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.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Middle East, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. BigFire says:

    Or put it this way: Bush isn’t concern about bin Laden because he knew full well that Osama have already receive his 72 raisins. It just isn’t possible to conclusively prove this.

  2. vdibart says:

    The Dems just can’t get it right then, can they? They’re either being criticized for not caring enough about tracking down terrorists or they’re beign criticized for caring too much about the wrong terrorists.

    Leaving the convenience of that argument aside, and acknowledging that I’m not a counter terrorism expert, doesn’t it at least seem plausible that capturing Osama would advance the war against terrorism more than the invasion of Iraq did? The argument isn’t that the organization will just collapse with him out of the loop, the argument is that this is the man who put together an organization that literally means “The Base”, as in “the database”, and would almost certainly have *a lot* of information that we could use to tear it down.

    I suppose if you assume that Osama will never be caught, the next best idea would be to change the context of his doctrine of hatred by democratizing the Middle East, but that’s just a guess right now. On the other hand, we *know* that capturing him would set Al Qaeda, and other related organizations, back quite a bit.

  3. Rodney Dill says:

    I think you caught the jist right. Bush made a misstatement. Because bin laden had been eliminated from power he wasn’t a major concern at that time. Kerry’s context was that Bush wasn’t focusing any energy at all on Afghanistan, which was and incorrect assertion on Kerry’s part. Unfortunately Bush is not a good debater, and will continue to make some misstatements. Everyone knows from the previous administration, however, that charisma and the ability to be convincing verbally are no indication of strong leadership skills.

  4. That said says:

    News Flash! – Kerry campaign spokesman says bin Ladin seen strolling the strip with Elvis! “Why isn’t Bush concerned?”

  5. Michel says:

    >>If one believes that Saddam sponsored jihadist terror, then this is a bizarre non sequitur.

    Who said anything about Saddam sponsoring terror? Certainly no Democrat would ever claim any link between Saddam and terrorist attacks (least of all against the USA). So, your ‘bizarre non sequitur’ goes out the window.

    So the motive for invading Iraq keeps on being reinvented. Now it is supposed to be ‘democratizing the Middle East?’. What happened to WMD? Al-Qaeda links? Oh, no proof, that’s right. I democratizing the ME is a real goal, he should have invaded Saudi Arabia, argauably the most totalitarian regime ou there, actively sponsoring terrorism to boot!

  6. LJD says:

    I believe the President’s statement that he wasn’t really “concerned” about Bin Laden meant that he is being dealt with. I also believe, rightly so, that the President has faith in the resources employed. Further, as the sitting Commander in Chief, there is likely not much he can say about operations without blowing the deal.

    Notice that we have not heard from UBL in some time. IF he is still alive, he is spending all of his time avoiding capture. What sould we do in the GWOT, sit on our hands and wait for UBL to show up?

    Iraq, was and is a haven for terrorists. Sadaam did suport terror, until we stopped him. Iraq lies in the middle of a hotbed of terrorists countries, strategically vital to winning the GWOT.

  7. Old Patriot says:

    I spent an awful lot of hours in the late 1980s following terrorists in the Middle East as an Air Force photo interpreter. It’s a hellaceous, backbreaking, time-consuming job, and you’re usually wrong more than you’re right. There reaches a point where you’re spending more resources on a particular search than it’s worth. What you do at that point is start taking their safe havens away from them, one at a time, until their freedom of movement is so limited they begin to make mistakes. You see the same pattern begin to emerge in two, three, maybe even a half-dozen spots. After awhile, you can even begin to make judicious guesses about where certain assets are going to show up next. After you’re right two or three times in a row, you set a trap, and bingo! Game, set, match.

    I know quite a number of people in the Intel community in Washington, in England, and in a couple of other places. I worked with them for 20+ years. Most of them are brighter than the average poster on this or any other blog. Just because YOU don’t understand the underlying pattern of events doesn’t mean one doesn’t exist. The longer I watch this war – from the sidelines by necessity, not desire – the more I see the game plan behind certain events, and the more intelligently I see some things being done. That doesn’t mean there aren’t mistakes made, but a lot of the things people here (and elsewhere) complain about only highlight their lack of military experience and lack of knowledge of certain capabilities and techniques. I see an overall plan that’s working, that will significantly reduce the threat of terrorism not only against our country but the entire coalition, and the eventual destruction of the entire web, one strand at a time. That’s a much better strategy than knocking off the head spider and leaving his web in place.

  8. QuiltsandStars says:

    For the record, Bush’s comment was made during a press conference in March 2002. He was trying to respond to the question “Don’t you truly believe that until you find out if he is dead or alive, you won’t really eliminate the threat of..”

    The PRESIDENT: Deep in my heart I know the man is on the run, if he’s alive at all. . .The idea of focusing on one person really indicates to me people don’t understand the scope of the mission. Terror is bigger than one person. . . ”

    the President continues explaining how he is fighting this threat. After a lengthy answer, the reporter that was referred to as Kelly [Wright?], again demands, “But don’t you believe that the threat that bin Laden posed won’t truly be eliminated until he is found either dead or alive?”

    Again the President: “Well, as I say, we haven’t heard much from him. And I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s at the center of any command structure. And again I don’t know where he is. I”ll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run. I was concerned about him when he had taken over a country. I was concerned about the fact that he was basically running Afghanistan and calling the shots for the Taliban.”
    “But once we set out the policy and started executing the plan, he became — we shoved him out more and more on the margins. He has no place to train his al Qaeda killers anymore. And if we — excuse me for a minute– and if we find a training camp, we’ll take care of it.”

    The President was interrupted again but he continued explaining the plan, that its a long struggle, etc. then he concluded giving the reason I, and many others, will be voting for him:

    “And I can assure you, I am not going to blink. And I’m not going to get tired. Because I know what is at stake. And history has called us to action, and I am going to seize this moment for the good of the world, for peace in the world and for freedom.”

    He also could have added, but didn’t, ‘even if it costs me the re-election, I will do what is best for this country.’