May 16, 2003
Once again, another dreadful terrorist act.
Once again, a death toll. This time, 34 people, including eight Americans, lost their lives.
The carnage in Riyadh this week is an appalling reminder that the Bush Administration has failed in its primary obligation of vanquishing Al Qaeda, and it raises crucial questions about the role the U.S. is playing in the Middle East.
At every opportunity, Bush boasts that the U.S. is winning the war on terror, but the problem is, he went off on a dangerous detour into Iraq. Not only has it incited Islamic fundamentalism, but it has distracted the United States from the main threat.
For months and months, Bush claimed that waging war against Saddam was part of the war on terror, but Saddam never threatened the United States in the way that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda have. By pretending that the threats were fungible, and by diverting resources--military, financial, and intelligence--from the war against Al Qaeda, Bush has performed poorly as commander in chief.
Finally, some Democrats are taking him to task for this.
"I would point out that we have virtually abandoned the war on terrorism, that we have withdrawn military and intelligence capabilities from Afghanistan, and because of that, Al Qaeda has been able to regroup," Senator Bob Graham of Florida said on ABC's "This Week."
When he announced his Presidential candidacy on May 6, Graham said, "Instead of pursuing the most imminent and real threats, international terrorists, this Bush Administration chose to settle old scores."
Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, on May 13, echoed Graham's concerns. Saying there was no intelligence connecting Saddam Hussein with September 11, Feingold accused Bush of getting sidetracked. "In many ways, the actual business of combating the terrorist organization or organizations responsible for the attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, for the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, for the horror of September 11th, and now, possibly, for [the] attack in Riyadh, seems to be lost in the shuffle."
But the problem is deeper than simply how to go after Al Qaeda militarily.
The United States has to reduce the appeal of Al Qaeda, which remains high in many parts of the Arab and Muslim world.
Getting most U.S. soldiers out of Saudi Arabia is a start, but leaving what are essentially U.S. mercenaries to train the Saudi National Guard only reinforces the impression that the United States is propping up the corrupt House of Saud.
The Vinnell Corporation of Virginia, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, has been training the Saudi guard for nearly three decades now. It shouldn't be a surprise that the Vinnell compound was bombed. It was bombed eight years ago, when five Americans were killed and thirty wounded. Al Qaeda is not that sneaky. They keep coming back to their favorite targets.
"The policy of using Vinnell trainers and U.S. arms suppliers to keep the Saudi monarchy in power can't go on forever," William Hartung wrote presciently in "Mercenaries, Inc.: How a U.S. company props up the House of Saud," which ran in the April 1996 issue of The Progressive. "The people of Saudi Arabia will eventually demand some say in how their government is run. Whether that change comes about through a revolution led by Islamic fundamentalists or an evolution toward democracy will depend in significant part on whether U.S. policy continues to back the monarchy to the hilt."
Finally, if the United States wants to make its citizens safer around the world, it absolutely must put pressure on Ariel Sharon to give back the occupied territories to the Palestinians and settle, once and for all that conflict, which is the source of so much resentment and pain.
Let me be clear: None of these U.S. policies--the unblinking support for Sharon, the Saudi body guards for hire, the Iraq war--justifies terrorism. Nothing justifies terrorism. And Al Qaeda's brand is particularly loathsome, its ideology particularly reactionary.
But the United States will not vanquish Al Qaeda by blurring it with other, less threatening forces in the world. Nor will the United States win by military means alone.