It might as well have been Michael Moore–or the New York Times.
It is hard to react any other way to “Pakistan for Bush. July Surprise?” That was the kooky story trumpeted late last week by the usually more responsible “progressives” at The New Republic. Putting down their “Bush is an imbecile” playbook momentarily to draw from their “Bush is a diabolical genius” script, the fellas at TNR (the ordinarily reasonable John Judis, joined by Spencer Ackerman and Massoud Ansari) contend that the imperious president has ordered Pakistan to capture Osama bin Laden–not to promote national security, not to smash al Qaeda, but to interrupt the four-day infomercial otherwise known as the Democratic National Convention.
Essentially, there are two ways of looking at this story. Either it is no news at all and wasn’t worth publishing or it is so silly as not to be worthy of publishing. Here’s the no-news part (you’ll want to be sitting down for this): The United States would like to capture or kill the leaders of the international terrorist network with whom we’ve been at war since the 9/11 attacks nearly three years ago.
Now for the unworthy part: The capture or kill is to be on a date certain in order to rain on John Kerry’s coronation parade. Who says? TNR’s sources are none less than operatives of the notorious Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), which generally has all the scruples of . . . well, a Michael Moore. All those scruples and they’re dangerous: assuming bin Laden is actually living and breathing today, it is no small thanks to the ISI, which forged formidable ties with the Arab Afghan contingents of the mujahideen back during their decade of war with the Soviets–i.e., the formative years of al Qaeda, when bin Laden transformed himself from Saudi plutocrat to master terrorist. Militant sympathies continue to run deep and wide in the ISI, despite General Pervez Musharraf’s occasional efforts to crack down.
According to three anonymous (naturally) ISI-connected sources, a veritable assembly line of the Bush administration’s heaviest foreign-policy hitters (CIA Director George Tenet, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and others) have trouped to Islamabad to demand that the Musharraf government put a full-court press on al Qaeda, whose upper crust has long been suspected of having burrowed into Pakistan’s lawless tribal enclaves (among many other places). TNR concedes that, if this in fact is true, it would be a good thing–there being a war on and al Qaeda being the enemy and all that. But through the alchemy of electoral politics, or at least the Left’s perception thereof, good transforms into sinister when its source is President Bush.
So, for TNR, there must be a catch, which those paragons of rectitude down at the ISI are only too happy to provide. Thus, the “latest pressures from the U.S. administration” are driven by the “[upcoming] U.S. elections” (brackets in original), and have led to the unprecedented introduction of “target dates” into the equation. An official attached to the ISI directorate darkly recounts that “[t]he last ten days of July deadline has been given repeatedly by visitors to Islamabad”–in fact, the message has been conveyed, “it would be best if the arrest or killing” of high-value al Qaeda players could be accomplished by the Pakistanis in time to be “announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight July”–which, TNR is quick to add lest we miss the hint, are “the first three days of the Democratic National Convention in Boston.” Judis and company do not tell us whether Powell or Tenet or Fox News have told the Pakistanis what time the arrest or killing should take place.
Of course, the notion of a timetable for the capture or demise of bin Laden or his sidekick, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is absurd on its face. To hear Richard Clarke tell it, the U.S. has been trying to “snatch” bin Laden since at least mid-1998, when Clarke was counterterrorism czar and the Clinton administration filed a sealed indictment against the al Qaeda chief in New York so a legal vehicle would be in place to facilitate extradition or rendition. For his part, former President Clinton has been telling anyone who would listen that getting bin Laden was his highest priority (right), and that he nearly smoked him with a cruise missile a few days after bin Laden smoked our embassies. But the slippery son-of-a-gun managed, again, to slither away. Since 9/11, meanwhile, we have moved heaven and earth to find him, as intelligence sources have placed him in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Iraq, and, for all we know, Miami. Now, after six years of this, we are to believe, Bush expects him to be found, in Pakistan, by two weeks from tomorrow at high noon.
