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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The New York Times > Week in Review > Sizing Up the New Toned-Down Bin Laden

The New York Times > Week in Review > Sizing Up the New Toned-Down Bin Laden

December 19, 2004
Sizing Up the New Toned-Down Bin Laden

LONDON — What does Osama bin Laden want?

The vexing question emerged again last week with the release of an audiotape on which the Qaeda leader seems to be speaking. On it, he applauds the Dec. 6 attack against the United States Consulate in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and urges the toppling of the Saudi royal family.

The tape indicated that Mr. bin Laden has apparently moved the fomenting of a revolution in his Saudi homeland toward the top of his lengthy and ambitious wish list, which also includes the reversal of American foreign policy in the Middle East, the retreat of the American military from the Arabian Peninsula and the creation of a Palestinian homeland.

Mr. bin Laden has advocated these sea changes before. What intelligence officials and terrorism experts find particularly remarkable in his recent pronouncements is a shift in style from the raw anger and dark imagery of the post-9/11 days. They say he has subtly tempered his message, tone and even persona, presenting himself almost as an ambassador, as if he sees himself as an elder statesman for a borderless Muslim nation.

Earlier this year, he offered a truce to European governments that withdraw their troops from Iraq. In a message released just before the presidential election in the United States, he gloated that the war in Iraq and the "war against terror" were primarily responsible for record American budget deficits. Instead of talking about exacting blood from his enemies, he offered a sober discussion of the bleeding of the American economy.

Perhaps most striking is Mr. bin Laden's expression of frustration. Like any politician on the stump, Mr. bin Laden craves the ability to deliver an unfiltered message to his audience. Speaking directly to Americans in the pre-election address, he complained that his rationale for waging a holy war against the United States was repeatedly mischaracterized by President Bush and consequently misunderstood by most Americans.

To change this, Mr. bin Laden is testing what he apparently believes are more mainstream themes, while trying to dislodge the entrenched American view of him as a terrorist hell-bent on destroying America and all it stands for. In the pre-election address, Mr. bin Laden said Mr. Bush was wrong to "claim that we hate freedom." He added: "If so, then let him explain to us why we don't strike, for example, Sweden."

That remark surprised some counterterrorism officials and terrorist experts, who said the Al Qaeda leader rarely injects sarcasm into his public pronouncements. They took it as a signal that he was trying to broaden his appeal, particularly to moderate Muslims and possibly even some Americans.

What they cannot say is whether the less strident approach means that he has changed his goals and is less of a danger or that he is just laying the groundwork to justify a new attack against the United States. But they are listening closely and debating an important question: Is Mr. bin Laden committed to destroying America, or has he become more pragmatic, trying to begin a rational foreign policy debate about its presence in the Middle East and even appealing to Americans' pocketbooks?

"Osama is not a man given to humor, but when he told this joke about Sweden, I think it showed his frustration that Americans are not listening to him," said Michael Scheuer, a former senior C.I.A. official who tracked Mr. bin Laden for years and is the author of "Imperial Hubris." "We are being told by the president and others that Al Qaeda attacked us because they despise who we are and what we think and how we live. But Osama's point is, it's not that at all. They don't like what we do. And until we come to understand that, we are not going to defeat the enemy."

The bin Laden messages are a historical rarity: a foreign leader speaking so directly and frequently to his enemy. Mr. bin Laden has spent 25 years honing his message, and began to address an American audience in the mid-1990's. Since Sept. 11, 2001, he has delivered 17 messages, while his top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has made 12. That amounts to a message from a Qaeda leader every six weeks.

Intelligence officials are divided on what the two men are trying to accomplish. Some believe they are the leading advocates for what is increasingly being called Qaedism, an anti-Western gospel that they hope will inspire attacks all over the world. Others say the messages are intended to be jihad pep talks, or veiled triggers for new attacks.

Some believe these messages were used that way before the commuter-train bombings in Madrid in March and the bombings of British targets in Istanbul in 2003. Some messages have bluntly threatened new terror strikes; on April 15, Mr. bin Laden warned that an attack would strike any European country that failed to withdraw its troops from Iraq within 90 days. (No country complied, and no Qaeda-linked attacks have occurred in Europe since then.)

