March 16, 2004
Weak on Terror
By PAUL KRUGMAN
My most immediate priority," Spain's new leader, José Luis Rodríguez
Zapatero, declared yesterday, "will be to fight terrorism." But he and
the voters who gave his party a stunning upset victory last Sunday don't
believe the war in Iraq is part of that fight. And the Spanish public
was also outraged by what it perceived as the Aznar government's attempt
to spin last week's terrorist attack for political purposes.
The Bush administration, which baffled the world when it used an attack
by Islamic fundamentalists to justify the overthrow of a brutal but
secular regime, and which has been utterly ruthless in its political
exploitation of 9/11, must be very, very afraid.
Polls suggest that a reputation for being tough on terror is just about
the only remaining political strength George Bush has. Yet this
reputation is based on image, not reality. The truth is that Mr. Bush,
while eager to invoke 9/11 on behalf of an unrelated war, has shown
consistent reluctance to focus on the terrorists who actually attacked
America, or their backers in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
This reluctance dates back to Mr. Bush's first months in office. Why,
after all, has his inner circle tried so hard to prevent a serious
investigation of what happened on 9/11? There has been much speculation
about whether officials ignored specific intelligence warnings, but what
we know for sure is that the administration disregarded urgent pleas by
departing Clinton officials to focus on the threat from Al Qaeda.
After 9/11, terrorism could no longer be ignored, and the military
conducted a successful campaign against Al Qaeda's Taliban hosts. But
the failure to commit sufficient U.S. forces allowed Osama bin Laden to
escape. After that, the administration appeared to lose interest in Al
Qaeda; by the summer of 2002, bin Laden's name had disappeared from Mr.
Bush's speeches. It was all Saddam, all the time.
This wasn't just a rhetorical switch; crucial resources were pulled off
the hunt for Al Qaeda, which had attacked America, to prepare for the
overthrow of Saddam, who hadn't. If you want confirmation that this
seriously impeded the fight against terror, just look at reports about
the all-out effort to capture Osama that started, finally, just a few
days ago. Why didn't this happen last year, or the year before?
According to The New York Times, last year many of the needed forces
were tied up in Iraq.
It's now clear that by shifting his focus to Iraq, Mr. Bush did Al Qaeda
a huge favor. The terrorists and their Taliban allies were given time to
regroup; the resurgent Taliban once again control almost a third of
Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda has regained the ability to carry out
But Mr. Bush's lapses in the struggle against terrorism extend beyond
his decision to give Al Qaeda a breather. His administration has also
run interference for Saudi Arabia — the home of most of the 9/11
hijackers, and the main financier of Islamic extremism — and Pakistan,
which created the Taliban and has actively engaged in nuclear
Some of the administration's actions have been so strange that those who
reported them were initially accused of being nutty conspiracy
theorists. For example, what are we to make of the post-9/11 Saudi
airlift? Just days after the attack, at a time when private air travel
was banned, the administration gave special clearance to flights that
gathered up Saudi nationals, including a number of members of the bin
Laden family, who were in the U.S. at the time. These Saudis were then
allowed to leave the country, after at best cursory interviews with the
And the administration is still covering up for Pakistan, whose
government recently made the absurd claim that large-scale shipments of
nuclear technology and material to rogue states — including North Korea,
according to a new C.I.A. report — were the work of one man, who was
promptly pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf. Mr. Bush has allowed
this farce to go unquestioned.
So when the Bush campaign boasts of the president's record in fighting
terrorism and accuses John Kerry of being weak on the issue, when
Republican congressmen suggest that a vote for Mr. Kerry is a vote for
Osama, remember this: the administration's actual record is one of
indulgence toward regimes that are strongly implicated in terrorism, and
of focusing on actual terrorist threats only when forced to by events.