there may well be Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the United States, and a chilling report released last week by the Middle East Media Research Institute said that jihadist Web sites operate out of America.
Bush, instead of acknowledging his responsibility for exacerbating the threat of terrorism in an attempt to forge unity of purpose against it, insists on defending himself and assailing his adversaries.
In his speech Tuesday retracing the links between Al Qaeda and the AQI, Bush said “some note that the AQI did not exist until the U.S. invasion – and argue that it is a problem of our own making. The argument follows the flawed logic that terrorism is caused by American actions.”
It does no such thing. It faces the reality that the terrorist threat to the United States is much worse because of the Iraq War than it would have been if the United States had finished off Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2002 instead of allowing its leadership to escape to Pakistan.
And now, according to the NIE, Al Qaeda has a “safe haven” in Pakistan, thanks especially to President Pervez Musharraf’s withdrawal of troops from the border area with Afghanistan last year.
The Bush administration publicly lavishes praise on Musharraf despite his failure to support the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai; his suppression of democratic institutions, leaving radical Islam as the only avenue for opposition; his failure to close down radical madrassa schools and his toleration – until this month – of the jihadist takeover of Islamabad’s Red Mosque.
So, as Democrats assert, Bush bears a lot of responsibility for heightening the threat. On the other hand, Bush is right to say that the AQI now is a menace, that it is tightly connected to Al Qaeda in Pakistan – and that a precipitous U.S. pullout from Iraq would empower America’s enemies.
Some Democrats in Congress and presidential candidates advocate Iraq withdrawal policies that might leave enough forces behind to engage in “anti-terrorist” operations. But they certainly don’t emphasize that mission.
They also dismiss undeniable progress that Bush’s “surge” policy has achieved against the AQI in Anbar and Diyala provinces. Sunni tribal leaders now cooperating with the United States might well stop if they thought this country would abandon them.
The likelihood is that Bush cannot sustain the surge deep into next year because it would involve lengthening troop tours from 15 months to 18 months, triggering a revolt at the Pentagon. So a narrower strategy will be needed than pacifying all of Iraq.
It could be – and should be – decisively defeating the AQI, which would constitute a blow to Al Qaeda worldwide.
There is an opportunity here for unified, bipartisan action. After all, Osama bin Laden wouldn’t ask whether Americans were Republican or Democrat before beheading them.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)
Copyright 2007, Roll Call Newspaper
Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.