I’ve been having an interesting email fire fight with my friend B., a Bush supporter. Yes, Virginia, I know Bush supporters. Plenty of them. Some people I know have expressed shock -- myself, I think if you don't know anybody who supports Bush, you are living in a bit of a bubble, no? Anyway, like other Bush supporters I’ve met, there is one area in which they respond as though bitten by a snake: that is the accusation that Bush has displayed vast incompetence as a military leader.

It has become a default in American politics that Republicans are strong on defense, as the press likes to say – strong War-makers, to be less euphemistic – and we are worried that Kerry, who is a process Democrat, is going to let that reputation go unscathed. He shouldn’t. He should scathe it every chance he gets, and stuff his inclination to reference the U.N. like a maniac every time talks about U.S. Foreign Policy. Process is for cheese sandwiches, Senator. Attack is what is called for.

The latest NYT story about the selling of weapons by Pakistan is a perfect illustration of the Bush administration’s failure to mount a competent war. Our critical dependence on Pakistan has been aggravated by Bush’s decision virtually to suspend the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the difficult work of capturing important Al Q operatives, in order to invade Iraq. Bush’s decision was made all the easier by the process politics favored by the Dems. Instead of sustaining a count down, on the model of the hostage crisis count down, of days that Osama bin Laden has escaped the force Bush promised would bring him in, dead or alive, the Dems have basically given Bush a pass. That pass is going to cost them in this election.

It doesn’t have to. Here’s how Bush's masked timidity has played out in the crucial Central Asian area.

1.By allowing Osama bin Laden to play the traditional game of bandit leader, Bush's victory over the Taliban looks increasingly hollow. Don't mistake me -- that the Taliban regime no longer rules from Kabul is a good thing. But the Taliban was a secondary goal. They never attacked the U.S. -- they confined themselves to bombing age old and precious statues of the Buddha. Their sole role, in this game, was to protect Al Qaeda. That is why they went down. Al Q. didn't. The bandit leader wins, in this game, by transforming his mere survival into a symbol. After Osama's group attacked on 9/11, the world, and especially the Central Asian world, expected Osama's group to suffer. They have, but in proportion to their crime, they remain remarkably intact as a force. And that survival is a recruiting advantage. Bringing down Osama bin wasn't going to end attacks against the U.S, but it would make them look increasingly ridiculous. Instead of pursuing this course, Bush has presided with his usual sublime oblivion over a spate of violence that has extended, now, from Saudi Arabia to Madrid. His only response has been to assure Americans that two thirds of the Al Q. force has been captured or killed. Unlikely, we reply. The main issue is to discourage Al Q. -like groups from multiplying. That Al Q. itself is wounded means little, if its spin offs, using the same networks, are able to work within the umbrella of its symbolic power.
2. Osama is not the only beneficiary of the hiatus in the war against Al Q. Think the Pakistan military. With the withdrawal of focal American forces to fight in Iraq, we have been thrown on the tender mercies of the most sophisticated network for diffusing under the table nuclear materials in the world. Of course, God knows what else they have diffused. Or no... we don’t have to consult the almighty on the question of diffusing aid dollars to Swiss bank accounts. We’ve known about that for some time.
3.So now we are in a political season in which Bush is surely going to rekindle the search for Osama, meaning that he is stuck sucking up to the Pakistanis, with the full approval of a Republican propaganda machine that went into motion against Saddam because of a vague threat to assassinate an ex president ten years ago. Well, in comparison, the incineration of Tokyo is peanuts. It is easy to predict that the lag between threat and realisation has allowed Osama to accrue the kind of symbolic power that will make the result of his capture destabilizing. Unlike Saddam Hussein, Osama is a hero in some parts of the world –namely, among the poorer people of Pakistan. Capturing Osama might well read to such a revolt in Pakistan that the leadership could either be damaged or brought down. We all know that Bush’s hopes reside on some outstanding reminder, to the American people, of how successful he has been as a War leader. The affection that will flow to Bush from the capture of Osama could certainly carry him into a second term. But that capture, if it isn’t timed right, could easily be overshadowed by the unexpected consequences deriving from his real incompetence – from the lag between the vow to capture Osama and the reality of the capture.

Kerry can’t counterpunch Bush by reverting to the genial mush of foreignpolicy speak. If he doesn’t use this time to frankly mount those attacks on Bush’s foreign policy leadership that will impact here, at the crux of the issues that engage us emotionally, Bush will Aznar him – polticize a terrible mistake into an electoral victory.