The man who isn’t there

There’s an article by Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker about the bombings in Madrid that dilates into an examination of the current state of play in the terrorist world. Here’s a clip from it:

“On April 15th, the voice of Osama bin Laden spoke again. “This is a message to our neighbors north of the Mediterranean, containing a reconciliation initiative as a response to their positive reactions,” bin Laden said on the Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya. Now it was the Al Qaeda leader who cast himself in the role of a rational political actor. “It is in both sides’ interest to curb the plans of those who shed the blood of peoples for their narrow personal interest and subservience to the White House gang.” He proposed a European committee to study “the justice” of the Islamic causes, especially Palestine.

The fact that bin Laden was addressing nations as an equal showed a new confidence in Al Qaeda’s ability to manipulate the political future. Exploiting this power will depend, in part, on convincing the West that Al Qaeda and bin Laden remain in control of the worldwide Islamist jihad. As long as Al Qaeda is seen as being an irrational, unyielding death cult, the only response is to destroy it. But if Al Qaeda—amorphous as that entity has become—has evolved into something like a virtual Islamist state that is trying to find a permanent place for itself in the actual world, then the prospect of future negotiations is not out of the question, however unlikely or repellent that may sound to Americans. After all, the Spanish government has brokered truces with ETA, which has killed four times as many people in Spain as Al Qaeda has, and the accelerated withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq following the train bombings has already set a precedent for accommodation, which was quickly followed by the Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Last year, Germany paid a six-million-dollar ransom to Algerian terrorists, and the Philippines recently pulled its fifty troops out of Iraq in order to save a hostage from being beheaded.”

It has been almost three years, now, since Osama bin Laden successfully planned an attack on the U.S. and got away with it. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, his name was in the mouth of every politician in America. Contrast this to 2004. I’ve listened, off and on, to speeches at the Democratic Convention, which is an indulgence in an uncharacteristic masochism on my part.  So far, no mention of the man. And so we ape the CoC, who, since “winning” in Afghanistan in 2002, took the low and dirty route of  letting Osama bin Laden's escape go unresponded to, diverting money from the Afghanistan operation to Iraq in a maneuver of dubious legality and imbecilic strategy, and tacitly handing over the “problem” of Osama to Pakistan. In Bushworld, if it isn't spoken, it doesn't exist; if it is spoken, it hyper-exists. Thus the fight for democracy in Iraq consists of saying the fight is for democracy in Iraq, which satisfies the Federalist's requirements on the matter as far the administration is concerned. On the other side of the ledger, the victory over Al Qaeda is signalled by crossing out the name Osama whenever it occurs in the drafts of the prez's speechwriters. A terrorism that is so utterly vulnerable to liguistic fiat takes on the strange proportions of a kind of spirit, Bush's own Harvey; for this reason, he can make up stories about his imaginary friend and expect us to give them our complete belief -- as in the administration's contention that the  heart of the battle of terrorism is Iraq. Of course, that doesn't make sense. There were no Iraqis on those four flights. There was no connection between Saddam and Osama bin Laden. There is no reason to think that even if the U.S., by some miracle, "wins" against terrorism in Iraq, that this will have any effect on Al Qaeda whatsoever. In American politics, only Howard Dean has shown any encouraging skepticism about this claim, and even Howard Dean, last night, seemed more than willing to give a speech that was simply a feel good speech about voting – a rah rah speech that was all about the process and the ego, and not at all about the goal and the problem.

So let’s state the obvious, shall we? As I count the stats on the “war on terrorism”, I find them depressing: Osama bin Laden survived Tora Bora; his organization successfully regrouped in Pakistan; affiliates of his organization staged more attacks in 2003 than they did in the whole period between the embassy bombings and the attack on the Cole; the range of the attacks broadened, from the Moslem world all the way to Spain. Our own Homeland Security Department thinks that the organization or its affiliates could be planning something along the lines of 9/11 even now, with agents in the U.S.

