"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 large-scale atrocities.
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 proliferation.
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 F.B.I.
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.
Originally published in The New York Times, 3.16.04