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Bin Laden: from 'Evil One' to Unmentionable One

by Alan Elsner, Reuters, 20 August 2002


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush used to call him "the evil one" but in recent months Osama bin Laden has become the unmentionable one, replaced by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as the chief enemy of the United States.

In the aftermath of the attacks last Sept. 11 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which the United States says were masterminded by bin Laden, Bush constantly described the Saudi-born militant as an incarnation of evil and said he was wanted "dead or alive."

But since bin Laden disappeared late last year he is rarely if ever mentioned by the President or his senior advisers, who acknowledge that they do not know whether he was killed in an Afghan cave or is still alive and in hiding.

"They didn't find him, they don't know where he is and it's not in the administration's interest to keep reminding the American people of that," said Michael Sherry, a historian at Northwestern University in Chicago.

"Every time bin Laden is mentioned, it's a reminder that they don't have a clue and it's a reminder of their failure to fulfill their own stated war aims and it's a reminder that the war on terrorism has become directionless and not very effective," Sherry said.

Media coverage nowadays of events in Afghanistan has been drastically scaled back, although two recent fatal attacks against Christian civilians in Pakistan suggested that al Qaeda may be regrouping there and the screening by CNN of al Qaeda videos showing poison gas experiments dramatized the threat the group once posed and may again.

Instead, U.S. airwaves have been full of talk about the prospects of a new war against Iraq designed to topple Saddam before he acquires nuclear weapons. Bush says he has not decided on an invasion but has repeatedly voiced his determination to oust the Iraqi leader.

"We need to personify and demonize an enemy. Back in 1991 when the first President George Bush went to war against Iraq, he compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler. But when situations change and it becomes impractical or impossible to eradicate the enemy, he tends to disappear from the rhetorical radar screen," said American University historian Allan Lichtman.

"To keep dwelling on Osama and on Afghanistan would be to dwell on futility. The President, like a great white shark, has always got to be moving forward," he said.

Afghanistan Still Unstable

Some opponents of invading Iraq, including Republicans who normally back Bush, have argued that the situation in Afghanistan remains highly unstable and that U.S. commitment is crucial to prevent the country from spiraling back into chaos.

"We have yet to pacify Afghanistan. U.S. troops are guarding President (Hamid) Karzai. The vice president was murdered in a treacherous attack by thugs. We really have a problem with regard to Afghanistan," said Jack Kemp, who served as housing secretary under the current President's father, former President George Bush.

Afghan Vice President Haji Qadir was killed in broad daylight in Kabul on July 6. The assassination underlined Afghanistan's shaky recovery from 23 years of war and was a major blow to the U.S.-backed Karzai government.

Nebraska Republican Sen. Charles Hagel, who has emerged as a clear voice against an invasion of Iraq, said the United States should stay focused on Afghanistan while trying to defuse other potential international powder kegs.

"Iraq is a threat, is a problem. But we also have other interests ... Afghanistan -- we're a long way from bringing that into a universe of some stability and security. Obviously, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is at a critical point. The India-Pakistan issue," he said.

U.S. public opinion polls suggest that Americans still regard the capture or verifiable death of bin Laden as a central measure of success in Bush's "war on terrorism" despite administration efforts to argue that it is not so important.

In a Gallup poll published last week, only 37 percent of respondents said the United States was winning the war; 14 percent thought the terrorists were winning but 46 percent said neither side was winning.

In another Gallup poll in early July, 50 percent of respondents thought U.S. accomplishments in Afghanistan could not be called a success until bin Laden was captured, while 38 percent said his capture was not required for success.

Bush Out On A Limb?

Robert Gray, a professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, said Bush had made a mistake by identifying the war against terrorism too much with the person of bin Laden and was in danger of making the same mistake by repeatedly vowing to remove Saddam from power in Iraq.

"Bush says he has not decided to invade but he's pretty far out there on a limb and it's going to be difficult for him to crawl back," said Gray, North American editor of Defense and Security Analysis magazine.

The problem for Bush is, without an invasion of Iraq, there is no clear next step in a global war on terrorism, which Bush declared after Sept. 11 would be the defining mission for his generation for the foreseeable future.

"With no Osama bin Laden and no Saddam Hussein, the war on terrorism becomes a metaphorical abstraction, like the war on poverty," said Keith Shimko, a political scientist at Purdue University in Indiana.

"Clearly we ought to be rebuilding Afghanistan and securing its future. But we as a people have a short attention span and it's hard to keep a focus on nondramatic things that cost money and don't provide the immediate satisfaction you get from blowing things up," he said.

© 2002 Reuters
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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