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Osama and George

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Today is Osama bin Laden's birthday, his 49th. An appropriate time to consider the strange similarities between the world's most notorious fugitive and the President of the United States.

Bin Laden is the 17th son of Muhammed Awad bin Laden, a fabulously wealthy contractor close to the Saudi royal family. In his twenties, Osama converted to Islamic fundamentalism and got involved in radical politics. In 1979 he joined the Afghani fight against the Russians. In 1988 Bin Laden founded Al Qaeda. Since 9/11, he's had a $25 million bounty on his head. Most experts say he's hiding in Waziristan, a wild region in northwest Pakistan, near the Afghan border.

Shortly after 9/11, George W. Bush invoked images of American frontier justice when he discussed the hunt for Bin Laden, "When I was a kid I remember that they used to put out there in the old west, a wanted poster. It said: 'Wanted, Dead or Alive.' All I want and America wants him brought to justice." Bush declared, "The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our number one priority and we will not rest until we find him."

Late in November 2001, Bin Laden and many Al Qaeda fighters were cornered in the remote Tora Bora region of Afghanistan. Then the U.S. made the decision to use Afghani mercenaries to capture the fugitives. Not surprisingly, they proved incapable of doing this. By the time American forces arrived, Bin Laden and most of his companions had slipped across the border into northwest Pakistan.

In March 2002, President Bush abruptly changed his story, "I don't know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority." Bush has a notoriously short attention span; his focus shifted from Bin Laden in Afghanistan-Pakistan to Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

There are striking similarities between Osama Bin Laden and George Bush: Both grew up in privileged circumstances. Both had strained relationships with their fathers. As young adults, both men were seen as disappointments.

Both fell under the spell of radical religion: Osama was swept up in Islamic Sunni fundamentalism, Wahhabism. This argues that the Koran (Qur'an) is literally true, that life should be lived by puritanical rules, and that women are second-class citizens. In his late thirties, George W converted to fundamentalist Christianity; he was "born again." Bush's version of Christianity teaches that the Bible is literally true, that life should be lived by puritanical rules, and that women are second-class citizens. Both have an ultra-conservative belief system that tells them that the world is inhabited by two kinds of people: believers and infidels. Paradoxically, both men believe in a God of love who directs them to kill non-believers.

Those who have met Osama and George say that neither is very swift. Two things account for their success: First, they both have clever advisers. Bin Laden has been greatly influenced by Ayman Zawahiri. Bush by Karl Rove.

Second, they both have a knack for saying things that resonate with the man on the street. Bin Laden tells the Arab street that Muslims need a new military-spiritual leader who will sanctify Muslim holy places, throw the US out of the Middle East, liberate Palestine, and get government to help them. Bush tells the American street that Christians need a new military-spiritual leader who will make the US a Christian nation, ensure that America rules the world, protects Israel, and gets government off their backs.

The accomplishments of both men have been greatly exaggerated. Osama's Al Qaeda didn't play a big role in the Russian defeat in Afghanistan. His leadership was often ill considered. Bin Laden is touted as the head of a huge terrorist network, but his connection to groups such as the Zarqawi-led Iraqi insurgents is tenuous at best. Bush was never a successful CEO. His accomplishments as Governor of Texas were greatly exaggerated. His tenure as President has been characterized by a series of epic blunders.

The speeches of both Osama and George are rambling and disjointed. They twist history and use faulty analogies. Both have trouble speaking in complete sentences, and clearly elucidating their position. While both have goals, neither has a coherent plan to accomplish them. Public opinion polls taken in Saudi Arabia and America indicate that their populations admire Bin Laden and Bush, respectively, but don't think much of them as leaders.

There you have it: Osama and George, two peas in a pod. People in America hate Bin Laden. Folks in the Middle East hate Bush. Neither can travel without a large coterie of bodyguards. Neither will grace the cover of People magazine.

So on Bin Laden's birthday, our course is clear. Let's make a deal with the Muslim world, a straight player exchange. They'll hand over Osama bin Laden and we'll deliver George W. Bush. No questions asked. What do you think, infidels?
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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