The Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera broadcast an audiotape today by Osama bin Laden, in which he said that more attacks against the United States were being prepared, while offering the possibility of a truce under unspecified conditions.
Press Conference by the President 3/13/2002:
Deep in my heart I know the man is on the run, if he’s alive at all. Who knows if he’s hiding in some cave or not; we haven’t heard from him in a long time. And the idea of focusing on one person is — really indicates to me people don’t understand the scope of the mission.
Terror is bigger than one person. And he’s just — he’s a person who’s now been marginalized. His network, his host government has been destroyed. He’s the ultimate parasite who found weakness, exploited it, and met his match. He is — as I mentioned in my speech, I do mention the fact that this is a fellow who is willing to commit youngsters to their death and he, himself, tries to hide — if, in fact, he’s hiding at all.
So I don’t know where he is. You know, I just don’t spend that much time on him, … to be honest with you.
The problem, of course, is that instead of rolling up al Qaeda, chasing down bin Laden, and rooting out terror cells wherever they remained, Bush started talking about Iraq, and within a year of that press conference, the Arabic specialists had been pulled out of Afghanistan to hunt for Saddam Hussein.
So it’s true that Bush doesn’t spend that much time on him. He didn’t before 9/11, and within months of that event, he wasn’t spending any more time on him. But that’s not a good thing.
Bin Laden may well be marginalized. His training bases are probably all destroyed. But he is incredibly powerful as a symbol. The young people of the world (a theme previously discussed yesterday, in discussing Iran, and in considering preemption) don’t quite have a fixed opinion of America, and bin Laden represents their fears about American power and influence. Letting him slip away allows that metaphoric power to persist, while his capture and trial would destroy it. Killing him in combat would make him the perfect martyr and symbol of American force.
Not spending that much time on bin Laden is a mistake that has cost us repeatedly.