Can Osama keep Bush afloat?
The buddy system
Part 2 As we discussed in part one, terrorism in general, and al Qaeda in particular, are again dominating the news. It's now just about impossible to find a report of any terrorist act (or quasi-terrorist act, like the recent failed car bombings in London), without reference to Osama bin Laden or his famous franchise.
Interestingly, we found that George W Bush has been leading the "al Qaeda" consciousness revival, despite the risk of ridicule for failing to eliminate this little outfit after squandering hundreds of billions of dollars and shedding hundreds of thousands of gallons of other people's blood in its name.
Bush has been deliberately conflating the real al Qaeda based in Pakistan with a sectarian crew called "al Qaeda in Iraq" (AQI). Every time AQI strikes, Bush calls it an al Qaeda strike. The fiction he is encouraging is this: the US really is fighting Osama in Iraq.
White House flack Tony Snow summed it all up, explaining to sceptics that, "when somebody tries to argue that al Qaeda in Iraq is not a key part of the problem, it creates a basis for saying, well, you need to go someplace else".
So the Administration has admitted it: people have got to be told that the US is fighting Osama in Iraq (where he is not), or they might expect him to be fought in Pakistan (where he is). It's clear that the Bushies have no intention of fighting the real al Qaeda management team, who are official guests of the nation of Pakistan and will not be going away any time soon. We'll be stuck with Osama & Co. for some time to come, that's for sure.
But how serious are the threats? Does AQI have any plan to widen its sphere of violence? Does Osama's al Qaeda network intend to attack the USA again? Are the two outfits really willing to work together? Bush wants us to believe all of those things, and he's getting some support from a report by the National Counterterrorism Centre (NCC), recently leaked to the Associated Press.
Interestingly, the NCC report says: "[the real] al-Qaeda will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), its most visible and capable affiliate, and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the homeland". (our emphasis)
Forget for a minute the Goebbels-ish harmonics of a phrase like "the homeland" in a document of this sort. We seem to have a contradiction here. Consider Bush's political needs: the real al Qaeda simply has got to be hot to attack the Fatherland; how else can the Administration justify the Iraq war, its illegal mass eavesdropping, its so-called "Patriot" Act, its mass scouring and preservation of our personal details in government databases, its vast budgets for dubious "counterterrorist" programmes and gadgets, its unconstitutional military kangaroo courts, its rendition programme, its torture policies, and its secret prisons?
That's an awfully heavy load to put on Osama's shoulders, so he had better be poised to strike at any moment. But the report says al Qaeda will "probably seek" to involve AQI as a proxy force against US targets. And AQI is said to be the only al Qaeda affiliate willing to do this.
Not all that fear-inspiring, is it? Especially when you consider how much the Bushies have got riding on the notion that Osama is ready to lash out again. Mass illegal wiretaps? Osama. Suspending Habeas Corpus? Osama. Secret prisons? Osama. "Enhanced interrogation techniques"? Osama. National security letters? Osama. Hundreds of billions wasted on dubious law-enforcement, intelligence, and defence schemes? Osama. National ID cards? Osama. Fingerprinting tourists? Osama.
Oh, and the Iraq war does matter after all, because there's a violent outfit over there with "al Qaeda" in its name. Yep, Osama.
Thus, al Qaeda in Iraq is being sold as an incarnation of Osama bin Laden that the USA is actually capable of hitting. But is there much of a connection between the two? AQI's late founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, did pledge his allegiance to Osama, but whether bin Laden solicited, or even welcomed, this gesture is in doubt. Indeed, a letter allegedly from real al Qaeda honcho Ayman al-Zawahiri (denounced by AQI as a forgery) questioned AQI's excessive brutality, and might well indicate that the real al Qaeda tolerates rather than supports AQI.
Bush's vehement assertions of intimate links between AQI and the real al Qaeda lack any hard evidence to back them. Still, it's interesting how several shabby links in the chain post-linking Osama to Iraq have come together lately to bolster Bush's repeated public assertions of this fiction. Just last week, the US announced the capture of Khaled al-Mashhadani, aka Abu Shahid, who is said to be a senior AQI honcho.
