Losing Focus

A year ago, in his address to the nation, President Bush vowed, “I will not yield, I will not rest, I will not relent” in leading the war against terror. For about five months, it appeared that he intended to carry through on this solemn commitment–the war in Afghanistan was waged with vigor and dispatch, and Al Qaeda was severely damaged. But since January, the president has turned American attention and resources away from Al Qaeda to lead a crusade against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, pushing the anti-terrorism campaign to the sidelines.

The ominous consequences of this shift are fully evident:

  • The Taliban has lost control of Afghanistan, but American forces have failed to establish law and order in areas outside of Kabul. Well-armed bands of Taliban fighters have joined local warlords in challenging Hamid Karzai’s U.S.-backed government. Afghanistan is once again a breeding ground for terrorism.
  • Significant elements of the Al Qaeda network have regrouped in Pakistan and elsewhere. Although pursued by America’s covert warriors and other friendly forces, Al Qaeda remnants continue to attack U.S. facilities, like the American consulate in Karachi.
  • Al Qaeda and allied groups have reconstituted their international financial links. A recent UN report says the terrorists have circumvented U.S. controls on conventional bank transactions by relying on the underground trade in diamonds, gems, and precious metals.

These developments are partly due to the inherent difficulty of eradicating a well-established, multinational terrorist network. But they are also the product of inadequate White House leadership.

To prevail in the war against terrorism, U.S. leaders must devote their full attention to the day-to-day struggle against Al Qaeda, and continue to build international support in efforts to disable global terrorist links. President Bush stressed all this in his earliest statements a year ago.

But since January, Mr. Bush has focused his subordinates on a different campaign. For example, Gen. Tommy R. Franks, head of the U.S. Central Command and the leader of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is spending most of his time devising plans for an invasion of Iraq. Meantime, Bush’s crusade against Iraq has alienated foreign leaders whose help we need in the war against terrorism, allowing Al Qaeda breathing space and time to regroup.

To justify this policy shift, President Bush and his aides have argued that the campaign against Saddam is a natural continuation of the war against terrorism. But while the Iraqi leader has engaged in egregious behavior of all sorts and deserves international opprobrium and isolation, he had no part in the September 11 terror attacks and has no known ties to Al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations. Thus, going after Iraq is not a logical step in the war against terrorism–rather, it is a distraction.

As for Iraq, President Bush’s recent UN speech won favor and support from our European and Middle Eastern allies for now, and they continue to believe the best way to deal with Iraq is through the return of UN arms inspectors.

Without question, Mr. Bush’s threats did much to make that possible. But he has not foreclosed the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iraq. That would reverse global support for our policies, and more to the point, would greatly complicate our efforts to gain or maintain their cooperation in the more mundane but far more important task of tracking down Al Qaeda’s hidden operatives.

President Bush must re-focus. He must reaffirm his commitment to the war against terror and put aside his obsession with Saddam. The victims of September 11, their families and loved ones–and the rest of us–deserve no less.