STRATEGIC VISION. White House homeland security adviser Fran Townsend, commenting on Osama bin Laden's latest video yesterday:

"This is a man on the run in a cave who is virtually impotent other than his ability to get these messages out," Townsend said on CNN's "Late Edition." "It is propaganda."

Well, yeah, that's what bin Laden is, what he's always been: a propagandist. Declaring him "impotent" is like declaring Ronald McDonald "ineffective" for not actually going in and cooking the burgers himself. Like Ronald, Osama's role is to embody and promote the brand. Popping up every few years to say "Ha, ha, here I am!" and recite some Arabic verse is all he really needs to do to function as an effective spokesmodel.

As for who's really running the show, yesterday the Washington Post had a story on al-Qaeda strategist Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has been hard at work rebuilding and refocusing the organization while President Bush posed in a flight suit.

"While bin Laden putters about in his premature forced retirement, making the odd cameo appearance, Zawahiri has taken control of al-Qaeda. He has not only revived the movement's fortunes but has also made it once again the global threat poised to strike the United States that was depicted in the National Intelligence Estimate released in July.

And, almost unnoticed, the low-key, monotonic Zawahiri has become the organization's new public face.


He may lack bin Laden's charisma, but Zawahiri is the superior strategist. It was he who, more than a decade ago, defined al-Qaeda's strategy in terms of "far" and "near" enemies. The United States is the "far enemy" whose defeat, he argued, was an essential prerequisite to the elimination of the "near enemy" -- the corrupt and authoritarian anti-Islamic regimes in the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia that could not remain in power without U.S. support. Zawahiri's strategic vision set off the chain of events that led to 9/11."

To which Bush responded with his own "strategic vision" that set off the chain of events that led to the dismantling of Iraq, the empowering of Iran, and the creation of a terrorist training ground whose graduates will be working to destabilize the Middle East for the remainder of our lifetimes. If this is what Bush means by "strategic thought," I'd hate to see what happens when he's just winging it.

--Matthew Duss