By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 10, 2008; 11:53 AM
There are new signs today that President Bush is pulling out all the stops to capture or kill Osama bin Laden before his term is up -- or better yet, before the November election.
That the terrorist leader remains a free man is the most visceral example of the failure of Bush's so-called "war on terror," and a personal humiliation as well. It's been seven long years since Bush's blustery promise that he would bring bin Laden in, " dead or alive."
Back in June, Sarah Baxter wrote in the Times of London about Bush's "final attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden before he leaves the White House.
"Defense and intelligence sources in Washington and London confirmed that a renewed hunt was on for the leader of the September 11 attacks. 'If he [Bush] can say he has killed Saddam Hussein and captured Bin Laden, he can claim to have left the world a safer place,' said a US intelligence source."
A few days later, Bush dismissed the report as "a little bit of press hyperventilating."
But just last week, Sara A. Carter wrote in the Washington Times: "U.S. ground forces crossed the border from Afghanistan and attacked suspected al Qaeda targets in Pakistan on Wednesday as part of an aggressive new strategy to kill or capture Osama bin Laden before President Bush leaves office, U.S. officials said."
Bob Woodward writes in his new book about "groundbreaking" new covert techniques that enabled U.S. military and intelligence officials "to locate, target and kill key individuals in groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias, or so-called special groups. The operations incorporated some of the most highly classified techniques and information in the U.S. government."
Speaking to Larry King on CNN Monday night, Woodward speculated on a possible next target: "Maybe they can use it on bin Laden," Woodward said, "and, all of a sudden, the September or the October surprise is going to be the apprehension or the death of bin Laden."
And in a major article in The Washington Post today, Craig Whitlock writes about a new spate of Hellfire missile attacks by Predator drone spy planes in Pakistan.
"The attacks are part of a renewed effort to cripple al-Qaeda's central command that began early last year and has picked up speed as President Bush's term in office winds down, according to U.S. and Pakistani officials involved in the operations," Whitlock writes.
"There has been no confirmed trace of bin Laden since he narrowly escaped from the CIA and the U.S. military after the battle near Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in December 2001, according to U.S., Pakistani and European officials. They said they are now concentrating on a short list of other al-Qaeda leaders who have been sighted more recently, in hopes that their footprints could lead to bin Laden."
But no account of the hunt for bin Laden should overlook why he remains on the loose. And there, Bush gets the lion's share of the blame for taking the military's eye off the ball.
Whitlock writes: "Officials with the CIA and the U.S. military said they began shifting resources out of Afghanistan in early 2002 and still haven't recovered from that mistake.
"'Iraq was a fundamental wrong turn. That was the most strategically negative action that was taken,' said John O. Brennan, a former deputy executive director of the CIA and a former chief of the National Counterterrorism Center. 'The collective effort in the government required to go after an individual like bin Laden -- the Iraq campaign consumed that.'
"The Bush administration tried to reinvigorate the flagging hunt for bin Laden early last year by redeploying Predator drones, intelligence officers and Special Forces units to Pakistan and Afghanistan. But by then, U.S. counterterrorism officials said, the war in Iraq had already given bin Laden and his core command precious time to regroup and solidify their new base of operations in northwestern Pakistan."
And the Iraq diversion wasn't the only problem. Bush also apparently chose poorly when it came to both his basic strategy in the region -- and his allies.
"Pakistani officials said that if the U.S. government had really wanted to rout al-Qaeda, it should have tried harder to modernize Pakistan's impoverished tribal belt, instead of targeting it with missiles. . . .
"J. Cofer Black, director of the CIA's counterterrorism center from 1999 to 2002, was a key player in the hunt for al-Qaeda and well known in Washington for his give-no-quarter approach. 'When we're through with them, they will have flies walking across their eyeballs,' he told Bush shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"In an interview last month, however, Black echoed concerns expressed by other officials that the U.S. government had paid too little attention to the 'hearts and minds' of people living along the Afghan-Pakistani border, many of whom have reinforced their allegiance to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
"'This may sound strange coming from a flies-on-the-eyeballs guy, but the most important thing is support and aid to local leaders and the population,' Black said. 'If you don't have that, you can put in all the divisions you want, and it won't matter.'"
And, Whitlock notes: "For seven years, the hunt for bin Laden hinged on the proposition that the U.S. government had a reliable partner in Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, who resigned under pressure last month.
"But even some Pakistanis said the U.S. government was naive to think that Musharraf or his generals would do much to find bin Laden."Bush's Words
It's worth just a quick look at how Bush has talked about bin Laden -- or avoided talking about him -- over the years. First there was the bluster, of course. Then silence.
In a March 2002 news conference, Bush was asked by Kelly Wallace of CNN why he so rarely mentioned bin Laden anymore. "You know, I just don't spend that much time on him, Kelly, to be honest with you," Bush said. "I truly am not that concerned about him."
As I wrote in my August 12, 2004 column, The Unnamed Enemy, Bush's refusal to publicly acknowledge bin Laden lasted for years.
In the summer of 2005, however, Bush started invoking bin Laden again, this time to support his Iraq policy. "Hear the words of Osama bin Laden," Bush said, "'This Third World War is raging' in Iraq."
