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Osama unplugged

January 22, 2006

IT'S ALWAYS DISCONCERTING TO HEAR from Osama bin Laden, as we did Thursday. It would be like hearing from Adolf Hitler, had he gone into hiding, in 1950. These Bin Laden tapes must be particularly disturbing for President Bush, given his administration's utter failure to find the nation's No. 1 enemy "dead or alive."

Indeed, the White House's cavalier attitude about its failure -- the administration appears to believe that what matters is that Bin Laden is uncomfortable and "on the run," a phrase White House spokesman Scott McClellan repeated 10 times Thursday -- may be more disconcerting than anything the crazed terrorist has to say. Imagine how absurd it would sound to hear the FBI say that it doesn't really matter if its most-wanted criminals are caught, as long as they are on the run and stressed out.

As for Bin Laden's message, there is a strange convergence between him and Bush on one issue: the notion that Iraq is the central front in the clash between modernity and Islamist terror.

It's bizarre to hear Bin Laden talk of a truce if the United States pulls out of Iraq and Afghanistan, considering that his previous grievances stretched back half a millennium to the "tragedy of Andalusia," referring to the Spanish crown's expulsion of the Moors in 1492. That was one of the injustices Bin Laden pointed to in his first rambling post-9/11 video, when the United States was in neither Afghanistan nor Iraq.

Bush may be hurt politically by the reminder that Bin Laden is still free, but Bin Laden's message plays into the president's pitch that it's better to fight the terrorists over there than here. In that sense, Iraq is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. It has become the main event in the war on terror, even though the invasion was about Saddam Hussein, not Al Qaeda.

And herein lies a source of great perplexity for Bin Laden, whose interests do not perfectly align with the narrower agenda of the Baathist Sunni resistance in Iraq. To the extent that followers of Al Qaeda are joining the Iraqi insurgency as the most convenient way of lashing out at the United States, Al Qaeda and associated groups will increasingly be scorned by Iraq's victimized Shiite majority, which looks to Iran for support and deliverance.

So Bin Laden has plenty of reason to worry about his standing in the Muslim world. Would that he also had more reason to worry about the determination and power of the United States.

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