Mr. bin Laden's attempt to engage Americans is occurring while his message to drive the United States out of the Muslim world is resonating with those among the 1.2 billion Muslims who believe the Qaeda leader eloquently expresses their anger over the foreign policies of the United States and Israel. In recent years, he has emphasized the Palestinians' struggle. "His genius lies in identifying things that are easily visible and easily felt by most Muslims," Mr. Scheuer said. "He has found issues that are simple, and that Muslims see playing out on their televisions every day."

But Mr. bin Laden also wants Americans and Europeans to heed his messages and urge their leaders to change their Middle East policies. This has not happened and probably will not happen. "He is tuned out by most Americans and Europeans, and it's begun to really annoy him," said a senior counterterrorism official based in Europe.

In his pre-election address, Mr. bin Laden seemed irritated that interviews he gave to Western journalists in the 1990's went largely unheard by most Americans. He appeared to suggest that if American leaders had listened to his warnings that the United States must change its foreign policy in the Middle East or face the consequences, the Sept. 11 attacks could have been avoided.

Analysts say Mr. bin Laden's repeated refrain is that Al Qaeda's strikes are retribution for American and Israeli killings of Muslim women and children. "Reciprocity is a very important principle in the Islamic way of the world," Mr. Scheuer said. "They judge how far they can go by how far their enemy has gone."

What stood out in the pre-election message was Mr. bin Laden's bid to reinvent himself. He traded his battle fatigues, his AK-47 and a rough-terrain backdrop for a sensible sheik's garb, an anchor desk and a script without a single phrase portending a clash of civilizations. No longer was he reflecting on his own possible martyred death in the "eagle's belly" - the United States - as he did in 2002, nor did he threaten another spectacular attack against America.

Instead, he said the United States could avoid another attack if it stopped threatening the security of Muslims. He spoke at length about what he sees as the true motive for the Iraq war - to enrich American corporations with ties to the Bush administration. (He cited Halliburton.) And he spoke of bloodshed, but this time metaphorically, about the American economy.

He mocked the United States's budget and trade deficits, saying that Al Qaeda is committed "to continuing this policy in bleeding American to the point of bankruptcy." And he said that the 9/11 attacks, which cost Al Qaeda a total of $500,000, have cost the United States more than $500 billion, "according to the lowest estimate" by a research organization in London that he cited by name.

"It all shows that the real loser is - you," he told Americans, according to a transcript by Al Jazeera, the satellite network.

Peter Bergen, a CNN analyst who interviewed Mr. bin Laden in 1997, said, "The talk revealed bin Laden to be sort of a policy wonk, talking about supplemental emergency funding by Congress for the Afghan and Iraq wars, and how it was evidence that Al Qaeda's bleed-until-bankruptcy plan was working."

Jessica Stern, a Harvard professor who lectures on terrorism, said she was most surprised by Mr. bin Laden's detailed comments about the American economy. "It seemed as if he was trying to appeal to more moderate Muslims, who might have found his 1998 fatwa to kill all Americans morally repulsive," said Ms. Stern, the author of "Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill." "His message on this tape is not nearly as offensive. He talks about Americans having a choice - it is up to us to decide whether we will support a foreign policy that he says is bad for our economy and bad for the Islamic world."

Mr. bin Laden first turned his attention to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980's. He began demanding that the United States withdraw its troops from the Arabian Peninsula, home to the holiest Muslim sites. The American military presence in Saudi Arabia officially ended in 2003, months after a Qaeda-linked terror group launched a series of attacks inside the kingdom.

Analysts say Mr. bin Laden believes that it will be much easier to overthrow Arab regimes if they are not supported by American power. And he wants to encourage the current upheaval in Saudi Arabia, though analysts say they are unsure why he has suddenly made it a priority. Saudi Arabia has killed or arrested hundreds of militants, but there are cells still capable of carrying out attacks there.

