President Bush delivered the annual State of the Union address last week.
Though he didn't announce much in the way of policy initiatives – no new funding to stop teenagers from fornicating (2004) or initiatives to power vehicles with something called "switchgrass" (2006) – this year's SOTU was notable for several reasons.
First, it was Bush's final State of the Union. Next year, the SOTU will be delivered by a woman or man who will almost certainly be able to pronounce the word nuclear. Take a moment to savor that thought.
Secondly, the word "evil" appeared only once. Last year and in 2006, the e-word showed up twice. In 2003 he said it four times. In 2002 – a record five times. I guess his speech writer is finally convinced he sounds like a hillbilly Superfriend when he says it.
The most interesting part of Bush's speech, to me, was the comeback of al-Qaeda.
He A.Q.'d 10 times, up from one utterance in 2007.
Does saying "al-Qaeda" 10 times mean Bush was reasserting the importance of battling Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan – the part of the world in which al-Qaeda incubated and hatched the 9/11 attacks?
Does saying "al-Qaeda" 10 times mean a tacit acknowledgement by Bush that the invasion of Iraq was a catastrophic diversion from the real war on Islamic extremist terrorists?
No. And no.
It turns out nine of the 10 references in Bush's speech were to al-Qaeda in Iraq, a somewhat amorphous group of terrorists who a) did not exist before the U.S. invasion and b) did not declare an association with the al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden until 2004.
Using the name al-Qaeda in reference to Iraq is part of this White House's rhetorical effort designed to associate the invasion of Iraq with the 9/11 attacks, even though the two had nothing to do with one another. Iraq = al-Qaeda = 9/11, therefore Iraq = 9/11.
So how's the fight against al-Qaeda going – both the Iraq version and the 9/11 version?
Good and bad.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is a significantly reduced threat from two years ago. Iraq's Sunni Arab population grew sick of its presence. Starting in late 2006, Sunni Arab tribal leaders began to team with one another and Americans to deny al-Qaeda in Iraq safe havens from which it was catalyzing a Sunni vs. Shi'a civil war in Iraq. The so-called troop surge of 2007, combined with the U.S. Army's much improved anti-insurgency tactics, have also helped. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is not eliminated, but it is weaker now than it has been since its birth in the wake of the U.S. invasion. Unfortunately, military success in Iraq has not been matched by political process.
The war against the other al-Qaeda, the one that attacked us on 9/11, isn't going so well.
In 2002, the United States pulled elite military and manhunting units out of Afghanistan for use in Iraq. Since then, al-Qaeda and the Taliban have grown stronger each year – launching more attacks, killing more people and operating over a growing area, which now includes much of neighboring Pakistan.
Two reports released last week, one by the Afghanistan Study Group, the other by the Atlantic Council of the United States, warned that Afghanistan is on the verge of becoming a failed state. Taliban and al-Qaeda forces thrive in such conditions. Violence was up 27 percent in Afghanistan last year – even more so in the areas where American forces are concentrated.
Al-Qaeda's top two guys, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain at large. On the run for more than six years, both still manage to regularly issue messages to their followers. Last year, for the first time since 2004, bin Laden even appeared in a video. It wasn't as inspirational as say, 2 Girls 1 Cup, but his videotaped perseverance is a reminder of how badly the Bush White House lost its focus in the fight against terrorism. Al-Qaeda is growing. We're losing the fight.