And by 2006, Bush was citing bin Laden extensively -- on the stump, to bolster his political arguments. As I wrote in my September 6, 2006 column, On Quoting bin Laden, Bush started letting bin Laden share his bulliest of pulpits, giving the mass murderer precisely the attention he craves.
And in my July 25, 2007, column, I wrote how Bush -- who, according to the White House's own intelligence report, bolstered bin Laden's recruiting efforts by invading Iraq -- was now Al Qaeda's Best Publicist.Woodward's Final Verdict
Seven Bush interviews and four Bush books later, Bob Woodward writes in The Washington Post today: "Any scorecard for the Bush presidency would focus on his performance as commander in chief: Did he set up and enforce a decision-making system worthy of the sacrifice he has asked of others, particularly the men and women of the U.S. military? Was he willing to entertain debate and consider alternative courses of action? Was he slow to act when his strategies were not working? Did he make the right changes? Did he make them in time? And was the Bush administration a place where people were held accountable? . . .
"Interviews with dozens of administration officials and military officers, . . . along with contemporaneous notes of meetings, show that President Bush often displayed impatience, bravado and unwavering personal certainty about his decisions. Perhaps most troubling to some in his administration, the result sometimes was a delayed reaction to realities and advice that ran counter to the president's gut instincts."
Here's one assessment: "David Satterfield . . . had watched the president up close for several years from his vantage point as Iraq coordinator for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Satterfield had reached some highly critical conclusions not shared by Rice: If Bush believed something was right, he believed it would succeed. Its very rightness ensured ultimate success. Democracy and freedom were right. Therefore, they would ultimately win out.
"Bush, Satterfield observed, tolerated no doubt. His words and actions constantly reminded those around him that he was in charge. He was the decider. As a result, he often made biting jokes or asides to colleagues that Satterfield found deeply wounding and cutting.
"Bush had little patience for briefings. 'Speed it up. This isn't my first rodeo,' he would often say to those making presentations. It was difficult to brief him because he would interject his own narrative, questions or off-putting jokes. Discussions rarely unfolded in a logical, comprehensive fashion."
Woodward concludes: "In one of our early interviews, President Bush said of the path he had chosen: 'I know it is hard for you to believe, but I have not doubted what we're doing. I have not doubted. . . . There is no doubt in my mind we're doing the right thing. Not one doubt.'
"It wasn't so hard to believe."
Tim Rutten writes in a Los Angeles Times book review: "Bush, in Woodward's view, is the worst kind of wartime president: controlling and disengaged, all at once. Worse, he frequently is not only detached from unpleasant or inconvenient facts but is also positively hostile to those who recite them. As Woodward reconstructs the last two years -- in a stunning series of on-the-record interviews with participants -- this willful blindness has spilled out of the White House and into the departments of Defense and State in a perfect maelstrom of dysfunction."
Robert Dreyfus writes in The Nation about what he found most astonishing in Woodward's book: "I'm talking about the dangerously sycophantic advisers surrounding Bush, the ones who stroked the ego of a know-nothing president as The Decider doubled-down on his failed war in Iraq. And I'm talking about the machinations of a rogue general named Jack Keane and his rump staff of strategists at the American Enterprise Institute who worked with Steve Hadley, the national security adviser, to promote the January, 2007, escalation called 'the surge.' . . .
"During 2006, Woodward makes clear, the overwhelming consensus, both among the public and in Washington was to end the war, to start the drawdown of U.S. forces. That was the belief of General George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, General John Abizaid, the CentCom commander, and nearly all of the uniformed military. It was the view of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group, the State Department, and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. In 487 pages, Woodward details how all of them were steamrolled. Consider this: had they not been rolled over, today, two years later, the war would largely be over.
"The picture of Bush that emerges is not a flattering one. He is portrayed as a man convinced of his utter righteousness. 'Not one doubt,' says Bush. And: 'We're killin' 'em. We're killin' 'em all.' Yet at the same time, Bush is blissfully detached, relying on Hadley for everything. His decision to order the surge, taken in November-December, 2006, was a tough one, Bush told Woodward. 'Now, this is a period of time where I've got, I don't how many, holiday receptions.'"Bush's Big Speech
Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post that "the White House assembled a few hundred military officers -- people required to rise and salute when the president speaks -- at Fort McNair in Southwest Washington yesterday to hear the president give the latest version of a Mission Accomplished speech. . . .
"It was a return to the Bush bravado of old. . . . Bush was again talking about Iraqi forces capable of 'winning the fight' and troops coming home from Iraq 'in victory.'
"The president was crowing -- but was anybody listening? . . .
"There was a time, not long ago, when such a major presidential speech (a reduction of 8,000 troops in Iraq and the promise of more) would draw 15 television cameras; yesterday there appeared to be only four, including Japan's NHK. The hosts set aside 24 seats for reporters, but there appeared to be only three reporters in the press section."
Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush boasts that he's bringing 8,000 troops home from Iraq by February. What he doesn't say is he'll leave office with more troops there than before last year's big military buildup and few options for shoring up the force in increasingly violent Afghanistan.
