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The War Bush Isn't Fighting

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, August 11, 2006

When unsmiling agents at the airport take away your contact lens solution, your toothpaste, and your cologne or after-shave, remember Osama bin Laden. Remember the real war on terrorism that the Bush administration and its allies decided not to fight, preferring cowboy-style military adventures.

The revelation yesterday of the elaborate plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic Ocean with liquid explosives reminds us of the real threats we face -- as opposed to the phantom threats that George W. Bush and Tony Blair have conjured to justify their disastrous war in Iraq.

The airliner conspiracy seems to have all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda extravaganza: careful and sophisticated planning, the intent to shock the world with simultaneous detonations, cold-blooded determination to murder innocents by the hundreds, and a timeline that comes suspiciously close to the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Sending a cascade of Boeings and Airbuses into the frigid ocean would have had the kind of theatrical impact that al-Qaeda always seeks.

But it doesn't really matter whether the plotters were al-Qaeda soldiers taking orders from bin Laden or just a group of like-minded admirers working on their own. The plot demonstrates that al-Qaeda lives on, either as a functioning organization or, even more chillingly, as an inspiration to jihadists around the world.

Shoe bombs didn't work, and now we shuffle through the metal detectors in our socks. Liquid explosives didn't work, and now we will fly with unbrushed teeth. We can be sure that somewhere in some anonymous apartment, maybe in Paris or Frankfurt or Karachi, a group of unknown conspirators has absorbed the failure of the London plot and already begun to develop a new approach to mass murder.

President Bush said that the uncovered conspiracy is "a stark reminder that this nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation." If only the president would fight that war. If only he hadn't turned away from the hunt for bin Laden to chase his neocon advisers' delusions of spreading pro-American democracy at the point of a gun.

Let's check what else was in the news yesterday. In Iraq, a suicide bomber killed at least 35 people and injured more than 100 by blowing himself up near a famous shrine in the city of Najaf, which is holy to Shiite Muslims. Meanwhile, U.S. troops moved into the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad in an attempt to end a reign of lawlessness. All this violence is part of a sectarian civil war that was made possible by the U.S. invasion -- and that is growing in intensity under the open-ended U.S. occupation. Iraq, says Bush, is a vital theater in the war against terrorism.

In other news, Israeli forces continued their systematic destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure by targeting a historic lighthouse in the heart of Beirut, in an apparent attempt to knock Lebanese state television off the air. This comes after Israeli forces had already destroyed every bridge over the Litani River, all of Lebanon's major roads and much of the Beirut airport, all in the name of cutting off supplies to the Hezbollah militia -- and all with no complaint from U.S. officials. Lebanon, says Bush, is another vital theater in the war against terrorism.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks of building a "new Middle East," but the Bush administration construction plan seems to begin with setting the old Middle East on fire. The bungled occupation of Iraq has drawn new recruits to the jihadist cause around the world, and now the disproportionate Israeli assault on Lebanon is doing the same thing. We are at war with an ideology, and pounding it frontally just disperses it. It's like trying to smash mercury with a hammer.

Maybe the discovery of the airliner plot will bring us back to the real world. There are deadly enemies out there, and one way to fight them, as the British demonstrated yesterday, is through intelligence. One way not to fight them, as the Bush administration continues to demonstrate, is through reckless military action that may kill terrorists but also kills innocent civilians and thus creates a new generation of terrorists -- doubtless including some bright young man or woman who will come up with a new idea for downing civilian airliners.

We will end up boarding our flights barefoot, barehanded and buck naked except for a hospital gown they'll make us put on at the airport. And, at this rate, Osama bin Laden will be watching CNN from his cave, smiling contentedly.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com

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