The only thing more predictable than Americans' jubilation over the killing of Osama Bin Laden is the Republican campaign to give George W. Bush credit for it. Sadly for the right-wing propaganda machine, as Stephen Colbert warned President Bush five years ago, "reality has a well-known liberal bias." Bush, after all, shrugged off Bin Laden's escape after the U.S. failure at Tora Bora by proclaiming, "I truly am not that concerned about him." And it was President Obama who as promised tripled American resources in Afghanistan and authorized unilateral strikes without the permission of Pakistan.
But you'd never know it from the conservative voices celebrating the death of Bin Laden eight years to the day after President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. While GOP leaders like Eric Cantor couldn't bring themselves to credit Barack Obama by name, John Yoo, Karl Rove, Rep. Steve King and other cheerleaders for the Bush torture team dubiously claimed so-called enhanced interrogation techniques like waterboarding provided the vital information leading to Bin Laden's killing.
"All of this was made possible by the relentless, sustained pressure on al Qaeda that the Bush administration initiated after 9/11 and that the Obama administration has wisely chosen to continue."
Of course, Rumsfeld's revisionist history is untrue. More pathetic still, he knows it is untrue.
For starters, it was Donald Rumsfeld himself who cancelled the 2005 U.S. special forces operation designed to "snatch and grab" Ayman Al Zawahiri and other senior Al Qaeda leaders. The story, following July 2006 revelations that the CIA had previously disbanded its Bin Laden unit, gives lie to one of the central tenets of the so-called Bush Doctrine: no safe havens for terrorists. As the New York Times reported in July 2007, Rumsfeld ran roughshod over then CIA Director Porter Goss, scuttling the mission at the last moment even as the U.S. forces were boarding planes for the assault:
But the mission was called off after Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, rejected an 11th-hour appeal by Porter J. Goss, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, officials said. Members of a Navy Seals unit in parachute gear had already boarded C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan when the mission was canceled, said a former senior intelligence official involved in the planning.
Mr. Rumsfeld decided that the operation, which had ballooned from a small number of military personnel and C.I.A. operatives to several hundred, was cumbersome and put too many American lives at risk, the current and former officials said. He was also concerned that it could cause a rift with Pakistan, an often reluctant ally that has barred the American military from operating in its tribal areas, the officials said.
In contrast, candidate Barack Obama was crystal clear that he would unilaterally strike Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan with or without permission from Islamabad.
In August 2007, as you'll recall, Senator Obama received a hellstorm of criticism for his statements regarding attacking Al Qaeda bases in Pakistan. As part of a broad - and forceful - foreign policy speech on August 1, Obama rightly took the Bush administration to task for the failure of its "no safe havens" doctrine in Pakistan. Regarding the Al Qaeda sanctuary safely nestled along the Afghan border, Obama declared:
"If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."
And while Republican presidential candidate John McCain in February 2008 blasted Obama's advocacy of unilateral American attacks against Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan, by the beginning of that year the Bush administration itself was already carrying them out.
From almost the inception of his campaign, Obama argued that the diversion of U.S. military assets from Afghanistan to Iraq meant that "the people who were responsible for murdering 3,000 Americans on 9/11 have not been brought to justice." In a June speech, Obama highlighted McCain's denial of this inescapable point:
"We had al Qaeda and the Taliban on the run back in 2002. But then we diverted military, intelligence, financial, and diplomatic resources to Iraq. And yet Senator McCain has said as recently as this April that, 'Afghanistan is not in trouble because of our diversion to Iraq.' I think that just shows a dangerous misjudgment of the facts, and a stubborn determination to ignore the need to finish the fight in Afghanistan."
During a major national security address on July 15, 2008, candidate Obama restated his case:
"The greatest threat to that security lies in the tribal regions of Pakistan, where terrorists train and insurgents strike into Afghanistan. We cannot tolerate a terrorist sanctuary, and as President, I won't. We need a stronger and sustained partnership between Afghanistan, Pakistan and NATO to secure the border, to take out terrorist camps, and to crack down on cross-border insurgents. We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region. And we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights."
