Bush ‘Not Worried’ About Osama?
Chris Suellentrop joins a chorus of people jumping on President Bush for a mistatement in last night’s debate:
Indisputably, this was the president’s best debate.* Just as it took Al Gore three debates to settle on the right tone during the 2000 campaign, President Bush figured out in his third face-off with John Kerry how to be neither too hot nor too cold. But Kerry was as good as he can be, too, and more important, what good the president did with his performance will be overshadowed Thursday when the TV networks spend the entire day running video clips of him saying of Osama Bin Laden on March 13, 2002, “I truly am not that concerned about him.”
By denying that he had ever minimized the threat posed by Bin Laden, Bush handed Kerry, during the very first question, the victory in the post-debate spin. The Kerry campaign’s critique of the president is that he doesn’t tell the truth, that he won’t admit mistakes, and that he refuses to acknowledge reality.
Kevin Drum points to this as a plausible explanation of why Bush would have committed the gaffe in question to begin with, let alone claimed not to have made it:
The president’s philosophy toward the war on terror could not be clearer: It is a war against nation-states, not against “nonstate actors” like al-Qaida. Bin Laden was dangerous because he controlled a state, not because he controls a terrorist network. When the Bush campaign talks about “going on the offense,” this is what they mean….
Kevin agrees, noting:
Generally speaking, conservatives believe that our biggest danger comes from rogue states, those who support international terrorism. Thus the “axis of evil” and the obsession with Saddam Hussein. Liberal analysts, by contrast, tend to believe that the bigger danger comes from failed states, those that are so chaotic that non-state terrorist groups like al-Qaeda can flourish simply because there’s nobody around to keep them under control. Afghanistan and Sudan in the late 90s are good examples.
There’s a more simple explanation, I think. Bush isn’t obsessed with capturing Osama bin Laden–as Kerry, Edwards, and most Democrats seem to be–because he understands that he’s just one man who coordinates one part of a vast jihadi terror machine. While capturing or “otherwise dealing with” Osama would be a great propaganda coup, it wouldn’t do much to solve the global terror problem. John Kerry seems not to understand this, continually noting that “Saddam Hussein did not attack us, Osama bin Laden did.” If one believes that Saddam sponsored jihadist terror, then this is a bizarre non sequitur. Furthermore, if one believes–as Bush does–that we can drain the swamp of international terrorism by democratizing the Middle East, then the Iraq War is much more important in the GWOT than the Osama chase.
I agree that some focus too much on state actors to the exclusion of non-state actors but don’t think Bush is one of those. Rather, he thinks reining in states is the only way to go after the terrorists.
The rogue state/failed state distinction is less interesting. Certainly, failed states can breed terrorists and rogue states are more likely to fund them. I would argue, though, that Afghanistan under the Taliban was a rogue state, not a failed state, as the central government was able to maintain control of the terrority. And most agree that the biggest sponsors of terrorism are Iran and Syria, both strong states.
*I would dispute this, actually, but it’s not germane to the topic.