By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
President Bush issued a stern warning yesterday about what he called the continuing terrorist threat confronting the nation, using the haunting words of Islamic extremists to support his assertion that they remain determined to attack the United States.
Abandoning his practice of only rarely mentioning al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Bush repeatedly quoted him and purported terrorist letters, recordings and documents to make his case that terrorists have broad totalitarian ambitions and believe the war in Iraq is a key theater in a wider struggle.
"Iraq is not a distraction in their war against America" but the "central battlefield where this war will be decided," Bush said in an address before the Military Officers Association of America.
Citing the internal communications of terrorists was a dramatic new tactic to advance familiar arguments from Bush in defense of his strategy. The remarks came less than a week before the nation observes the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and two months before midterm elections in which the administration's national strategy and competence promise to be pivotal questions. That debate was underscored by sharp criticism of Bush yesterday by Democratic congressional leaders.
The president's remarks came hours after the White House released its updated plan for combating terrorism. The document describes many successes in the war on terrorism, but warns that the nation faces an evolving threat from small terrorist networks and al-Qaeda, which is as much an ideology as a terrorist network. The document calls the administration's policy of spreading freedom and democracy the best means of countering that threat over the long haul.
"America is safer, but we are not yet safe," the document concludes.
Several top Democrats, acting with the centrist group Third Way, cited their own document charging that U.S. national security has diminished broadly under Bush, for reasons including instability in Iraq and burgeoning nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.
"The facts do not lie," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.). "Under the Bush administration and this Republican Congress, America is less safe, facing greater threats and unprepared for the dangerous world in which we live."
At a news conference, Reid accused Bush and Republicans of trying to exploit national security for partisan gains. Likening their tactics to a football team's reliance on a familiar play, he said Republicans scored big yardage in 2002 and 2004, but he predicted that this year they will be stifled at the line of scrimmage.
In his speech, Bush said terrorist leaders' statements have made plain their goals, which he called the present-day equivalent of the "evil" aims of Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler.
"Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them. The question is: Will we listen? Will we pay attention to what these evil men say?" Bush said, adding that "we're taking the words of the enemy seriously."
Meanwhile, the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies issued a report saying that although the Bush administration has deprived al-Qaeda of sanctuary in Afghanistan and has prevented more attacks on U.S. soil in the past five years, it has not tracked down bin Laden or created "enduring security in Afghanistan." Moreover, the report said, the administration's attempts at public diplomacy are "undermined by perceived U.S. unilateralism."
"What is missing from the . . . public discussion of all of this is some explanation of the phenomenon of radicalized Islam," said Daniel Benjamin, a senior fellow at CSIS and former Clinton administration official. "Why are there so many people out there who want to kill Americans and so many Westerners? Why is this such a durable phenomenon?"
As Bush spoke in Washington, Pakistan signed a peace accord with pro-Taliban forces in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, agreeing to withdraw its troops from the region in return for the fighters' pledge to stop attacks inside Pakistan. The pact prompted concern that it could allow Islamic extremist groups to operate more freely in the area.
The president's speech was the latest in a series of addresses aimed at buttressing flagging public support for the war as the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks draws near. Today, Bush is expected to give an address at the White House, in which he will discuss his administration's latest proposal for trying suspected members of al-Qaeda who are being held at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In June, the Supreme Court struck down the military commissions Bush established to try suspected terrorists. Tomorrow, he is scheduled to again address the subject of terrorism during a visit to Atlanta.
In his speech at the Capital Hilton in Washington, Bush said the threat posed by al-Qaeda and other Sunni Muslim "extremists" is no different from that posed by Shiite Muslim "extremists," who he said include the leaders of Iran and the group Hezbollah. He quoted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as having said that if the United States wants to have good relations with Iran, it must "bow down before the greatness of the Iranian nation and surrender. If you don't accept to do this, the Iranian nation will force you to surrender and bow down."
"America will not bow down to tyrants," Bush added to loud applause from the audience.
In their rebuttals, some Democrats renewed their call for the firing of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. White House press secretary Tony Snow said Bush flatly rejects those calls.
Some Democrats said the reason al-Qaeda remains so dangerous is that the United States is bogged down in Iraq.
"If President Bush had unleashed the American military to do the job at Tora Bora four years ago and killed Osama bin Laden, he wouldn't have to quote this barbarian's words today," said Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. "Because President Bush lost focus on the killers who attacked us and instead launched a disastrous war in Iraq, today Osama bin Laden and his henchmen still find sanctuary in the no man's land between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they still plot attacks against America."