I have lost count of the times I have been ticked off in recent months, sometimes by quite senior politicians, for suggesting that George W Bush is a complete idiot. He is nowhere near as stupid as he seems, I have been told, a proposition that has some force solely because it is hard to imagine any world leader being afflicted with quite the degree of bovine incomprehension that the President habitually displays. On Monday, for instance, he was on cracking form, announcing in halting English you’d think he’d be fluent by now that a dangerous terrorist had been detained and “is now off the streets, where he should be”.
As so often with Bush’s pronouncements, what he appeared to say that terrorists should be on US streets was the opposite of what he meant. Unfair, unfair, his defenders will say: we have never claimed that our man is an accomplished public speaker. Fine, but my other reaction to the announcement I am being unusually frank here was, “You credulous git, do you believe every single thing anybody in the administration tells you?” US intelligence agencies are trying to deflect accusations that they failed to pick up warnings of last September’s suicide attacks and desperately need the kind of crowing headlines “US foils al-Qa’ida ‘dirty bomb’ plot” that the announcement prompted.
But the administration was soon backtracking, accused of exaggerating the importance of a US citizen known as Abdullah al-Mujahir, a former Chicago gang member who converted to Islam and changed his name in prison. The deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, admitted “there was not an actual plan” to set off a radioactive device in Washington, and it now seems that al-Mujahir’s research had not gone much further than surfing the internet. Nor is it clear why he was arrested while on a reconnaissance trip to the US from Pakistan on 8 May, after being under 24-hour surveillance since February, when further observation might have yielded valuable information about al-Qa’ida associates .
Meanwhile, a terrorist whose plans were at a rather more advanced stage succeeded in bombing the US consulate in Karachi on Friday, killing 11 people. None of this seems to have fazed the President, whose announcement about al-Mujahir coincided with a decision to transfer him to military custody, thus avoiding the embarrassment of having the more lurid allegations against him tested in open court. Bush’s Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, was not so lucky, having been foolish enough to make grand claims about al-Qa’ida operating in the disputed border territory of Kashmir without a shred of evidence. Rumsfeld’s announcement during a visit to India on Wednesday collapsed under questioning from journalists in Islamabad. “I don’t have evidence and the US doesn’t have evidence of al-Qa’ida in Kashmir,” he admitted.
That is not to say I underestimate the threat from Islamist groups whose motivation is as much their complex and ambivalent relationship with secular modernity as the genuine grievances the US’s uncritical support for Israel and undemocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia felt by moderate opinion in Arab countries. But what I am suggesting is that the response of Mr Bush and leading figures in his administration, with the exception of his sadly marginalized Secretary of State, Colin Powell, is akin to a bunch of ham actors staging a noisy hunt for pantomime villains. Think about the search for Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, whose whereabouts appear to be as great a mystery to Bush, Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and John Ashcroft as they us.
We, however, are not supposed to know that kind of stuff. It is not your job, or mine, come to that, to have advance knowledge of terrorist outrages. But we are entitled, in a world where what the US President says may affect all our lives, to expect something better than the overblown claims and ignominious climbdowns that are the hallmark of this ignorant, inept administration. Frantic displays of patriotism, random round-ups of hundreds of foreigners and unverifiable claims about imminent terrorist attacks cannot conceal the fact that its members do not know what they are doing; any day now, I expect to hear that Switzerland, or perhaps Belgium, has been added to the axis of evil. It is not just Mr Bush, as I naively hoped, who is absolutely clueless.
Joan Smith writes for the Independent.