"He sees Saudi as one of the places where he might be successful," said Matthew Levitt, a former F.B.I. terrorism analyst. "And he realizes there is tremendous potential in terms of societal issues that breed radicalization."

Does Mr. bin Laden's more moderate style mean there is less risk of a terrorist strike on American soil? Intelligence analysts are unsure. More than one analyst discerned an ominous warning embedded in his milder pre-election address.

"In Islamic jurisprudence, the warning is important," Mr. Bergen said. "And if we don't respond, it's our problem and our fault. He's putting the ball back in our court. Maybe this is all rhetorical and they don't have the ability to launch another big attack. But he intended to tell us that if we choose to completely ignore him, which is a very viable option for us, then we are going to get hit again."

The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial: Grim Realities in Iraq

The New York Times > Opinion > Editorial: Grim Realities in Iraq: "December 22, 2004
December 22, 2004
Grim Realities in Iraq

This has been a devastating week in Iraq and it's still only Wednesday.

Yesterday, an explosion ripped through a dining tent at lunch hour on an American military base near Mosul, killing at least 24 people and injuring 57. The day before, President Bush finally acknowledged that many of the more than 100,000 Iraqi trainees Washington had been counting on to take over basic security tasks were far from being up to the job. And on Sunday, car-bomb attacks killed more than 60 people in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, while in Baghdad, unmasked assassins brazenly dragged three election officials out of their cars in full daylight and executed them on the spot.

This is not just pre-election mayhem. It is stark evidence that with a crucial election now less than six weeks away, America's effort to bring into being a new Iraqi government representing all major population groups and capable of defending itself and its citizens still has a very long way to go. Some 21 months after the American invasion, United States military forces remain essentially alone in battling what seems to be a growing insurgency, with no clear prospect of decisive success any time in the foreseeable future.

Washington has no significant international military partners besides Britain, and no Iraqi military support it can count on. The election that once looked as if it might produce a government with nationwide legitimacy increasingly threatens to intensify divisions between the groups that are expected to participate enthusiastically - the Shiites and Kurds - and an estranged and embattled Sunni community, which at this point appears likely to stand aloof.

There may still be time for Washington to try to salvage the election, but that would require paying much more serious attention to legitimate Sunni grievances and showing an openness to postponing the election for several months, if that had a reasonable chance of attracting broader Sunni participation. So far, Mr. Bush has strongly resisted such an approach. As weeks go by without discernible progress, hopes for a decent outcome get progressively harder to sustain.

Right now, the only progress seems to lie in the willingness of the re-elected President Bush to face some hard truths:

One certainly involves Iraqi security forces, which have always been presented as the key to American withdrawal. For more than a year, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Pentagon officials had been claiming that many tens of thousands of Iraqis were being trained to take over frontline security duties, allowing American forces first to pull back from major cities and then, at a later phase, come home. Last week, at a meeting with America's two top military commanders responsible for Iraq, Mr. Bush got a candid evaluation of the actual combat readiness of these Iraqi trainees, who now officially number about 114,000. Mr. Bush was admirably blunt about it at his news conference on Monday, noting that while a few good generals and some good foot soldiers had been trained, "the whole command structure necessary to have a viable military is not in place."

We are glad to hear Mr. Bush acknowledge this sobering reality, but we are still waiting for him to explain who will have to fill in for these noncombat-ready Iraqis and for how long. Given the lack of other countries willing to put up their hands as volunteers, the only answer seems to be more American troops, and not just through the spring, as currently planned. Since the first days of the occupation, American troops have been too light on the ground in Iraq, allowing the looting and sabotage that soon turned into insurgency to get a costly head start.

And facing the need for an expanded American military presence means more than a simple reshuffling of deployments. If more troops in Iraq are not going to translate into a dangerously exhausted and overstretched Army, Marine Corps and National Guard, these forces need to be expanded through stepped-up recruitment. That means bigger spending on the least politically attractive part of the military budget, basic personnel salaries, and less for costly new weapons systems.

