Remembering bin Laden

The al Qaida leader isn't dead yet. George W. Bush just acts like he is -- except when he doesn't.

By Tim Grieve
Published June 30, 2005 5:37PM (EDT)

Much has been made this week -- and rightfully so -- of the president's repeated references to 9/11 during his speech on Iraq Tuesday night. Less has been said about his invocation of Osama bin Laden's name, and we think it's time to rectify that.

Time was, George W. Bush didn't mention bin Laden much. In March 2002 -- just six months after saying he wanted bin Laden "dead or alive" -- the president said that he didn't know where bin Laden was and that he didn't really care. "You know, I just don't spend that much time on him," the president said at a March 13, 2002, press conference. "I truly am not that concerned about him." It showed. By Dan Froomkin's calculations, Bush mentioned bin Laden's name in public just 10 times between the beginning of 2003 and August 2004 -- all but four of them coming in response to direct questions about the al Qaida leader. (By contrast, Bush uttered the name of Saddam Hussein about 300 times during that same period.)

But by the time the presidential race rolled into the fall, bin Laden was back in heavy rotation -- even if the president sometimes got him mixed up with Saddam Hussein. "Of course we're after Saddam Hussein -- I mean bin Laden," the president said during his first debate with John Kerry. In that same debate, Kerry noted that bin Laden was using "the invasion of Iraq in order to go out to people and say that America has declared war on Islam." Bush took offense: "My opponent just said something amazing," Bush said. "He said Osama bin Laden uses the invasion of Iraq as an excuse to spread hatred for America. Osama bin Laden isn't going to determine how we defend ourselves. Osama bin Laden doesn't get to decide. The American people decide."

Fast forward to the president's speech Tuesday night, and what do we have here? George W. Bush, justifying the war in Iraq by quoting Osama bin Laden. Addressing those who "wonder whether Iraq is a central front on the war on terror," Bush said: "Among the terrorists, there is no debate. Hear the words of Osama bin Laden: 'This Third World War is raging' in Iraq. 'The whole world is watching this war.' He says it will end in 'victory and glory, or misery and humiliation.'"

And that's not all the president had to say about bin Laden. A few minutes after suggesting that bin Laden does, in fact, have something to say about how Americans defend themselves, the president said that "the only way our enemies can succeed is if we forget the lessons of September the 11th, if we abandon the Iraqi people to men like Zarqawi, and if we yield the future of the Middle East to men like Bin Laden. For the sake of our nation's security, this will not happen on my watch."

The problem is, it sort of already did. Before the Iraq war began, the Bush administration had "several chances" to wipe out Zarqawi's terrorist operation "and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself," NBC News reported last March. Bush "never pulled the trigger. Why not? Because, NBC said, the administration feared that destroying a terrorist camp in Iraq would "undercut its case for war against Saddam." As for bin Laden, the story has been told often: The U.S. had a shot at capturing bin Laden in Tora Bora in late 2001, but he slipped away when Afghan warlords rather than American troops were given the job of sealing off escape routes.

Bush said back in 2002 that he was "not that concerned" about bin Laden anymore because the U.S. had "shoved him out more and more on the margins" and because he "has no place to train his al Qaida killers anymore." That's not true anymore, of course. Even if Bush wants to treat victory in Afghanistan as a fait accompli -- and with 17 U.S. troops presumed dead there this week, it may be a little early for that -- his own CIA will tell him that, since the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq has taken on the role Afghanistan once played as a training ground for al Qaida and other Islamic extremists.

So Zarqawi? Bin Laden? Yeah, we remember them. Thanks to the president's work so far, they're pretty hard to forget.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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