President Bush's big mistakes in the war on terrorism

March 26, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - In President Bush's handling of the war on terror, two facts stand out: Before Sept. 11, 2001, he failed to take military action against an enemy that had attacked us, and later, he took military action against an enemy that had not attacked us.

He has a rejoinder for anyone who accuses him of failing to move against al-Qaida early in his term. He said Tuesday, "[CIA Director] George Tenet briefed me on a regular basis about the terrorist threat to the United States of America, and had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on Sept. 11, we would have acted."

What a relief. Unfortunately, Osama bin Laden was not kind enough to phone the Oval Office with a schedule of events planned for New York and Washington that day.

The president's response couldn't have reassured anyone hearing former White House counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke accuse him of paying too little attention to al-Qaida before Sept. 11. Everything unearthed in the investigation by the 9/11 commission confirms the charge. Former Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, the only commission member allowed to see all the president's daily intelligence briefings from before the attacks, said they showed an "extraordinary spike" of warnings about al-Qaida in 2001, with information that "would set your hair on fire."

Yet the administration didn't feel the burn. Military officials told the commission that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's "new team was focused on other issues and was not particularly interested in their counterterrorism agenda." In June, the White House asked Mr. Rumsfeld to draw up plans to go after al-Qaida. He didn't get around to that until, um, after Sept. 11.

The president's supporters offer two defenses, which unfortunately contradict each other.

The first is that the real blame lies with President Bill Clinton, who should have gone after al-Qaida long before Mr. Bush arrived. That criticism is perfectly accurate, and the commission left no doubt of Mr. Clinton's failures. Despite repeated attacks, he didn't grasp that we were at war. But if it was obvious that Mr. Clinton was negligent, why was Mr. Bush in no particular hurry to correct that mistake?

Not until Sept. 4, 2001, did the administration finally approve a plan to deal with al-Qaida, and it would have taken a long time to implement. Former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington asked Mr. Rumsfeld, "What made you think, even when you took over and got these first briefings, given the history of al-Qaida and its successful attacks on Americans, that we had the luxury even of seven months before we could make any kind of response, much less three years?"

The alternative excuse is that no one foresaw that al-Qaida might kill thousands of people on American soil. In this view, Mr. Bush shouldn't be blamed for failing to see what is obvious only in hindsight. But the president was in a position to identify dangers that weren't visible to everyone else.

Thanks to a daily barrage of scary, secret intelligence reports, Mr. Bush had ample warning that al-Qaida, which had hit us before, was likely to hit us again. Yet he dawdled. If Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait on Jan. 20, 2001, would Mr. Bush have needed seven months to retaliate? But the bombing of the USS Cole took place in October 2000, and al-Qaida's role was known by the time the new president arrived.

After 9/11, Mr. Bush did exactly what he should have done in taking the war to Afghanistan, with stunning success. But instead of keeping the focus there after the Taliban fell, Mr. Bush insisted on targeting Mr. Hussein - who played no part in 9/11, showed no intention of attacking the United States and, it now appears, had no weapons of mass destruction.

Our distraction was a favor to Osama bin Laden. Because of the administration's obsession with Iraq, Mr. Clarke notes, "the U.S. Special Forces who were trained to speak Arabic, the language of al-Qaida, [were] pulled out of Afghanistan and sent to Iraq. Intelligence platforms supporting the military were also redirected." Afghanistan and bin Laden, amazingly, no longer justified our full attention.

Today, bin Laden and his top aides are still at large. Meanwhile, U.S. troops are under siege from terrorists in Iraq. Another president might have done worse. But Mr. Bush has to answer for two mistakes in the war on terror: waiting too long to prosecute it and diverting it into a fight that had nothing to do with terrorism. We paid a price for the first, and we're paying a price for the second.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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