U.S. officials have finally admitted what has long been obvious: that George W. Bush’s “global war on terror” has been an expensive failure, costing hundreds of billions of dollars and claiming possibly hundreds of thousands of lives, but making the world no safer and quite likely more dangerous.

Bush’s top counterterrorism advisers acknowledged as much on July 17 in releasing a summary of a National Intelligence Estimate that represented the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community.

The report, entitled “The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” described a resurgent al-Qaeda that has regrouped in remote sections of Pakistan while exploiting Muslim anger over the war in Iraq to increase its operational strength internationally and to take aim at American targets, again.

“We assess that al-Qaeda will continue to enhance its capabilities to attack the [U.S.] homeland through greater cooperation with regional terrorist groups,” the NIE said. “Of note, we assess that al-Qaeda will probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qaeda in Iraq [AQI], its most visible and capable affiliate and only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the [U.S.] homeland.

“In addition, we assess that its association with AQI helps al-Qaeda to energize the broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for [U.S.] homeland attacks.”

In other words, Bush’s repeated warnings that the United States must fight Islamic extremists in Iraq so “we don’t have to fight them here” or so "they won't follow us home" turn out to be the opposite of the truth: because U.S. forces are occupying Iraq, al-Qaeda has more resources and more recruits determined to bring the war to the United States.

The underlying reality is that Bush remains the perfect foil for al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists. The surging anti-Americanism, which derives from a widespread hatred of Bush, represents a recruitment boon for al-Qaeda, so much so that Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders understand that Bush and his stubbornness are indispensable assets to their cause.

Almost six years into the “war on terror,” Bush has overseen a strategy that has simultaneously alienated world public opinion – with torture scandals over Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and secret CIA prisons – while fueling Islamic extremism and giving new life to the 9/11 masterminds.

Unilateralist Arrogance

Much of the current dilemma can be traced to Bush’s special mix of arrogance and rashness. In 2001, even before the 9/11 attacks, Bush adopted a “unilateralist” approach to the world, asserting U.S. global hegemony under a strategy laid out by the neoconservative Project for the New American Century.

At the center of this grandiose scheme was the belief that the oil-rich Middle East could be remade through violent “regime change” in hostile Arab countries like Iraq. Bush later broadened his target list to the “axis of evil,” tossing in Iran and North Korea and making clear that other lesser enemies included the likes of Syria, Cuba and Venezuela.

While this neoconservative plan wrapped itself in the noble language of “democracy,” the concept was always less about respecting the will of indigenous populations than in restructuring their economies along “free market” lines and ensuring compliant leaders.

Bush also grew enamored with his “gut” instincts about war, especially after U.S.-backed forces ousted Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders more quickly than many expected. Even though he let top al-Qaeda leaders slip away from Tora Bora in late 2001, Bush ignored warnings that he needed to finish the job there before turning America’s attention elsewhere.

Bush redirected the U.S. military toward Iraq, a country that wasn’t involved in 9/11 and actually had served as a bulwark against Islamic fundamentalism, both the strains from Shiite-ruled Iran and Sunni-dominated al-Qaeda.

But Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was something of a Bush family obsession since he angered President George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91. In March 2003, Bush launched an invasion of Iraq and toppled Hussein’s government in three weeks.

After basking again in public adulation as the victorious “war president,” Bush stubbornly refused to acknowledge the growing seriousness of an Iraqi insurgency that rose up to challenge U.S. forces.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq – combined with the abuse scandals at U.S.-run prisons – fed popular anger across the Middle East. Thousands of young jihadists rallied to the cause of ousting the Americans from Muslim lands.

As the body count in Iraq grew, Bush dug in his heels even deeper. When Iraq slid into chaos and then civil war, Bush again refused to acknowledge the facts in a timely fashion.

Meanwhile, over the past six years, the wily and ruthless leaders of al-Qaeda came to understand that Bush was an invaluable poster boy. The more he was viewed as the “big crusader,” the more they could present themselves as the “defenders of Islam.” The al-Qaeda murderers moved from the fringes of Muslim society closer to the mainstream.

So, in fall 2004, with Bush fighting for his political life against Democrat John Kerry, bin Laden took the risk of breaking nearly a year of silence to release a videotape denouncing Bush on the Friday before the U.S. election.

Bush’s supporters immediately spun bin Laden’s tirade as an “endorsement” of Kerry and pollsters recorded a jump of several percentage points for Bush, from nearly a dead heat to a five- or six-point lead. Four days later, Bush hung on to win a second term by an official margin of less than three percentage points. [For details, see our new book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.]

Boomerang Effect

The last-minute intervention by bin Laden – essentially urging Americans to reject Bush – had the predictable effect of driving voters to the President. After the videotape appeared, senior CIA analysts concluded that ensuring a second term for Bush was precisely what bin Laden intended.

“Bin Laden certainly did a nice favor today for the President,” said deputy CIA director John McLaughlin in opening a meeting to review secret “strategic analysis” after the videotape had dominated the day’s news, according to Ron Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine, which draws heavily from CIA insiders.

Suskind wrote that CIA analysts had spent years “parsing each expressed word of the al-Qaeda leader and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. What they’d learned over nearly a decade is that bin Laden speaks only for strategic reasons. … Today’s conclusion: bin Laden’s message was clearly designed to assist the President’s reelection.”

Jami Miscik, CIA deputy associate director for intelligence, expressed the consensus view that bin Laden recognized how Bush’s heavy-handed policies were serving al-Qaeda’s strategic goals for recruiting a new generation of jihadists.

“Certainly,” Miscik said, “he would want Bush to keep doing what he’s doing for a few more years.”

As their internal assessment sank in, the CIA analysts were troubled by the implications of their own conclusions. “An ocean of hard truths before them – such as what did it say about U.S. policies that bin Laden would want Bush reelected – remained untouched,” Suskind wrote.

Even Bush recognized that his struggling campaign had been helped by bin Laden. “I thought it was going to help,” Bush said in a post-election interview about the videotape. “I thought it would help remind people that if bin Laden doesn’t want Bush to be the President, something must be right with Bush.”

Bin Laden, a well-educated Saudi and a keen observer of U.S. politics, appears to have recognized the same point in cleverly tipping the election to Bush.

Prolonging the War

Al-Qaeda’s leaders understood that a U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq might mean a renewed assault on them as well as the loss of their cause celebre for recruiting new jihadists. With Bush ensconced for a second term, that concern lessened but didn’t entirely go away.

According to a captured July 9, 2005, letter, attributed to al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Zawahiri, al-Qaeda leaders still fretted over the possibility that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq could touch off the disintegration of their operations, as jihadists who had flocked to Iraq to battle the Americans might simply give up the fight and go home.

“The mujahedeen must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal,” said the “Zawahiri letter,” according to a text released by the office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence.

In another captured letter, dated Dec. 11, 2005, a senior al-Qaeda operative known as “Atiyah” wrote that “prolonging the war [in Iraq] is in our interest.” [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Al-Qaeda’s Fragile Foothold.”]

Now, as the new NIE makes clear, al-Qaeda’s “Bush-second-term” strategy continues to pay big dividends. As U.S. forces remain bogged down in Iraq and Bush rebuffs urgent appeals from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress for a reversal of course, al-Qaeda expands its base and takes aim again at the American homeland.

In that sense, Bush remains al-Qaeda’s most important strategic ally. Arguably, too, al-Qaeda serves a symbiotic role for Bush, helping to keep the American public forever afraid and thus unwilling to challenge the president's leadership.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there.

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