Another harsh reality that needs to be confronted head-on is the prospect for the Iraqi elections. The Jan. 30 elections were supposed to usher in a legitimate national government and a broadly representative assembly to draw up a constitution acceptable to all elements of Iraq's fragmented population - secular and religious, Shiite and Sunni, Arab and Kurd. But things now appear headed toward a badly skewed result. Enthusiasm and participation seem high among Shiites and Kurds, who suffered greatly under Sunni minority rule and now thirst for self-government. But in predominantly Sunni areas, including Mosul, parts of Baghdad and most of central and western Iraq, there is a deep and growing alienation that threatens to depress electoral turnout and provides a large reservoir of support for the insurgency. Without an acceptable level of participation across Iraq, the elections will not be able to produce a legitimate government capable of standing on its own, mastering the insurgency and surviving without the indefinite presence of large numbers of American troops.

The timing of last month's military assault on Falluja rested, in part, on the argument that Iraq's Sunnis really wanted to participate in the election, but were being held back by intimidation from the insurgents. The causes of Sunni alienation from the current political process actually run far deeper, and affect large numbers of people who cannot be classified as Al Qaeda supporters, Islamic fundamentalists or sworn followers of Saddam Hussein. A broader feeling has begun to take root that Sunnis have no political, professional or personal future in the new Iraq being shaped by Washington and its Shiite and Kurdish allies.

This feeling grew out of such earlier American mistakes as the wholesale dismissal of the old, Sunni-led Iraqi national army and the blanket exclusion of even midlevel former Baathists from government jobs during the early months of the occupation. It has fed off the continuing failure to assure that authentic Sunni nationalist politicians had an adequate voice in the interim government and election preparations. A further level of resentment has been added by the physical destruction of homes, jobs and infrastructure produced by American counterinsurgency campaigns in densely populated Sunni towns like Falluja. A coalition of Sunni political leaders led by Adnan Pachachi, a respected moderate, has repeatedly called for postponing the January election for several months to encourage broader Sunni participation. His pleas need to be taken seriously, not brushed aside as they have been up till now by Baghdad and Washington.

Leaving Iraq's Sunnis in such a sullen, resentful mood would undermine the creation of a new and stable Iraq and poison its relations with the rest of the Arab world, where Sunnis strongly predominate. Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, somehow seems unable to recognize this. Instead of reinforcing him in his folly, the Bush administration should be actively encouraging him to think afresh. If postponing the election date can ensure more adequate Sunni participation, it is in everyone's interest to do so. much "

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

StraitsTimes.Asia > Taiwan's Chen resigns as party chairman

Story Print Friendly: "Dec 14, 2004
Taiwan's Chen resigns as party chairman
Dec 14, 2004
Taiwan's Chen resigns as party chairman

TAIPEI - Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian took the blame for a legislative election defeat and resigned as the leader of his party on Tuesday, a move that could help ease political feuding that has caused severe gridlock in parliament.

Mr Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its allies were stunned when an opposition alliance - which was disorganised and beset with squabbling - won last weekend's legislative election, taking 114 of the 225 seats.

Before his weekly party meeting, Mr Chen told reporters he was quitting his chairman post. 'Ah-bian will accept all of the criticism and blame for the election loss,' he said, referring to himself by his nickname.

He said that he hoped a new chairman would make Taiwan more 'unified, stable, prosperous and progressive'.

Mr Chen's resignation might signal that he'll try to go back to his original strategy of being a 'president for all the people' who focuses on building consensus rather than pushing a party line.

When he was elected in 2000, he promised that he would distance himself from his party and be a non-partisan president who represented all citizens. He also tried to create Taiwan's first coalition government.

But opposition parties refused to cooperate with him, saying that they could not work together with the government because it was their duty to check and balance Mr Chen's administration. During the past four years, the opposition has blocked most of his major initiatives.

Mr Sun Ta-chuan, political science professor of National Dong Hwa University, said Mr Chen alienated moderate voters mainly because he 'jumped to the front line and sharpened the confrontation with the opposition'.

