Michael Abramowitz has a good piece in today’s Washington Post about how the just-released National Intelligence Estimate underscores the folly of leaving our unfinished business in Afghanistan to invade Iraq:
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush has been able to deflect criticism of his counterterrorism policy by repeatedly noting the absence of any new domestic attacks and by citing the continuing threat that terrorists in Iraq pose to U.S. interests.
But this line of defense seemed to unravel a bit yesterday with the release of a new National Intelligence Estimate that concludes that al-Qaeda “has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability” by reestablishing a haven in Pakistan and reconstituting its top leadership. The report also notes that al-Qaeda has been able “to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks,” by associating itself with an Iraqi subsidiary.
These disclosures triggered a new round of criticism from Democrats and others who say that the administration took its eye off the ball by invading Iraq without first destroying Osama bin Laden’s organization in Afghanistan.
Confronted with a political brush fire, the president and his aides retreated to familiar ground, highlighting the parts of the report that they saw as supportive of their policies, particularly the need to confront Islamic radicals on the ground in Iraq.
In talking with reporters in the Oval Office yesterday, Bush concentrated on a single paragraph in the assessment that placed the enemy in Iraq in a larger context of international terrorism. The estimate said bin Laden’s organization will “probably seek to leverage the contacts and capabilities of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, its most visible and capable affiliate and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the Homeland.”
Although only a portion of the instability in Iraq is attributed to al-Qaeda and the group had no substantial power base there before the U.S. invasion, Bush again cast the war as a battle against its members, whom his aides have described as key provocateurs there.
“These people have sworn allegiance to the very same man who ordered the attack on September the 11th, 2001: Osama bin Laden,” the president said. “And they want us to leave parts of the world, like Iraq, so they can establish a safe haven from which to spread their poisonous ideology. And we are steadfast in our determination to not only protect the American people, but to protect these young democracies.”
Steve Benen wrote several posts exploring the implications of the NIE’s findings. The Bush administration apparently believed that releasing the results of the NIE now would bolster their rationale for staying in Iraq, but that strategy backfired badly:
By all indications, the White House released the declassified National Intelligence Estimate report yesterday for political gain. The Bush gang swears the timing was coincidental, but there’s no reason to give the president the benefit of the doubt — the White House could have released the report at any time. Team Bush decided to wait until the afternoon of a major Senate debate on Iraq.
The ironic part of this, of course, is that the NIE should be humiliating for the White House. Bush and his congressional allies seized on the report as some kind of evidence that the war in Iraq must continue. More generally, the same GOP machine seems to believe that almost any reference at all to al Qaeda necessarily bolsters supporters of the status quo in Iraq.
But let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees — this report is awful news for the United States.
Daniel L. Byman, a former intelligence officer and the director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown, said the NIE itself might just as well have been headlined: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” — the warning Bush ignored in August 2001.
Indeed, as an NYT editorial noted, an “honest reading” of the report leads to “a powerful rebuke” of Bush’s “approach to the war on terror.” The Times added, “It vindicates those who say that the Iraq war is a distraction from the real fight against terrorism — a fight that is not going at all well.”
A separate piece on the administration’s reaction to the report was equally blunt: “President Bush’s top counterterrorism advisers acknowledged Tuesday that the strategy for fighting Osama bin Laden’s leadership of Al Qaeda in Pakistan had failed.” …
Earlier today, Steve wrote about a press briefing at which Fran Townsend, White House Homeland Security Advisor, tried to deflect some tough questioning from Ed Henry of CNN:
Yesterday, White House Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend held a press briefing, ostensibly to tell reporters about the new National Intelligence Estimate, but more accurately, to put the Bush gang’s spin on the devastating report. There was one exchange that was particularly important (TPM has a clip).
CNN’s Ed Henry, to his credit, pointed out that Bush was specifically warned, before he launched an invasion of Iraq, that the war would likely embolden al Qaeda and give the terrorists “more opportunities to expand its influence.” Sure enough, Henry noted, the NIE highlights the fact that al Qaeda has made gains thanks to our ongoing presence in Iraq and is anxious to take advantage of those gains by attacking Americans. “So doesn’t this report show that the war in Iraq has made America less safe?”
After Townsend took part of the NIE out of context, this was the exchange:
TOWNSEND: These are people [AQI] who have a relationship with al Qaeda core. These are people who are in Iraq, attacking us there, and they’ve made Iraq their end-all, be-all. They don’t –
Q It says, to energize a broader Sunni extremist community, raise resources, and recruit and indoctrinate operatives. You don’t consider those gains for al Qaeda?
MS. TOWNSEND: Well, there’s no question that their objective. There’s no question, in any war, whether it’s this war or historical wars, that our enemy seeks to take advantage for propaganda purposes of activities on the battlefield and actions on the battlefield. This doesn’t –
Q The President was warned before the war that that would happen, that al Qaeda would try to use the war for recruitment, to expand its influence.
MS. TOWNSEND: Okay, so what’s the answer to that? So we should leave them and we should not disturb our enemies anywhere in the world because they may use it for propaganda value? I don’t think so.
At first blush, this might even sound reasonable. Townsend is effectively saying, “We’re making al Qaeda mad. Of course we’re making al Qaeda mad. We want to make al Qaeda mad. Even if the terrorists try to use our confrontation for propaganda, we’ll keep hitting them anyway.”
It all sounds perfectly persuasive until you stop for a moment and appreciate the fact that Townsend was speaking in circles.
Josh Marshall, who cut Ed Henry slack for not being able to parry Townsend’s spin in real-time, explained that the White House line doesn’t apply to Iraq at all.
This would be a decent response if people were making it as an argument against our invasion of Afghanistan, because that was after all al Qaeda’s base of operation. We were attacking them where they were. So it would be silly or at least a weak argument to say we shouldn’t have attacked Afghanistan just because al Qaeda would use the attack as a propaganda tool against us. As Townsend’s logic suggests, sure they might use it for their media campaign. But that’s far outweighed by the benefit of destroying their sanctuary.
But that’s the heart of the issue, the one Townsend dodges and which Henry unfortunately didn’t press. Iraq wasn’t a sanctuary or recruiting or training ground for al Qaeda before we invaded [underscored in TPM post]. This has now been as definitively established as proving a negative ever can be. So, contra Townsend, it really is a zero sum game for us since we did nothing to hurt al Qaeda by invading Iraq — they weren’t there and had no prospect of being there. But we did help them almost immeasurably by giving the whole organization a new lease on life for recruitment, fundraising and more. And the rising unpopularity of the United States in the Muslim world because of the invasion has undoubtedly played a large role in preventing Pervez Musharraf from keeping al Qaeda from reestablishing itself in Pakistan.
Exactly. Perhaps Townsend understands game theory, perhaps not, but this is a dynamic in which we engaged in a confrontation which benefited our enemy twice — we backed off pursuit of al Qaeda in Afghanistan, giving the network a chance to regroup and grow stronger, and we foolishly launched an unnecessary war that ended up making al Qaeda’s recruiting and fundraising easier. We lose more of what we want, they gain more of what they want. It’s almost the definition of a zero-sum game.
And getting back to Ed Henry’s question, Bush was warned about the likelihood of this specific outcome, but he launched the war anyway.
As Josh concluded, “The White House has no excuse and no answer.”