NEW YORK--"We've shown the world New York can never be defeated," Mayor Michael Bloomberg told delegates at this week's Republican National Convention. Nice sentiment, but utterly untrue. Three years after terrorists wiped out zip code 10048, revised maps of lower Manhattan still read "former World Trade Center site." Thanks to a wounded economy and only token help from the federal government, the WTC-replacement Freedom Tower may never go up. Worst of all, no one has done anything to avenge the deaths of the 2,801 murdered New Yorkers.
Though the war against Iraq has galvanized the anti-Bush opposition, from the far left to moderate Republicans, the carnage has served the Bush Administration well as a distraction from its cowardly, inept and self-serving early responses to 9/11. Thanks to Michael Moore, we know that Bush had a fratboy-in-the-headlights moment after being told that planes were flying into buildings. But the fog of the Iraq war has so obscured Bush's behavior that even his opponents buy into the myth of a resolute commander-in-chief, neither shaken nor stirred, who grew in stature as he rose to meet the dreadful challenge posed by the horrible day.
On 9/11 Mythic Bush rushed to reassure his subjects that everything was fine and that he would promptly kick whatever asses needed kicking. Real Bush turned tail and ran like a girlie boy, hopscotching Air Force One from Florida to Louisiana to Nebraska. The American people heard nothing from their head of state until over four hours later, when a man clearly in way over his head broadcast an assurance that other officials would carry out "the functions of your government." Half a day later, he snuck back into D.C. under cover of night. The speech everyone remembers, the one atop The Pile with the firefighter, happened three days later--after Bush's underwear had undergone a thorough bleaching.
Among Democrats as well as Republicans, the invasion of Iraq somehow sucked all memory of the wimpy Real Bush down a media memory hole. The more you despise the war, after all, the more you tend to view its chief proponent as a vicious, venal and greedy man--an image of pigheadedness that's hard to square with the scaredy-cat Real Bush.
Iraq has had a similar effect on our memory of the Administration's first major reaction to 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan. "Our military has done an absolutely terrific job in Afghanistan, which is a war I supported," said even Howard Dean, the Democrats' most prominent Iraq war opponent. Yet, as we would see later in Iraq, the Administration's constantly shifting rationales for war against Afghanistan make no more sense than the lies used to justify taking out Saddam. Let's go through them:
Al-Qaeda attacked us on 9/11. Maybe, maybe not. In late September 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell promised to "put out a paper ... that will describe clearly the evidence that we have linking" al-Qaeda to 9/11. We're still waiting. Osama bin Laden, who claimed credit for the East Africa embassy bombings and other terrorist acts, denied involvement in 9/11. "I have already said that I am not involved in the 11 September attacks in the United States," bin Laden told a Pakistani newspaper. "As a Muslim, I try my best to avoid telling a lie." And the famous Osama "confession video," proven by European media outlets to have been overdubbed and intentionally mistranslated by U.S. officials, is nothing of the sort. What we do know is that all 19 hijackers belonged to Islamic Jihad, based in Egypt. But rather than insist that Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarek turn over the group's leaders for questioning, Bush sent him more money and weapons. Islamic Jihad remains free to attack us again.
Osama was in Afghanistan. Certainly not. Afghan witnesses told reporters they saw bin Laden and his entourage leave the country shortly before 9/11. CBS News places him in a military hospital in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, where he received treatment for a bum kidney on the day of the attacks. This much is certain: when the U.S. went to war on October 6, 2001, U.S. officials knew that Afghanistan was the one nation on earth where Osama was not.
Al-Qaeda was in Afghanistan. Only partly, and not mostly. As Steve Coll notes Ghost Wars, his comprehensive study of the covert struggles in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda's core group of anti-Soviet mujahedeen veterans came together around Osama in Peshawar in western Pakistan. Arms and fighters were funneled through western Pakistan and Pakistani Kashmir, financed by Saudi money routed through Pakistani banks and protected by the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence agency. Stating that al-Qaeda was in Afghanistan is like saying that the U.S. financial industry is in San Francisco because it has a small stock exchange and a few big banks. You can't cripple Wall Street by taking out Market Street. Bush went after Afghanistan--a back lot of ramshackle camps--while leaving Pakistan, the center of south Asian jihadiism and then as now the site of most of al-Qaeda's training facilities, intact. Even if you believe that al-Qaeda carried out 9/11, Afghanistan should have been a secondary rather than a primary target of retaliation. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, on the other hand ...
The Taliban were despicable. True. But while everyone deplores the Bamiyan Buddha bombings and the subjugation of Afghan women, Taliban atrocities were unrelated to 9/11.
Liberal conventional wisdom on Iraq--that it distracted us from the real war on terror in Afghanistan, that it pulled resources from a just war to one of choice--is itself a distraction from a broader, more damning truth.
Bush launched two wars he now admits we can't win, threw thousands of innocent people into concentration camps, trashed the Geneva Conventions and ordered our troops to commit torture and murder. Bush has been a busy man since 9/11. But Iraq didn't derail a war on terror that started out as a noble enterprise. Since the very beginning, Bush has never lifted a finger to go in earnest after the bastards who attacked us 156 Tuesdays ago.
Ted Rall is the author of two new books, Wake Up, You're Liberal!: How We Can Take America Back From the Right and Generalissimo El Busho: Essays and Cartoons on the Bush Years. Ordering information is available at amazon.com.
Copyright 2004 Ted Rall
Distributed by Universal Press Syndicate/Ted Rall