Since Osama bin Laden's killing on May 1, it has become shockingly clear that the terrorist leader did not spend most of the last decade on the run or hiding in caves. He was holed up in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad enjoying the comforts of family life with his twenty-something-year-old latest wife.
And, while criticism has fallen on Pakistani authorities for being either complicit or incompetent, almost no attention has focused on the curious symbiotic relationship that has existed since 9/11 between Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush -- and even longer between the bin Laden family and the Bush family.
At nearly every turn, President George W. Bush acted -- presumably with incompetence, not complicity -- in ways that enabled bin Laden to remain free, and the terrorist leader repaid the favor by surfacing at key political moments to scare the American people back into Bush's arms.
Although Bush talked tough about getting bin Laden "dead or alive," he consistently failed to follow through. In November 2001, when bin Laden and his top lieutenants were cornered at the Tora Bora mountain range in eastern Afghanistan, Bush ordered the U.S. military to prematurely pivot toward planning the next war with Iraq.
According to a later Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, Bush's order to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to freshen up the plans for an Iraq invasion literally pulled Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the Central Command, away from planning the assault on Tora Bora.
The White House also rebuffed CIA appeals for the dispatch of 1,000 Marines to cut off bin Laden's escape routes, the report said. Denied the extra troops to catch bin Laden, U.S. Special Forces couldn't nab the terrorist leader before he made his getaway to Pakistan. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Finishing a Job: Obama Gets Osama."]
The hunt for bin Laden was soon put on the back burner. As the Washington Post reported on Friday, "A few months after Tora Bora, as part of the preparation for war in Iraq, the Bush administration pulled out many of the Special Operations and CIA forces that had been searching for bin Laden in Afghanistan, according to several U.S officials who served at the time."
Just six months after 9/11 and three months after bin Laden evaded capture at Tora Bora, Bush personally began downplaying the importance of capturing al-Qaeda's leader. "I don't know where he is," Bush told a news conference. "I really just don't spend that much time on him, to be honest with you."
Yet, with bin Laden at large, Bush enjoyed
an advantage. He could use the specter of bin Laden as an all-purpose
bogeyman to scare the American people. A living bin Laden allowed Bush
to create a plausible scenario for additional al-Qaeda attacks inside
the United States and thus the justification for Bush to assert
unprecedented powers as Commander in Chief.
Bush also cited the continued threat from bin Laden to stampede the American people and Congress into allowing the invasion of Iraq.
One of Bush's key arguments was that Iraq's Saddam Hussein might share weapons of mass destruction with bin Laden's operatives, even though Hussein, a secularist, and bin Laden, a fundamentalist, were mortal enemies in the Islamic world.
But the American people didn't know such details. Many fell in line behind Bush's claims, trusting him in the face of periodic panics over heightened, level-orange terrorist threats.
In 2003, the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Hussein further enhanced Bush's reputation as the heroic, self-proclaimed "war president." As Bush declared a premature "mission accomplished" in Iraq, he also consolidated his extraordinary claims of presidential powers.
But bin Laden was another winner. His escape from Tora Bora in 2001 not only burnished his reputation as an Islamic folk hero who had defied the Americans, but Bush's invasion of Iraq allowed bin Laden to recruit new terrorist cadre over resentments about the Iraq War.
By bogging down U.S. military and intelligence assets far from bin Laden's Pakistani hideouts, the Iraq War helped bin Laden in another way. His life-style improved. His growing sense of security led him to leave the rough tribal areas and begin to settle down in more civilized environs of Pakistan.