"The bottom line of Bush's troop announcement on Tuesday is that the U.S. military footprint in Iraq largely will stay intact for the rest of the year when he'll pass command of the wars to his successor. Bush is sending more troops to Afghanistan, but Democrats say it's not enough."
Nancy A. Youssef and Jonathan S. Landay write for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush's announcement Tuesday that he'll maintain troop levels in Iraq through the end of his presidency suggests that despite his claim that the buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq has succeeded, the security gains could be temporary, defense officials and experts said."
Jim Mannion writes for AFP: "The modest shift in US forces to Afghanistan announced Tuesday by President George W. Bush falls short of his commanders' requests despite signs the seven year-old US-NATO project there is at risk."
Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post that Bush's announcement "underscored the reemergence of Afghanistan in the debates over U.S. national security. . . .
"In his remarks, Bush argued that U.S. successes against al-Qaeda and other extremists in Iraq have played a role in the growing violence in Afghanistan."
But, as Eggen writes: "Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert at the Rand Corp., said Bush's characterization of Afghanistan is oversimplified and ignores evidence that the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies regained strength there because the U.S. military was focused on Iraq. . . .
"Kathleen Hicks, a former Pentagon policy planner and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called the renewed emphasis on Afghanistan 'surreal.' . . .
"'We're having a bit of a back-to-the-future effect,' said Hicks, who left the Defense Department in 2006. 'We've gone back to a point in their minds where Iraq is sort of a back-burner issue to some extent and Afghanistan is, like in 2001, the front-burner issue.'"
And Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "The Coalition of the Willing appears to be going out of business.
"President Bush tucked a little extra news yesterday into a speech largely devoted to informing the public that he plans to withdraw 8,000 more troops from Iraq: He also announced that most of the countries that have been partnering with the United States in Iraq over the past five years will be pulling their troops out as well."
The New York Times editorial board writes: "President Bush is nothing if not consistent. In a speech on Tuesday, he made it clear that he has no plan at all for ending the war in Iraq and no serious plan for winning the war in Afghanistan."Deficit Watch
Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post: "A weak economy and a sharp increase in government spending will drive the federal budget deficit to a near-record $407 billion when the budget year ends later this month, and the next president is likely to face a shortfall in January of well over $500 billion, congressional budget analysts said yesterday.
"A deficit of that magnitude could severely constrain the next administration's agenda. . . .
"This year's deficit will be more than double last year's $161 billion, and it will rise from 1.2 percent of the gross domestic product to nearly 3 percent. . . .
"The budget picture is likely to grow even bleaker once government analysts factor in the anticipated costs of the Treasury Department's decision last weekend to take over struggling mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac."Decline Watch
Joby Warrick and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "An intelligence forecast being prepared for the next president on future global risks envisions a steady decline in U.S. dominance in the coming decades, as the world is reshaped by globalization, battered by climate change, and destabilized by regional upheavals over shortages of food, water and energy.
"The report, previewed in a speech by Thomas Fingar, the U.S. intelligence community's top analyst, also concludes that the one key area of continued U.S. superiority -- military power -- will 'be the least significant' asset in the increasingly competitive world of the future, because 'nobody is going to attack us with massive conventional force.' . . .
"'The U.S. will remain the preeminent power, but that American dominance will be much diminished,' Fingar said, according to a transcript of the Thursday speech. He saw U.S. leadership eroding 'at an accelerating pace' in 'political, economic and arguably, cultural arenas.'"The Bush Issue
The September/October issue of Mother Jones-- the one about how to recover from eight years of Bush -- is now online. Among the highlights:
Nick Baumann and Dave Gilson offer up "Bush's Reign of Error: A Timeline."
Stephanie Mencimer lists Bush's "six worst judicial appointments."
David Cole writes about "Bush and Cheney's insults to the Constitution."
And in a special section on How to Fix America, Philippe Sands writes: "I asked former President Jimmy Carter what he thinks the next US president might have to do in his first 100 days. He said it would take 10 minutes, not 100 days. I can do no better than paraphrase his reply: 'My country will never again torture a prisoner. We will never again attack another country unless our security is directly threatened. Human rights will be the foundation of our foreign policy. We will act on global warming. We will honor international agreements. We will bring security and peace to Israel and all its neighbors and treat them all on an equal basis.'"Poll Watch
Johanna Neuman blogs for the Los Angeles Times that while Bush's approval ratings continue to hover around the dismal 30 percent mark, a pollster.com survey finds his disapproval rating has dropped from the mid to low 60s in the last few months. The most likely cause? Fewer people are paying attention.
Charles Franklin, co-developer of pollster.com, writes in an e-mail to Neuman: "Attention turned to the primaries in January, and the rock 'em sock 'em action there pulled political focus away from the White House. . . . Over the summer and now, the attention is almost all on Obama and McCain (and now Palin!) so again the president gets little attention."Who Better?
I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET. Come join the conversation!Late Night Humor
Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "Well, as you all know, President Bush was not at the Republican convention due to a disaster -- his presidency."Cartoon Watch