Mr Sun wrote in an opinion piece in the China Times newspaper on Tuesday: 'The low voter turnout indicated people were disgusted with the overheated political scene.' -- AP -- AP"

Sunday, December 12, 2004 > Opinion > EDITORIAL A Blow to NASA's Hubble Rescue

December 12th, 2004
The space agency's plan to rescue its most important scientific instrument, the Hubble Space Telescope, with a robotic servicing mission looks increasingly like a bad bet. A panel of experts assembled by the National Academy of Sciences concluded last week that there was only a remote chance a robotic mission could be mounted quickly enough to succeed and some danger that it might damage the instrument. Instead, the panel said that NASA should send astronauts up on a shuttle flight to service and rescue this incredibly valuable telescope before its gyroscopes and batteries begin to fail a few years from now.
The academy's unusually blunt assessment and a similar judgment by the Aerospace Corporation provide the strongest evidence yet that NASA ought to reconsider its previous opposition to a shuttle rescue flight. The paramount goal ought to be preserving the Hubble by any means necessary, even if that requires diverting the shuttle from other tasks and slowing the president's grandiose plans to send astronauts to the Moon and Mars in future years. If the space agency balks, Congress will need to insist that NASA make the Hubble its highest near-term priority and use the shuttle if necessary.
There is no longer any doubt that the Hubble is worth saving. Although NASA officials have sometimes denigrated the Hubble as a waning asset whose best years are behind it, the academy panel concluded that Hubble's future discoveries would be every bit as spectacular as its past successes. That is a remarkable statement to make about any mature scientific instrument.
Hubble has observed the universe as it existed 12 billion years ago, helped establish the size and age of the universe and discovered massive black holes at the center of many galaxies, among a host of findings that have reshaped our understanding of cosmology.
If its batteries and gyroscopes are replaced and two new instruments placed aboard by a servicing mission, the rejuvenated Hubble is expected to help find 1,000 new planets in the Milky Way galaxy; trace the formation of the first stars and black holes; and elucidate the nature of the mysterious dark energy that permeates the universe, among myriad possibilities. Hubble's endless productivity is the fruit of periodic servicing missions that not only replace depleted batteries and gyroscopes but also upgrade the observational instruments to take advantage of technological advances.
Hubble has already been serviced four times by shuttle astronauts, and a fifth flight was scheduled when the loss of the shuttle Columbia last year forced NASA to ground the three remaining shuttles for safety modifications. All future flights will be dedicated to finishing the half-built space station now orbiting uselessly overhead. Sean O'Keefe, the NASA administrator, has scrubbed the Hubble mission as too risky to undertake.
That excuse has now been exposed as a sham. The academy panel judged a shuttle flight to the Hubble only marginally more risky than a flight to the space station (and therefore far less risky than the combined 25 to 30 shuttle flights needed to complete the station). The tremendous scientific benefits to be gained from the Hubble are well worth the very small differential risk of a servicing flight, in the panel's judgment. Many astronauts clearly agree and are eager to fly to the Hubble. It is probably the most important contribution they could make to the advance of knowledge.
The academy favored an astronaut mission over robotics because the astronauts are far more likely to succeed. They have done the job well in the past and have the ability to cope with unexpected problems that might frustrate a robot. NASA has never carried out such a complex robotic repair and, based on its past history, is unlikely to pull this one off before Hubble conks out.
As of now NASA is pursuing a robotics program that it still deems highly promising and doing nothing to pursue an astronaut mission. The real reason the agency prefers robotics is that the same technologies might prove useful in the president's long-range plan to explore the Moon and Mars, whereas diverting a shuttle to the Hubble would disrupt NASA's planned high-speed dash to complete the station and retire the costly shuttles to free up money for the president's exploration program.
The agency faces two important design reviews for its robotics program next year. Unless those show astonishing progress, NASA should get cracking on an astronaut flight to the Hubble. The great danger is that NASA will convince itself and Congress that robotics will work, and then down the line confess failure and let a spectacularly successful telescope die from neglect.