Why the "War President" Is Under Fire

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"That's an interesting question," the President said, having been asked on Meet the Press whether Iraq was a war of choice or of necessity. "Please elaborate on that a little bit. A war of choice or necessity?" It was as if George W. Bush had never considered this most basic of questions. He seemed befuddled, then slowly found his legs. "I mean, it's a war of necessity. In my judgment, we had no choice when we look at the intelligence I looked at that says the man was a threat."

An awkward moment in a suddenly wobbly presidency. Obviously, Iraq was a war of choice. CIA Director George Tenet recently said he never believed there was an "imminent" threat. It is hard to find anyone outside the Vice President's circle of friends who still insists that an immediate, unilateral invasion was necessary. The real question for this election year is, Was going to war in Iraq the right choice in the larger struggle against radical Islam? Saddam Hussein is in jail. There may have been ancillary benefits from the American show of force: Libya has given up its nuclear ambitions; Iran may, or may not, be doing the same. But the situation on the ground in Iraq remains chaotic. The possibility of a Sunni-Shi'a civil war, which could destabilize the entire gulf region, is growing. The U.S. Army is pinned down; morale and re-enlistment problems, especially among the Guard and reserves, are looming. Worse, there is a strong sense in the highest reaches of the intelligence community that the larger campaign against terrorism—a true war of necessity—has been retarded by the Iraq adventure, that "our actions in Iraq have caused a net increase in terrorists," as an intelligence gatherer told me. "We've gotten better at finding and killing them. But there are a lot more Islamic young people with a desire to fight us."

At the very start of his Meet the Press interview, Bush said, "I'm a war President." Winning the "war" that he declared has been this President's stated mission, and it is how he will be judged. From the days immediately following Sept. 11, the rhetoric has been stark and bellicose. "You're either with us or against us," he warned early on. Any country that "harbors or supports terrorism will be regarded as a hostile regime." But Bush's actions, except for Iraq, haven't matched the dire nature of the threat described—and his rhetoric has betrayed a moral simplicity that misrepresents the true difficulties of the struggle. Take the "with us or against us" point: Saudi Arabia is the primary funder of Islamic radicalism in the world. Pakistan is the primary residence of the most dangerous terrorists. Both are nominally "with" us.

The Saudis represent a particularly serious problem. Bush hasn't had very much to say about them. Indeed, the Bush and the al-Saud families have a long history of personal friendship and business dealings—and this relationship may soon become an issue in the presidential election. "Bush has not only been passive regarding the Saudis," says Bob Graham, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "He has covered up for them." Graham is infuriated by Bush's refusal to release 21 pages of the Senate's investigation into the 9/11 attacks—allegedly the section dealing with Saudi involvement—and by the Administration's reluctance to cooperate with the independent 9/11 commission. "I think we'll eventually find that people who had positions of responsibility in the Saudi government were facilitating the funding of some, if not all, of the hijackers," he says.

For the past quarter-century, the Saudis have financed jihadist movements and radical schools throughout the Islamic world. They have changed the very nature of Islamic practice—making it less tolerant—in formerly moderate countries like Pakistan. The recent discovery that a Pakistani ring supplied some of the world's worst governments with nuclear technology only served to emphasize the contradictory nature of our "friendship" with that fragile country. "It's true the Pakistanis have helped us to capture some of the leading al-Qaeda figures," says Jessica Stern of Harvard, a terrorism expert. "But you also have to wonder: Why do we find them all in Pakistan?"

President Bush once famously told Senator Joe Biden, "I don't do nuance." But the struggle against Islamic radicalism is a festival of nuance. It is not quite a war, and it doesn't yield easily to simple notions of good and evil, friend and foe. We need the limited cooperation we get from the Pakistanis, and we certainly need Saudi oil. Even those, like Graham, who see the Saudis as the root of the problem, are calling for little more than a public statement of the facts—in the hope that the Saudis will be shamed into modifying their dreadful behavior. Bush has called for even less. His war of choice has featured lots of bombs and boots, lots of highfalutin moral rhetoric and patriotic visuals, but absolutely no public sacrifice—no steps to make America less dependent on Saudi oil; not even the taxes needed to pay for the occupation of Iraq. He is having trouble defending his dangerously simple policies, for good reason.