Whatever anyone says about Osama bin Laden, they can’t call him unhelpful. (They obviously can’t call him “dead,” either.) Just when the Bush administration needs compelling reasons to justify war, he sends a new message to Arab television affirming Al Qaeda’s solidarity with the Iraqi regime against the United States. The President and his aides may not want to talk about him, but he still talks about them. What more could a murderous fanatic do to assist the “war on terrorism”?
At deadline, the text of the latest remarks by the terrorist leader were not yet available, although someone had considerately provided a transcript to Colin Powell in time for his morning appearance before the Senate Budget Committee on Feb. 11. That was when the Secretary of State predicted an imminent broadcast of a new statement from the fugitive terror master on Al Jazeera, the satellite station based in Qatar. A few hours later, the management of Al Jazeera confirmed that it had received a message from Osama bin Laden that “urged Muslims to show solidarity and defend the Iraqi people.”
To Mr. Powell, that statement from “bin Laden, or who we believe to be bin Laden,” provides further proof that the United States and the world cannot rely on U.N. weapons inspectors to protect us from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of maniacs. “This nexus between terrorists and states that are developing weapons of mass destruction can no longer be looked away from and ignored,” Mr. Powell told the Senators. “As the President has said, 9/11 changed things.”
While Mr. Powell previewed the evening news about Mr. bin Laden before the budget committee, the directors of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. were telling the Senate Intelligence Committee about the continuing threat from Al Qaeda. Although they told the Senators that significant progress had been made, it was clear from their testimony that the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 atrocity and their allies around the world are far from vanquished. C.I.A. chief George Tenet seemed to suggest that Mr. bin Laden’s lieutenants can strike at will, within the United States and elsewhere-and that a primary target may be our troops massing in the Middle East.
In other news, Al Qaeda remains alive and aggressive in Afghanistan. Remember Afghanistan? Not much is said about that benighted nation any more, but the notion that it has been rescued from Islamic extremists and is on its way to democratic development is exaggerated at best. For two weeks, U.S. and Afghan government forces have been engaged in battle with Islamist fighters in the southern part of the country. The rebels operate from safe havens that our supposed allies in the Pakistani military and intelligence service have done nothing to disturb. That little war isn’t over by any means.
All of which points to the real question about the impending invasion of Iraq: Why are we rushing into another war against an enemy that has shown no signs of attacking the United States, when those who attacked us frontally remain at large?
The sudden reappearance of Osama bin Laden is suspiciously timed-particularly because the Bush administration’s allegations of cooperation between Al Qaeda and Baghdad are so wispy and unconvincing. If the report of a new statement from Mr. bin Laden is accurate, it is reasonable to wonder whether the Al Qaeda chief might be eager to provoke warfare that will enhance his prestige in the Arab world and attract more recruits to his movement.
In Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America , terror expert Yossef Bodansky wrote about Al Qaeda’s deft use of U.S. hostilities with Iraq in recent years. As he explains, “the exploitation of the Iraqi crisis to enhance Islamist militancy and radicalism-even though Saddam Hussein is neither liked nor trusted by the Islamist leaders-came full circle …. By early March 1998, Saddam Hussein and his ideology were no longer of importance to most Muslims. All that counted was their impression of a massive, U.S.-dominated high-technology military force arrayed to bomb and devastate innocent Muslim civilians …. The immense, long-lasting impact of the crisis in Iraq on the revival of international terrorism at the heart of the West was irreversible.”
Now that grim history is about to be repeated, with far greater consequences.
There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein must be disarmed and eventually neutralized. There is considerable doubt, however, that we have no other means to achieve those goals except war, with enormous civilian casualties and a propaganda boon to our enemies. Yet under the threat of invasion, the Iraqi dictator is finally acquiescing to intrusive methods of inspection, including unaccompanied scientist interviews and U-2 surveillance overflights. The Bush administration rejects those concessions, so recently demanded to prove that Iraq would disarm, as too little and too late. For some reason, it’s easy to imagine that such intransigence would make Osama bin Laden smile.