Day 1,461 and Counting

This September 11 will mark the fourth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States. The media will focus on the ceremonies at the former World Trade Center site, the Pentagon, and other cities and towns around the country that will honor the dead. The Bush administration, meanwhile, will do its best to remind Americans that today's George W. Bush -- except for the Watergate-era Richard Nixon, the most unpopular two-term president, at this point in his tenure, since scientific polling began in the 1940s -- is the same man who led the country through tragedy.

In truth, the anniversary should be the occasion for a thoroughgoing discussion of how America has combated terrorism in the last four years. And on that front, even the disaster Bush has created in Iraq takes a back seat to one overwhelming fact: By the time night falls on September 11, Osama bin Laden will have been at large for 1,461 days.

America vanquished world fascism in less time: We obtained Germany's surrender in 1,243 days, Japan's in 1,365. Even the third Punic War, in which Carthage was burned to the ground and emptied of citizens who were taken en masse into Roman slavery, lasted around 1,100 days (and troops needed a little longer to get into position back in 149 B.C.).

* * *

Yes, yes: It can be harder to find one stateless man than to defeat an army whose troop movements can be tracked. And that would be a good excuse -- if the Bush administration had bothered to make capturing bin Laden a priority.

John Kerry can't be accused, alas, of having offered a coherent foreign policy in last year's campaign, but he was dead right when he said the administration had “outsourced” the job of finding the man responsible for the most deadly attacks ever on American soil. As the journalist Peter Bergen wrote in The Atlantic last October, we were closing in on al-Qaeda leadership in December 2001. But the United States decided to leave the crucial two-week battle of Tora Bora chiefly to local Afghan fighters. It was, Bergen wrote, “a blunder that allowed many members of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden himself, to slip away.”

And, of course, we know why that battle was left to locals -- and why, relatedly, we never had more than about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2001. (How's Afghanistan going today? We now have 18,000 troops there, and 2005 has been the deadliest year for U.S. forces since the fighting began.)

The Bush administration had already decided, at the very least, to find an excuse to invade Iraq. We know from Richard Clarke's testimony and other sources that administration officials, including Bush himself, started asking the counterterrorism chief to find an Iraqi link to 9-11 from the day following the attacks. On December 11, 2001 -- right around the time bin Laden began his escape, possibly the very day -- Vice President Dick Cheney told FOX News, “If I were Saddam Hussein, I'd be thinking very carefully about the future, and I'd be looking very closely to see what happened to the Taliban in Afghanistan.”

Whatever the apologists say, the truth is simple: The administration held back troops from Afghanistan so that it could send 150,000 to Iraq. That, and nothing else, is the reason bin Laden is still at large.

* * *

But listen closely to the silence: Outside of magazines like this one and a handful of liberal Web sites, the subject is rarely discussed.

Just imagine bin Laden having been at large this long in President Al Gore's administration. In fact, it's impossible to imagine, because President Gore, under such circumstances, wouldn't have lasted this long. You probably didn't know, until you read this column, the number of days bin Laden has been at large. But I assure you that if Gore had been president, you and every American would have known, because the right would have seen to it that you knew, asking every day, “Where's Osama?” If Gore hadn't been impeached, it's doubtful he'd have survived a re-election campaign, with Americans aghast at how weak and immoral a president had to be to permit those 2,700 deaths to go unavenged this long.

To be sure, the difference is partly a Democratic failure -- they're afraid of the right-wing noise machine, pure and simple. That's a failure of nerve, and it's an appalling one.

But the moral failure belongs to Bush and his subordinates and their amen chorus of slatternly propagandists and so-called intellectuals, who made great political advantage of 9-11 but spit on the grieving families by pretending that there is no imperative in seeing justice done for their losses. They may be able to control the dialogue, but they can't control the facts -- and the facts condemn them all.

Michael Tomasky is the Prospect's executive editor.

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