A Misbegotten Diversion; A Monumental Tragedy

“Dead or alive.”

Those were the three words that came to mind on the evening of Sept. 11, as I looked south from my block at the spectral shafts of light memorializing the lost Twin Towers and the people who died when they fell. That old cliché, which merely sounded callow and theatrical when uttered by George W. Bush, has since taken on deeper significance. In a nation fearful of terror and facing a fateful election, the President’s forgotten vow now stands for terrible mistakes that will continue to endanger us, even if he someday fulfills it.

Although the atrocities perpetrated by Osama bin Laden three years ago were denounced repeatedly from the podium of the Republican National Convention, the name of the perpetrator whom the President had promised to bring to justice dead or alive was mentioned just once. (Governor George Pataki made that sole reference, in a fatuous attempt to blame the prior administration.) Perhaps the convention’s producers didn’t wish to spoil the October surprise. More likely they prefer not to draw attention to the fact that the Saudi mass murderer remains at large, planning to strike us again and rebuilding his organization as it slaughters innocents from Madrid to Istanbul to Baghdad.

The President has never explained why he allowed Mr. bin Laden to escape from Afghanistan. There may be no self-flattering explanation. For despite his characteristic bravado-and indeed, despite a quite inspiring speech to a joint session of Congress the week after the 9/11 attacks- Mr. Bush flinched from decisive action when he had the opportunity to destroy the leadership of Al Qaeda.

For whatever reason, as former counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke noted in Against All Enemies, the Bush administration’s assault on our enemies in Afghanistan was “slow and small.” After giving the Taliban a “final chance” to turn over Mr. bin Laden, Mr. Bush eventually dispatched an inadequate force of U.S. troops that numbered fewer than one full Army division.

Was the President daunted by the ruinous history of past British and Russian invasions of Afghanistan? That wouldn’t fit Mr. Bush’s public image as a tough, decisive commander in chief, but his nerve certainly failed when the terrorist leaders were driven into the mountains around Tora Bora.

Instead of putting enough American “boots on the ground” to capture or kill the enemy, the President and Gen. Tommy Franks depended on local tribal fighters to carry the fight to the mountain stronghold, while the U.S. provided intelligence, bombing and missile strikes. Many of those local forces fought bravely-but others, who were wholly unreliable and probably bribed, let Mr. bin Laden get away in December 2001.

In light of Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent remarks mocking the idea of a “more sensitive” war on terror, it is ironic to recall how the Al Qaeda leadership escaped. According to The Washington Post, General Franks believed that proper sensitivity to the feelings of our Afghan allies ruled out a full-scale invasion by U.S. troops. He didn’t want the Afghans to think that he would “just push them aside and take over because we were America,” or to worry that we had come to “conquer their country.” In fairness, General Franks has also insisted he saw no evidence at the time proving that Mr. bin Laden was present at Tora Bora. Nobody with expert knowledge gives that excuse much credence.

Yet somehow the President has evaded responsibility for the Franks decision. (For that matter, so has the retired general himself, who showed up at the Republican convention to deliver a blustering speech without anybody rudely mentioning Tora Bora or Osama bin Laden. He certainly didn’t.) But then Mr. Bush has a habit of accepting poor advice.

When the President should have been pursuing the struggle against Al Qaeda, framing a broad international strategy against Islamist extremism and erecting massive defenses at home, he decided to invade Iraq. Why he became so determined to wage that “pre-emptive war” remains unclear, although the fact that the overthrow of the weak Iraq regime was “doable” surely influenced him.

To what extent the President was misled about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein-and to what extent he misled the public-is still a matter of intense debate. What cannot be disputed is that he made the wrong decisions about Iraq. He ignored wise counsel about the consequences, costs and requirements of an invasion. He credulously bought into the pipe dreams of a cheap and easy triumph that would transform not only Iraq but the Middle East. He diverted material resources and personnel from the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. He neglected critical improvements in homeland security. He gravely damaged our diplomatic alliances, leaving America and the world more vulnerable to the serious perils developing in North Korea and Iran.

“Dead or alive.” On the anniversary of that pronouncement, 1,000 more Americans and over 10,000 Iraqis are dead, while Osama bin Laden is very much alive. A Misbegotten Diversion; A Monumental Tragedy