Just last month, Donald Rumsfeld was saying that he didn’t know whether Osama bin Laden was dead or alive. “I think it is interesting that we haven’t heard from him in a year, close to a year,” Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him to Pakistan. “I don’t know what it means. I suspect that in any event if he’s alive and functioning that he’s probably spending a major fraction of his time trying to avoid being caught.”
But now it seems that the al-Qaida leader is very much alive — and that he’s got enough time on his hands to keep a finger on the pulse of American public opinion. That might lead one to wonder whether the Bush administration has done all it can to capture bin Laden, or whether he’s really “on the run,” as the president likes to say, or whether all the attention the White House has devoted to Iraq might have been better served going after the people who, you know, actually attacked the United States on 9/11 and say they’re planning to do it again.
But that’s not what “Hardball’s” Chris Matthews thought when he heard the bin Laden tape. Matthews listened to the al-Qaida leader and declared: “He sounds like an over the top Michael Moore here, if not a Michael Moore.”
Crooks and Liars has the video, and John Kerry, of all people, has the response: “You’d think the only focus tonight would be on destroying Osama Bin Laden, not comparing him to an American who opposes the war, whether you like him or not,” Kerry said in a statement his office released Thursday night. “You want a real debate that America needs? Here goes: If the administration had done the job right in Tora Bora we might not be having discussions on ‘Hardball’ about a new Bin Laden tape. How dare Scott McClellan tell America that this administration puts terrorists out of business when had they put Osama Bin Laden out of business in Afghanistan when our troops wanted to, we wouldn’t have to hear this barbarian’s voice on tape. That’s what we should be talking about in America.”
What set Matthews off, apparently, was bin Laden’s attempt to drive a wedge between the American people and their president on Iraq. On the tape released Thursday, bin Laden says that Bush is putting Americans at risk of future al-Qaida attacks by ignoring polls that show that a “majority of your people are willing to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq.”
Matthews may not like bin Laden’s characterization of the disconnect between Bush and the country he leads, but bin Laden is actually pretty close to correct on what the polling shows. While Bush’s approval ratings on Iraq have ticked up slightly from their lows of last fall, a Gallup poll released earlier this month had a plurality of Americans favoring a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The question was asked in a way that was fairly friendly to Bush’s “stay the course” view — “Which do you think is better for the U.S.: to set a timetable for removing troops from Iraq and remove them regardless of whether the U.S. goals are achieved by that time, or to keep a significant number of troops in Iraq until the U.S. achieves its goals there, regardless of how long that takes?” — but 49 percent of the public answered “withdraw” while 47 percent said “stay.”
In the same poll, 53 percent of the public said things are going “moderately badly” or “very badly” for the United States in Iraq. No one likes hearing that assessment from bin Laden, a man responsible for murdering nearly 3,000 Americans long before Bush launched his folly in Iraq. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true — or that Michael Moore could be the only one who thinks so.