And why? Because, TNR explains, President Bush’s poll numbers on his handling of the “war on terror” have declined precipitously, threatening his reelection. Bush, so the rationale goes, figures the best way to bounce the numbers back up to form would be to bag bin Laden at the very moment all of America is riveted to the convention stem-winders of those two lovable Johns, Kerry and Edwards–provided their staffs can pry them apart long enough to speechify separately (and, by the way, what is up with that?).
Evidently, we are in the dog days of an election year when there is not a lot to write about. It might be useful for a few moments, though, to think back to last December. Then, in rapid succession, three events occurred which tell you all you need to know about TNR’s conspiracy theory.
One was the unearthing of Saddam Hussein from the now-famous spider hole. This after months of searching and years of Saddam’s vying with bin Laden for Numero Uno on America’s Most Reviled List. Some bounce did the president get for that capture, remember? It lasted about ten minutes. That is, we were lucky to find Saddam; no one in his right mind would have put a timetable on it; and even when we did it, the impact on the polls was about as feeble and fleeting as the bump Kerry is now getting from Edwards.
Which is to say, the impact was not much. To pursue the analogy for a moment, whatever the strengths of Edwards that may inject a quick buzz, Kerry, in the long run, is still Kerry, and he’s just not that exciting a guy, even for Democrats–to whom his chief asset is that he is not Bush. The president has a similar problem: Catching Saddam was great (just as catching bin Laden would be), but after a momentary surge, Iraq in the long run was still Iraq–a righteous but exceedingly difficult cause in which American soldiers were still in harm’s way, and to which Americans quickly and soberly redirected their attention. The president is going to be reelected or not based on his overall stewardship of the great challenges of our day, not because of a blip that temporarily spikes a poll.
The other two December 2003 events? They were both very nearly successful efforts by Islamic militants to murder President Musharraf in Rawalpindi. How much of an inside job either of these assassination attempts was is unknown to us–although it’s a good bet the ISI knows. But the sad point is this: Pakistan is a volatile, unpredictable place. As the Bush administration well knows, Musharraf can’t guarantee that he’ll be around for the Democratic convention, much less that he’ll be able to deliver for prime time terrorists whom we, with all our resources, haven’t managed to find in several years of combing topography that makes Iraq and its spider holes a comparative flatland.
As a cautionary tale, TNR’s report also brings home the bottomless potential the political junkie has for miniaturizing his world. In Boston, in the frenzy of late July, all eyes will be on…the Red Sox, who should by then be just about positioned to begin their annual descent into heartbreak. Elsewhere in America, eyes will be trained elsewhere in America. One place they will not be gazing much is the Democratic National Convention.
That’s not a knock on the Democrats–no one will be watching the Republicans the next month either. It’s not 1960 or 1976 anymore. The nominating campaigns have been over, already, for months. The conventions are anachronisms, devoid of drama and no longer the gems of a three-network universe that allowed them a singular grip on our national attention.
If you were a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist, maybe–though I doubt it–it could make sense that some omniscient puppeteer would try to schedule the unschedulable for, say, 72 hours before the election. But before the Democratic convention? For what? Bush isn’t trying to edge out ER reruns in the July Nielsens. He’s trying to win a second term. That doesn’t happen in July.
Finally, even though TNR’s story fails the laugh test, one has to admire, in a cynical way, how much better the Left is at the all-form-and-no-substance politics of our age–the politics in which the story was never what Bill Clinton actually did but the assertedly masterful way it was “compartmentalized,” “spun,” or otherwise dished. The story today is never the story but how and why the story is told. Bad policy is good policy because its proponents are so well-intentioned. Similarly, good policy, like catching or killing the enemy with whom we are at war, can always be framed as bad policy because the proponents’ hearts are never pure enough. In this case, they may be, gasp!, politicians who want to win an election–what must Senator Kerry think of something so crass?
So President Bush wants to catch bin Laden before Election Day. Given that, if he loses the election, he won’t have the opportunity to catch bin Laden any longer, exactly when does TNR suppose he should try to get this catching done? And if he doesn’t want to catch bin Laden before Election Day, why should anyone vote for him? In any event, it’s a sign of the times that an administration should now have to explain itself for having the gall to try to win a war and an election.
–Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is an NRO contributor. McCarthy is reachable through www.benadorassociates.com.