It has become a standard part of George W. Bush’s litany for why he will veto a congressional plan for setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq: “Why would you say to the enemy, ‘Here’s a timetable. Just go ahead and wait us out?’”

Well, there’s a logical answer to Bush’s rhetorical question. If a timetable encourages Iraqi insurgents to silence their guns and to stop planting roadside bombs – even temporarily to wait the Americans out – Iraq might get the breathing space it needs to begin healing its sectarian divisions.

Indeed, one could argue that Bush’s “surge” plan and Bush’s fear about letting the enemy “wait us out” offer essentially the same opportunity: to achieve enough peace and quiet in the short term for reconciliation and reconstruction to begin.

But a withdrawal timetable has additional advantages. First, it has the chance of bringing relative peace to the entire country as insurgents pull back anticipating a total American military withdrawal, while the “surge” seeks greater security only for Baghdad.

One of the criticisms of the “surge” is that it amounts to a version of “Whack-a-Mole,” with insurgents disappearing for a while only to pop up in another location vacated by U.S. troops. The “surge” rationale, however, is that even a temporary sense of security in the capital might give the Iraqi government a chance to restore calm.

Another plus for a withdrawal timetable is that it would assure Iraqis that the U.S. military presence will not be open-ended, thus undercutting one of the strongest arguments of the insurgency, that it is a national resistance fighting a foreign occupation.

A date certain for American withdrawal also would put non-Iraqi al-Qaeda operatives – who number only an estimated five percent of the armed insurgency – in a tighter fix. Without the United States to point to, al-Qaeda would find it tougher to recruit jihadists and would likely face military pressure from Iraqi nationalists fed up with foreign interference.

That is why al-Qaeda leaders view Bush’s open-ended war in Iraq as crucial to their long-range plans for spreading their radical ideology throughout the Muslim world. As “Atiyah,” one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants, explained in a Dec. 11, 2005, letter, “prolonging the war is in our interest.”

[To read the “prolonging the war” passage from the Atiyah letter at the Web site of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, click here and then scroll down to the bottom of page 16 and the top of page 17.] 

Helping al-Qaeda

U.S. intelligence analysts have long understood that Bush’s Iraq strategy is playing into al-Qaeda’s hands.

Indeed, one could say Bush and bin Laden have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship in which each enhances the other’s power; Bush using 9/11 as justification for consolidating presidential authority in the United States and bin Laden exploiting the Iraq War to rebuild his terrorist bands and burnish his reputation as a defender of Islam.

Yet, even as Bush’s clumsy “war on terror” strengthens the terrorists, the President still cites 9/11 and al-Qaeda as reasons to continue with what is essentially the same “stay the course” strategy in Iraq, albeit now repackaged as the “surge.” Bush also repeats many of his old discredited canards, as he did on April 10 to an American Legion post.

“This is an unusual era in which we live, defined on September the 11th, 2001,” Bush said. “See, that’s a date that reminded us the world had changed significantly from what we thought the world was. We thought that – we thought that oceans and friendly neighbors could protect us from attack.”

However, the truth is that no one who grew up during the Cold War thought the oceans could protect the United States from attack. Soviet ballistic missiles, which could be fired from the other side of the planet, carried the threat of annihilation for major American cities.

But Bush has found this refrain about the oceans and 9/11 to be a pleasing way to justify his view that he must anoint himself as an all-powerful Commander in Chief who can ignore the Constitution to confront the supposedly unprecedented danger from al-Qaeda.

In his April 10 speech, Bush also repeated his claim that the government’s “most solemn duty … is to protect the American people from harm.” By making that argument, Bush further rationalizes his abrogation of the Constitution. What’s most important, he’s saying, is that Americans can drive to the mall without fear of a terrorist attack.

But the oaths that the President and other federal officers take do not mention protecting Americans from harm. The oaths pledge to uphold and defend the Constitution, which embodies the principles of a democratic Republic.

Bush has turned this reality upside down. In the name of making Americans safer, he has tossed the habeas corpus right to a fair trial and other liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.

False Dichotomy

In his speech, Bush also posed the choice facing America as either going “on the offense against an enemy” or “sitting back and being passive in the face of this threat.” Though an appealing argument to the weak of mind, those two choices aren’t the real alternatives.

No serious person has advocated “sitting back and being passive,” but there are profound differences about how to conduct a sensible counter-insurgency program aimed at neutralizing or eliminating al-Qaeda and other dangerous terrorist groups.

To pose the dichotomy more honestly, the choices are: pursuing a sophisticated strategy that avoids unnecessary violence, addresses legitimate grievances of the Muslim world and isolates the extremists – or crashing around the Middle East trying to kill anyone who might be a potential enemy and thus creating more hatred and more terrorists.

In effect, Bush has opted for the second approach, which is why Atiyah and other al-Qaeda leaders want Bush to continue doing what he’s been doing. The longer Bush insists on an open-ended war in Iraq the more time that buys for al-Qaeda to sink down roots there and to recruit jihadists in other countries.

Bush remains bin Laden’s perfect foil and Bush’s Iraq War continues to serve as al-Qaeda’s ideal recruitment poster.

One alternative to that dangerous situation would be a recognition that Bush handed al-Qaeda an extraordinary gift when he invaded Iraq and that one way to deny al-Qaeda continued use of that gift is to announce that U.S. combat forces will be leaving Iraq at a date certain.

Giving Bush another blank check for the Iraq War is like giving Osama bin Laden an indefinite extension on the gift that keeps on giving.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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