Now in US custody, al-Mashhadani is claiming to have been the go-between for AQI and bin Laden, reportedly telling his interrogators that real al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan provide "directions, [and] they continue to provide focus for operations" and they "continue to flow foreign fighters into Iraq...foreign terrorists."
If this is the best evidence the US can come up with, then "Osama incarnate" in Iraq is off. It's a pity for the Bushies, because now that the senseless bloodletting caused by American forces, both directly and indirectly, has far exceeded that perpetrated by Saddam Hussein, Bush needs a monster in Iraq considerably worse than the late dictator. Indeed, at this point, he needs a monster worse than himself. Naturally, bin Laden's al Qaeda would fit the requirement. Unfortunately, there appears to be scant evidence of its involvement.
What about the second pillar in Bush's strategy of fear? The NCC report emphasises that the real al Qaeda has rebuilt itself, and can now operate pretty much as it did before 9/11. And this ought to be enough to scare everyone, except for a very important piece of missing data: an indication that bin Laden actually wishes to attack the USA.
Most readers have heard of the infamous 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the U.S." That must have been based on actual evidence, because it wasn't terribly long before bin Laden did strike. But the NCC report's title is Al Qaeda better positioned to strike the West, which says nothing about intent.
Now, admittedly, we're dealing with wire service accounts of a leaked document, and this is not the same as having read it ourselves. But we can be confident that if the report contained any concrete talk of al Qaeda's intent to strike, that would certainly have been the lead.
So here again, there appears to be no solid reason to be afraid that Osama is going to attack the USA. Everyone assumes that he wants to because he already did it once, and because he says hateful things about Westerners. But actually, he might not have much motive for staging an encore. I should think, as far as the USA is concerned, it's pretty much "Mission Accomplished" for al Qaeda. America has been on a remarkably self-destructive path since 9/11, and I think Osama would regard this with glowing satisfaction. I can't see why he would strike the US again, as the damage from his first effort is both spectacular and ongoing, and is being carried out by the Americans themselves.
For all the recent talk about al Qaeda, clearly, the US threat horizon looks the same as it has since 9/11. That is, pretty vague, and populated by wannabes. This was summed up perfectly two weeks ago by US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who claimed to have "a gut feeling" that a major terrorist attack is coming to America this summer.
In other words, there's no evidence of an impending attack, or even of a feasible plan for one, but the Administration would be most grateful if Americans were to remain too preoccupied with fear to question their Masters in Washington.
But maybe now, finally, Bush is playing the fear card one time too many. The leaking of the NCC report; the announcement of al-Mashhadani's capture and his claim to be in close contact with the real al Qaeda; Michael Chertoff's "gut feeling" that a big one is coming - all of this has been timed to give the president's claims the appearance of a factual basis. And yet, the mainstream press has summoned the courage to mention here and there that not everyone believes the president's assertions about al Qaeda in Iraq.
So, could this be the one that backfires? Is the president finally not going to get away with the fear-mongering that has served his administration so well in the past? It's hard to say. Nearly half of Americans still imagine that Iraq was and remains connected to 9/11. Those people are not going to consider the possibility that al Qaeda might not be the apocalyptic threat it's said to be, or that the so-called war on terror has been prosecuted in a completely self-defeating manner.
Sleazy though the fear gesture is, I think Bush will get away with it. And this brings up an interesting question which we will take up in our next and final instalment: how do the Bushies continue to fail spectacularly at everything they promised to accomplish after 9/11, without being brought to account?
In a recent column entitled All the President's Enablers, Paul Krugman did something he doesn't often do: he got it completely wrong. His thesis was that Washington careerists, Administration loyalists, and Congressional sympathisers are primarily responsible for keeping Bush insulated from the consequences of his misapprehensions and errors - indeed, even from knowledge of them.
Krugman needs to examine an institution a lot closer to home, which we will do next time. Let's hope he'll be reading along. ®