If you’re reading this blog, you’re no doubt familiar with the basic outline of Peter Bergen’s argument in this new piece on how Bush blew the fight against al-Qaeda, but Bergen does an excellent job of highlighting one important but often neglected aspect of this, namely the extent to which al-Qaeda was really on the ropes in early 2002. Al-Qaeda was never that big, had been dealt a major blow with the Taliban booted from power, and hadn’t a friend in the world. One can’t know for sure, but there appears to be every reason to think that a focused, determined, responsible effort to stabilize and secure Afghanistan while simultaneously deploying the dread “law enforcement and intelligence” against whoever might be hiding elsewhere could have crushed the organization.
Obviously, that wouldn’t have been an end to the troubles of the Muslim world or to have America’s problems vis-à-vis the broader Middle East. But it really might have been an end to al-Qaeda.
Instead, for reasons that remain murky, the administration decided even before Tora Bora to start focusing its resources (not just money and personnel and equipment but also diplomatic capital and perhaps the scarcest resource of all: attention) on Iraq, resulting in what James Fallows has brilliantly dubbed “Bush’s Lost Year”. Everything seems to flow from the fact that the Bush administration didn’t and doesn’t really take al-Qaeda in particular or transnational terrorism in general all that seriously as a problem. The administration campaigned on the idea that the Clinton administration lacked focus and didn’t mention terrorism as a priority that Bush intended to focus on. After the election, incoming Bush officials were briefed about the level of attention the outgoing Clinton team was giving to al-Qaeda from which they concluded that the Clintonites were too obsessed with terrorism. The Bush administration slow-walked Richard Clarke’s proposals to step-up activities against al-Qaeda.
And then after 9/11, it’s all been the same thing. Al-Qaeda is a super-important threat when the priority that has to give way to counterterrorism is something like the fourth amendment (warrantless wiretapping) or the sixth amendment (indefinite detention) or the eighth amendment (torture) or international or domestic law more generally, but when the competing priority is picking fights with Iraq or Iran or missile defense or Virginia Class submarines or tax cuts or West Bank settlers well then that’s a different story.