Throughout the summer and fall of 2008, the Pentagon and U.S. commanders in the field made clear they agreed with both Barack Obama's assessment of the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and his call for deploying additional resources there.
That July, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and American commander there (and incoming CENTCOM chief) General David Petraeus acknowledged Al Qaeda was shifting its focus back to Afghanistan and Pakistan. By August, the Pentagon was backing Obama's call to send at least two more brigades to the region, reinforcements which as he rightly noted could only come from one place.
General David McKiernan, Stanley McChrystal's predecessor on the ground in Afghanistan, agreed with Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen that the situation along the Pakistan frontier is "precarious and urgent." As McKiernan himself made clear, the only "way" was to get the troops from Iraq:
Finding those particular troops to supplement the 101st, however, depends on conditions and troop levels in Iraq, adds McKiernan, who took over the NATO command in June. "That's really a zero-sum decision."
In early July 2008, Admiral Mullen admitted as much. On the very day that 2,200 U.S Marines learned their tours in Afghanistan will be extended by 30 days, Mullen told reporters that the United States could only deploy more forces there by first drawing down from Iraq:
"I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq. Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there."
In 2009, now President Obama took the steps to remedy the under-funded, under-resourced and floundering American effort in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unlike John McCain, who on July 17, 2003 declared the U.S. "can muddle through" in Afghanistan while focusing on Iraq, Obama tripled the U.S. force on the ground. As the President explained in his December 1, 2009 speech at West Point:
"When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war. Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the reemergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive. And that's why, shortly after taking office, I approved a longstanding request for more troops. After consultations with our allies, I then announced a strategy recognizing the fundamental connection between our war effort in Afghanistan and the extremist safe havens in Pakistan. I set a goal that was narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies, and pledged to better coordinate our military and civilian efforts."
That same month, General Stanley McChrystal echoed Defense Secretary Robert Gates' admission there hadn't been good intelligence on the Al Qaeda leader's whereabouts in "years." Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee one week after a scathing report documenting the U.S. failure to capture Bin Laden when he was "within our grasp" at Tora Bora in December 2001, General McChrystal emphasized the costs of that defeat:
"I believe he is an iconic figure at this point whose survival emboldens al Qaida as a franchise organization across the world. I don't think we can defeat him until he is captured or killed."
That language is a far cry from President Bush's pooh-poohing of the Bin Laden threat in the aftermath of the Tora Bora fiasco. That nonchalance was on display during Bush's March 13, 2002 press conference:
Q: But don't you believe that the threat that bin Laden posed won't truly be eliminated until he is found either dead or alive?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, as I say, we haven't heard much from him. And I wouldn't necessarily say he's at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don't know where he is. I -- I'll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him.
Of course, when the threat to President Bush's political prospects rose, so did the specter of Bin Laden. As he faced a tough reelection fight against John Kerry, the same Bush who promised after 9/11 to get Bin Laden "dead or alive" pretended on October 13, 2004 he never claimed he was "not that concerned about him".
"Gosh, I just don't think I ever said I'm not worried about Osama bin Laden. It's kind of one of those exaggerations. Of course we're worried about Osama bin Laden."
It would have been helpful if President Bush had been worried about Osama Bin Laden when it could have made a difference. Bush, after all, responded to the infamous August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Brief (the one Condoleezza Rice later told the 9/11 Commission, "I believe the title was, 'Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States.'") by telling his CIA briefer:
"All right. You've covered your ass, now."
According to one Israeli source years later, it was precisely Bin Laden's ass Bush was focused on. In a review of a 2007 biography of Ariel Sharon, the Israeli paper Ha'aretz included this purported exchange between President Bush and the now-comatose Sharon:
Speaking of George Bush, with whom Sharon developed a very close relationship, Uri Dan recalls that Sharon's delicacy made him reluctant to repeat what the president had told him when they discussed Osama bin Laden. Finally he relented. And here is what the leader of the Western world, valiant warrior in the battle of cultures, promised to do to bin Laden if he caught him: "I will screw him in the ass!"
Whether that story was apocryphal or not, George W. Bush did not screw Osama Bin Laden in the ass. And, sadly for the Republican propaganda machine, he wasn't responsible for killing him, either.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)