Bush Feels the Heat After Saudi Bombings
By Oliver Burkeman
Thursday 15 May 2003
The impact of the terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia began to reverberate through US politics yesterday as the Bush administration defended itself against charges that it had taken its eye off the ball over al-Qaida because of its obsession with Iraq.
With George Bush's critics alleging that serious counterterrorism efforts had become "lost in the shuffle", analysts warned that by fostering the widespread perception that Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida were closely linked, the White House might have created unrealistic expectations that in destroying the Iraqi regime, it was also crushing the terrorist threat.
But the president's press spokesman, Ari Fleischer, dismissed as "nonsense" claims by two Democratic senators that the administration was neglecting the hunt for the terrorists behind the September 11 atrocities.
Mr Fleischer said that the suspected mastermind of the September 11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, headed a long list of people linked to al-Qaida who had been taken into custody in recent months.
Mr Fleischer was responding to a coruscating attack from Senator Bob Graham, who had argued earlier that the Saudi bombings "could have been avoided if you had actually crushed the basic infrastructure of al-Qaida".
" I think from the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, which was in early October of 2001, until about February or March 2002, we were making good progress in dismantling the basic structure of al-Qaida," Mr Graham said. "Then we started to redirect our attention to Iraq, and al-Qaida has regenerated."
His remarks were echoed by a Wisconsin Democrat, Russ Feingold, who invoked the deaths of Americans in past terror attacks to chastise Mr Bush. "In many ways, the actual business of combating the terrorist organisation or organisations responsible for the attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, for the attack on the USS Cole [in Yemen], for the horror of September 11, and now, possibly, for [the] attack in Riyadh, seems to be lost in the shuffle," Senator Feingold said. "The absence of clarity and the absence of data endangers the American people."
The hot-tempered debate is closely interwoven with the run-up to the 2004 presidential election: Mr Graham, an outside candidate for the Democratic nomination, is running almost exclusively on his conviction that the administration has been dangerously distracted from the real fight against terrorism.
Mr Bush, meanwhile, has been widely expected to benefit from continued discussion of Iraq and terrorism, since it prevents the Democrats from discussing the economy. As a result, he may even benefit from the Saudi attacks.
Alternatively, though, more attacks on Americans could solidify a perception that Mr Bush is powerless to win his declared "war on terrorism", said Peter Bergen, an expert on al-Qaida and author of the book Holy War Inc.
"Of course Iraq wasn't going to do much damage to al-Qaida, because there isn't much evidence they're linked," he said. "Setting up the expectation that this was going to further the cause is a mistake."
Republicans have consistently sought to present the conflict in Iraq as one part of the larger war on terrorism, even to the extent that the White House has refused to declare an unequivocal end to the recent war.
Al-Qaida's failure to mount a major terrorist attack during the Iraq war as it had threatened was proof that "progress has been made", Mr Bergen said. But "it's a fact of human nature that one tends to think of one thing at once.
Clearly, the administration in its upper reaches was preoccupied with Iraq, and Bin Laden and al-Qaida fell off the radar-screen.
"Now this comes along and shows they are far from down for the count."