Bush: Safely in Denial

By Richard Cohen

The Washibgton Post

Tuesday, July 13, 2004; Page A15

Back in the good ol' days of the Cold War, I returned from a visit to East Germany and was instantly berated by one of its diplomats in Washington. He wanted to know how I could have written that East Berlin was bleak and dismal when everyone knew that West Berlin was really that way. For years, I've wondered what happened to that man. Now I think he's the president of the United States.

When it comes to telling you right to your face that black is white, maybe no one compares with George W. Bush. Last week, for example, he responded to yet another report that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction by saying that it didn't matter. "Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons, I believe we were right to go into Iraq," Bush said. "America is safer today because we did."

"America is safer today because we did." The statement is worth repeating because it ranks up there with the insistence that the sour East of Berlin out-dazzled the West. Just the day before, in fact, senior administration officials were saying that Osama bin Laden and his top guys were planning a terrorist attack in the United States sometime before the November presidential election. How's that for safer?

As always in these matters, no one knows what, if anything, will happen. As usual, New York, Washington and Los Angeles are high on the list of possible targets and so, too, are the national political conventions. Because duty calls me to both, I just want to take this moment to tell my president that I don't feel safe or safer. In fact, I have a sensible case of the jitters.

You will note that these senior administration officials did not merely say that al Qaeda was planning an attack. They specifically said bin Laden. This is the guy who Bush once vowed to get "dead or alive," but who, lo these three years later, we have not gotten at all. He resides, or so we are told, in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan and he does so because the United States failed to get him.

As John Kerry was among the first to point out, bin Laden survives because the Pentagon, distracted by planning the coming campaign in Iraq or maybe fearing that casualties would dampen enthusiasm for a wider war, left it to the Afghans to flush out bin Laden at Tora Bora. They did not do the job -- but, not to worry, it didn't matter anyway. Don Rumsfeld assured us nearly two years ago that wherever bin Laden is, "you can be certain that he's having one dickens of a time operating his apparatus." The U.S. ground commander in Afghanistan at the time was even more confident. "We don't have to find him," Lt. Gen. Dan McNeil said of bin Laden, "because we're going to shut down his terrorist apparatus."

But somehow, this terrorist whose capture did not matter all that much, whose apparatus would be shut down by Pentagon apparatchiks, has now caused much of Washington to break out in hives. The election may be interrupted. New York may be attacked. Still, we are safe. Check that: We are safer. In fact, we are both safe and not safe because, as the record makes clear, it is both important to get bin Laden and not important to get him -- depending, of course, on which mistake some nincompoop is trying to excuse.

The most solemn obligation of a president is to keep us safe. This is something Bush has not done. Not only did Sept. 11 occur on his watch but nearly 900 Americans have been killed in Iraq, a war that could have waited . . . maybe forever. At minimum, we could have used some allies besides Britain and we should have waited until bin Laden was either killed or captured.

Instead, we went after Saddam Hussein, who posed only the remotest of threats -- he had no weapons of mass destruction, his army was a shambles and he himself was insanely writing romantic potboilers -- and effectively ignored the man who is a threat and who had already killed thousands of Americans on Sept. 11. We've got Saddam Hussein; we don't have Osama bin Laden.

Yet, for reasons that totally escape me, I am supposed to feel safe or safer. I don't -- and the president's downright East Germanish assertions make me feel even less safe. Bin Laden is still in the mountains and Bush, from what he is saying, is in denial.

cohenr@washpost.com