The most important book of this political season isn't Bob Woodward's "State of Denial." That book is a catch-up job on what some of us "shrill" liberals were writing four years ago, when the Iraq war's props were being assembled, and what a majority of the electorate suspected six years ago: President Bush doesn't know competence from Barney. Woodward's first two books about the administration were themselves in denial for being so admiring of the Bush junta. But they reflected the gullible mood Bush created on the ash-heap of Sept. 11 and abused to his administration's advantage until last summer, when Katrina exploded the illusion.
What we're left with is a presidency less credible than any since Watergate, three wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, "terror"), a world more dangerous and a nation less safe than six years ago, and two more years of the incompetence that got us here. Judging from the polls, which still give Bush a roughly 40 percent approval rating, there's still an awful lot of denial going on despite Woodward's confessions.
Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden is still vacationing somewhere in the Hindu Kush. Following Bush's lead, the rest of us still prefer to demonize him rather than study him. Which is why the most important book of the season is Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower." It's a history of al-Qaida's roots and development through Sept. 11. It's also a history of what we commonly refer to as America's intelligence services as they hunted al-Qaida, and more often hunted each other, on the way to enabling Sept. 11.
Wright's history draws two principal lessons. First, the 9/11 Commission underplayed how much the intelligence services were to blame for allowing Sept. 11 -- criminally so, if Wright's evidence is true. The CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency each, on its own, had vital information (and photographs) about meetings, phone conversations and eventual hijackers' travels and whereabouts. Those weren't needles in haystacks that required leaps of imagination to connect. They were hard evidence the agencies refused to share -- not because the law prevented them. That's a canard. But because turf battles amplified by personality conflicts and a clubbish culture got in the way. Judging from more recent reporting, little has changed. And neither the Patriot Act nor domestic spying gave intelligence and law enforcement tools they didn't already have to do their job without infringing on civil liberties, as those new laws do.
Second, al-Qaida is not much more than an assembly of rag-tag, fringe ideologies that barely have credit in the Islamic world. It isn't for nothing that in 1980s Afghanistan, the Arab fighters Osama cobbled together to fight the Soviets were called the "Brigade of the Ridiculous." They were useless then. Afghans scorned them. What successes they managed were entirely dependent on Osama's media savvy. None of the fighters, Osama among them, have ever had a clear idea of what they're fighting for beyond sophomoric ideals about a golden-age caliphate. That caliphate has about as much credibility among Muslims as a return to the Confederate States of America has among Southerners.
President Bush, Karl Rove and other members of the administration, campaigning in the few places where Other Republicans would let them, have been talking up Osama's agenda by comparing it to Hitler's "Mein Kampf." The more fitting comparison is with "My So-Called Jihad." Have a listen: Here's how Osama responded when the journalist Peter Arnett asked him what kind of society he would create if he had his way in, say, Saudi Arabia: "We are confident, with the permission of God, praise and glory be upon him, that Muslims will be victorious in the Arabian Peninsula and that God's religion, praise and glory be to him, will prevail in this peninsula. It is a great pride and a big hope that the revelation unto Mohammad, peace be upon him, will be resorted to for ruling. When we used to follow Mohammad's revelation, peace be upon him, we were in great happiness and in great dignity, to God belongs the credit and the praise."
That's Saturday Night Live material, not the sort of thing an Islamic revolution can hang its sword on. Al-Qaida's theology is no less crude and overwhelmingly rejected by mainstream Islam's clerics -- beginning with al-Qaida's cult of violence and death. But the administration bought the delusion whole, giving Osama the disproportionate fight he wants with the Great Satan and elevating him to an enemy status he could never manage on his own. Give him enough rope, and Osama will lynch himself in Arab and Muslim eyes. Instead, the Bush doctrine gives him ammunition and caps off the calculated paranoia by shackling America's liberties in the name of fear. When it comes to expediency covering up a hollow core, Osama has only one rival accomplice: George W. Bush.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at email@example.com or through his personal Web site at www.pierretristam.com
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