One thing that has always baffled me about the Bush team’s war effort in Iraq and against Al Qaeda is this: How could an administration that was so good at Swift-boating its political opponents at home be so inept at Swift-boating its geopolitical opponents abroad?
How could the Bush team Swift-boat John Kerry and Max Cleland — authentic Vietnam war heroes, whom the White House turned into surrendering pacifists in the war on terror — but never manage to Swift-boat Osama bin Laden, a genocidal monster, who today is still regarded in many quarters as the vanguard of anti-American “resistance.”
Dive into a conversation about America in the Arab world today, or even in Europe and Africa, and it won’t take 30 seconds before the words “Abu Ghraib” and “Guantánamo Bay” are thrown at you. Yes, both are shameful, but Abu Ghraib was a day at the beach compared to what Al Qaeda and its Sunni jihadist supporters have been doing in Iraq, yet none of their acts have become one-punch global insults like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.
Consider what happened on Aug. 14. Four jihadist suicide-bombers blew themselves up in two Iraqi villages, killing more than 500 Kurdish civilians — men, women and babies — who belonged to a tiny pre-Islamic sect known as the Yazidis.
And what was the Bush team’s response to this outrage? Virtual silence. After much Googling, the best I could find was: “ ‘We’re looking at Al Qaeda as the prime suspect,’ said Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman.” Wow.
Excuse me, but what exactly are we fighting for in Iraq, or in this wider war against Islamist extremism, if the murder of 500 civilians can be shrugged off? Even if we don’t know the exact perpetrators, we know who is inspiring this sort of genocide — Al Qaeda and bin Laden — and we need to say that every day.
Ask yourself this: If Osama bin Laden were running against George Bush for president, how would Karl Rove and Karen Hughes have handled the Yazidi murders? Within an hour, they’d have had a press release out saying: “This genocide of Iraqi civilians was inspired by bin Laden. We accuse bin Laden of the mass murder of 500 women and children. Bin Laden has killed more Iraqis and Muslims than any person alive. Support bin Laden and you support genocide against Muslims.” And they would have repeated that point on every network, every day.
Why should we care? Because bin Laden and his sidekick Ayman al-Zawahiri care! Read their statements. They care about their image. They do not want to be labeled as “genocide perpetrators.” They want to be known as the “resistance,” because it affects their street appeal and therefore their ability to recruit and operate.
Sure, some Sunni tribes in Iraq, who are directly threatened by Al Qaeda, have turned against it, but in the wider Arab-Muslim world bin Laden has out-maneuvered Mr. Bush. The man who Swift-boated John Kerry and Max Cleland has been Swift-boated by bin Laden. Mr. Bush is losing a P.R. war to a mass murderer. Yes, it is not easy breaking through the innate, anti-American tilt of the Arab media, but we have barely tried.
I spent Friday hanging around the newsroom of Al Jazeera here in Doha, on the Persian Gulf. I asked Arab reporters here what would be the results of a popularity poll in the region between Mr. Bush and bin Laden. Mr. Bush wouldn’t stand a chance, they said. One big difference between them, though, added one journalist, “is that Bush’s term is about to come to an end and bin Laden is staying in office.” An Egyptian analyst here added that liberals in the Arab world who supported the U.S. democratization effort in Iraq are now dismissed in the Arabic press as “intellectual marines.” U.S. marine is now a term of insult.
Bin Laden has created a situation in which the U.S. occupation in Iraq is viewed as entirely “illegitimate” and therefore any violence there by Sunni jihadists against Americans or Iraqi civilians is considered entirely legitimate “resistance.”
As The Economist magazine just noted, “This is profoundly mistaken.” Yes, military attacks against foreign soldiers who have come uninvited into your country can be called “resistance.” “But the mass murder of Iraqi civilians can make no such dignified claim. Under all established norms and laws of war (and by most accounts under Islamic law, too), the deliberate targeting of civilians for no direct military purposes is just a crime.”
So why don’t we say that? If you can’t win a P.R. war against bin Laden, you have no business fighting a real war anymore in Iraq.