The Dems are petrified that Bush will somehow ‘get’ Osama for an October surprise. Who knows, he might. The point is, the point that should be driven home with a sharpened wooden stake and a mallet, Bush doesn’t ‘get” terrorism at all – he seems, three years after the 9/11 attack, to be still as clueless as he was before the attack, a man perpetually reading a children's book to a class that, uncomfortably enough, has grown to include the country.  He is heading (astonishingly) the third administration that has mistaken moving Al Qaeda for destroying it.  This is why the Dems, rather than hoping Americans have forgotten Al Qaeda, should be shouting the name from the rooftops. There was a window of opportunity in 2002. There was the real possibility of taking the fight to Al Qaeda, of creating a symbolic defeat that could have been followed by real political defeats. That window closed. We now know just how ignominiously the players played their parts. We now know there is no "marshall plan" for Afghanistan, which has sunk into warlordism and opium traffic. We now know that there is no serious effort even to coordinate with our allies about terrorist suspects. We now know that Rumsfeld didn't like the war in Afghanistan because he couldn't find "targets" -- it is a mountainous country, after all, and our billion dollar toys work best in desert landscapes.

 Those who support the war in Iraq were the first to accuse Spain of retreating after the Madrid bombing – which means, logically, that those who support the war in Iraq have to explain the strategy of allowing a freerange terrorist group to make a flanking movement that knocks out an American ally. Since these are the same people who routinely suggested that Osama's continuing existence was no big deal, that he was a spent force, perhaps they should explain why they were terribly wrong, once again, to underestimate Al Qaeda. In fact, their underestimation is almost a compulsive repetition of the mindset pre 9/11, as we have had it detailed by the Commission. It is as if they are hardwired not to get it. This has to be laid at the foot of the arrogant and incompetent pumphouse Pentagon crew, urged on by an intellectual whose main previous accomplishment was to serve as an apologist for one of the great mass murderers of the 20th century, Suharto -- Paul Wolfowitz, come on down please! It has to be laid at the feet of exactly the kind of thing that Bush, in one of those moments of extreme disconnect that should disqualify him as a serious choice for president to anyone who pays attention, said he was opposed to: civilians second guessing the military in a war. Bush was referring, in his interview on Meet the Press, to Vietnam. It was one of those moments, frequent under this administration, when astonishment, indignation, and frustration mesh together in a perfect rush: never, never has there been a war in which the civilian command at the Pentagon so countered any serious input from the military high command as the war in Iraq. Never, never has there been a war that was so interrupted for political, rather than military reasons as the war against Al Qaeda. Never has there been a president who so joins together ignorance and unctuousness as Bush. He beats Warren Harding hands down.


The upshot is: the opportunity of spring, 2002, is gone. This president failed in the elementary duty of defending the U.S. against an enemy that was minor but vicious. His failure was not innocent – rather, it was part of a political strategy that year to capitalize on his “triumph” after Tora Bora to promote another war, one that had nothing to do with the immediate American interest in dispersing our real enemy. This president turned a blind eye to the metastasizing of that enemy. This president set us up to fail in the Middle East, with consequences that we can count in lives and explosives in Istanbul, Casablanca, Riyadh, and Madrid. This president has shifted the duty that should fall on the shoulders of the 400 billion dollar plus US military to the billion dollar minus Paki military. This president has shown no interest in the intersections between Kashmir jihadis, Al Qaeda, and various affiliates around the Mediterranean.

So for us, here is the challenge to Kerry. If, following Bush, he takes the child’s way out – banishing Osama’s name from his speeches as a magical placebo for thwarting Al Qaeda – we think he will miss a golden opportunity himself. And it is that kind of thing which can really bring him down this election.  No -- scratch that. Bring on the thunder. It is more than the loss or gain of an election that is at stake. This is about shame, dignity, the dim knowledge that the culture is at risk, the ability to resist the sly insinuations of a class of pimps -- political consultants (who would serve the commonwealth better as real pimps, every blackhearted one of em) and to listen to the unpopular murmurs of his heart -- which has to be there somewhere, in the middle distance, even after the cheesy senatorial life. This is not some cutrate tv sitcom, this is fullblown shakesperian tragedy. Kerry's challenge is to recognize that.