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While hunting bin Laden, a wrong turn in Iraq

There's a very short list of people who can claim to have been right on terrorism when the United States faced its biggest decision after 9/11. Bob Graham is on that list.

The man who served two terms as Florida's governor and three terms in the Senate before retiring in 2004 went on the Intelligence Committee in the mid 1990s. In 1999, Graham recalled last week, then-CIA director George Tenet "had become very focused" on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida.

Tenet delivered a speech about bin Laden at CIA headquarters. Graham said the speech was "powerful but unheard within the intelligence community."

A year later, al-Qaida operatives killed 17 American sailors by bombing the USS Cole. A year later came 9/11. A year after that came the congressional vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq, of all places.

Nine years later, the decision still makes no sense. Nine years later, though, it can be hard to remember the fear that still pervaded the country. The Bush administration exploited that fear, and too many key news organizations — most notably the New York Times — caved to the White House campaign of hyping questionable evidence about weapons of mass destruction and dismissing dissenting evidence.

Worse, and even less forgivable, to make its case the Bush administration fabricated a link between Iraq and al-Qaida.

Graham's suspicions began when the Intelligence Committee members learned that "all the 'evidence' was coming from exiles, whose purpose was to become non-exiles." At a September 2002 meeting with Tenet, Graham heard that "no one was looking in windows" to verify the exiles' apocalyptic claims. The administration "wanted to believe." Either way, it was "the wrong war."

The vote in Congress took place in October 2002, but by then Graham sensed the momentum. He had visited U.S. Central Command in Tampa, where Gen. Tommy Franks told him that the command's cultural and linguistic special forces units were being shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq.

To replace them, Gen. Franks was getting units that had been in Colombia. Even the Predator drones — "there were just a handful of them at the time" — were on their way from Afghanistan to go after Saddam Hussein.

After 9/11, the nation's focus should have been on Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and other groups such as Hezbollah, with which bin Laden was looking to ally, despite their religious differences. Al-Qaida is Sunni Muslim, while Hezbollah — now with Iran as its patron — is Shiite.

Osama bin Laden might not have survived nearly a decade after 9/11. Certainly, the nation would not have lost more than 4,000 soldiers, would not have spent nearly $1 trillion — even with the roughly $1 billion a month that had been going to patrol no-fly zones in Iraq — and would not have lost all momentum in Afghanistan.

And if Democrats had done what Republicans did for two of the other biggest congressional votes of the last 20 years — on the budget bill in 1993 and the health care bill in 2010 — the Iraq resolution would have failed. Neither of those first two got a single Republican vote.

Even if all House Democrats had voted against it, the Iraq resolution would have passed. But the resolution would have failed in the Senate if the 29 Democrats — including current Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — had refused to go along with the Bush administration.

Add them to the 21 Democrats that included Graham, Republican John Chafee and Republican-turned-independent James Jeffords, and the measure would have lost 52-48.

If terrorists seek to inflict as much psychological damage as physical, bin Laden succeeded mightily for a while. His attacks made many members of Congress and many Americans lose their senses.

Some believed bin Laden's boast that he could re-establish an Islamic caliphate across much of Asia and Europe. Iraq became a trap, and the country fell into it. Roughly 80 percent of Americans supported the invasion. These days, most Americans want the military out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

So bin Laden didn't just cause casualties on 9/11. We can't close the books on his body count until the last American soldier leaves Iraq. Add some from Afghanistan, since the Iraq distraction prevented American and NATO forces from consolidating the success of the necessary October 2001 invasion.

Americans are angry that Pakistan may have let bin Laden live in plain sight. Where's the anger at ourselves for looking away?

Randy Schultz is editor of the editorial page of the Palm Beach Post.

© 2011 New York Times News Service

While hunting bin Laden, a wrong turn in Iraq 05/10/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 5:35pm]

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