Dear Mr. President: I’m not much of a letter writer — I prefer satellite telephones and videotapes — but in this case, I felt a more formal thank-you note was in order. The boys and I here in the cave were all surprised at the way America reacted in the first hours after our glorious attacks on your cities. My intelligence men said you were a lightweight, that you might lash out stupidly and kill millions. We really expected New York City and your economy to buckle, too, but none of those things happened. In those first hours, I have to admit, I was a bit worried my plan might have backfired.
Mercifully, this spirit faded. For all the talk of justice, of the world having changed, of new “crusades,” - bad choice of words, by the way - what’s going on now looks an awful lot like what Mohammed Atta sketched out to my operatives in Hamburg. Panic at home, a government that is failing to inspire confidence and turning fear into a political weapon, and a war waged from the sky that ensures civilians -- not American troops -- pay the largest price.
And so, Mr. President, I wanted to thank you personally through the U.S. mail, that most useful of federal agencies, for a long list of actions, missteps, statements, slights and opportunities missed in the past five weeks.
1. The conduct of the war
I think it would be fair to say that on Sept. 12, when I saw the actual video of the attack for the first time, about half of us here at al-Qaida central thought the day of reckoning was at hand. No nuclear-tipped missiles had been fired overnight, to your credit. Oh, how we prayed that you would unleash a volley that would forever stain America’s reputation with the blood of innocents! But you were smarter than that - at first.
In fact, nothing seemed to happen for three weeks. For awhile, our worst fears seemed to be coming true. Not even a Clintonesque fit of Tomahawk missiles! Thumbing through my Sept. 8 issue of TIME, I saw the magazine had declared Colin Powell politically dead, along with that Donald Rumsfeld character. And yet there they both were, stitching together a coalition, talking of a long, measured conflict like the cold war and ruling out the kind of war Americans fought in the the Gulf or Kosovo.
Suddenly, it was as if Vietnam had never happened — as if you had seen with your own eyes our plan to use your military’s fear of casualties against you. You spoke publicly of ground troops, of a real war.
Thank heavens — and you, too, of course — that none of this actually transpired. In fact, the current war in Afghanistan looks very much like the Gulf or Kosovo conflicts, only less effective militarily and far more fraught for you. With each Red Cross warehouse you destroy from a safe distance and with each village wiped out by “erroneous coordinates,” you tell the world that you value the lives of your volunteer soldiers above those of innocent women and children unfortunate enough to be born in Afghanistan.
Are you winning this war? I think you would say “yes” publicly. I wonder what you really think. But from my perspective, I can only thank you for failing to fight the kind of war you pledged that you would fight on Sept. 12. Better recruitment fodder money can’t buy. Remember, we only need to stay here longer than you to win. Do you really think the small force you sent will be here when my sons are our age?
2. John Ashcroft and Tom Ridge
We understand you cannot control California Gov. Gray Davis and his bridge-closing authorities. He is a Democrat, after all. But what could possibly explain — outside divine intervention itself — the chilling, disconcerting and tremendously effective campaign of domestic terror being waged on television by Ashcroft and Ridge?
From the early days of what you have dubbed the “war on terror,” it seems to us here in Central Asia that terror is precisely what your homeland security team has sown.
Look, the anthrax letters are a bust — a gimmick. Thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, might have died. But they didn’t. As with the Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, you got lucky. The mayhem has been contained. At least until Ashcroft and Ridge began regularly scheduled broadcasts. Now, what we have failed to do, the American government itself is doing for us. Day by day, with little evidence and absolutely no advice to the American people about what to do to safeguard themselves, your government has succeeded in jangling the nerves of your citizens, changing their habits, challenging the confounding faith Americans seem to have in their ability to overcome anything.
Even you seem to have fallen prey to panic. I understand from my contacts in Pakistan that you publicly warned Americans that nuclear weapons might be used against them. Of course, I’m not going to comment on whether that is true. But by saying so, Mr. President, you humble me. From bloodthirsty fanatic to superpower in five easy weeks. Thank you for that.
3. Your attacks on al-Jazeera
While we’re at it, Mr. President, let me just hand it to you for driving home my point about the hypocrisy of American foreign policy all these years. Oh, I know: people are tired of hearing it. In one ear, out the other. But we Arabs, being so poorly ruled ourselves, have a musician’s ear for hypocrisy. How many Voice of America broadcasts, presidential inaugural addresses, Hollywood plot lines have featured America’s reverence for the “free press.” And still you tried to strong-arm the Emir of Qatar — no friend of mine, but a brother Arab nonetheless — into shutting down al-Jazeera. And their crime? Reporting what I said.
I may live with a bunch of Afghan nomads, but I’m no camel-herder. I know al-Jazeera is the only independent media voice in the Arab world. And, yes, like all media companies, they are easily snookered because of their inflated regard for “exclusive” stories. So I manipulate them. Can you tell me your aides don’t leak things to the Washington Times or the American Spectator? Ha! But you don’t try to shut down the New Republic or the New Yorker when you don’t like what you read there, do you? Imagine the image it would present. Even if what they wrote were untrue, turning the messenger into the villain makes people think: maybe they’re on to something.
Thank you for that, too.
4. Your Israeli friends
Now, before I go further, I’d like you to know that I sent a separate note of thanks to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon several weeks ago for his assistance in furthering our vision of a world in which virtually any atrocity is justifiable (in the minds of the ignorant). He’s quite a character, huh George? How about that Czechoslovakia crack! Whatever small thanks I owe to you for stirring the rage of the Islamic world pales next to my debt to Mr. Sharon.
That said, I wanted to thank you for the rather lukewarm efforts you have made in restraining Israel in this uncertain time. When those tanks rolled into the West Bank, the temperature in this miserable cave literally rose from joy. What timing! Even Arafat is playing his role to perfection, prevaricating just enough to provoke the Israelis and keep his own people from hanging him on a meat hook, but not enough to actually put a crimp in the work of the martyr factories of Jenin, Gaza and Nablus.
Now I hear we’re in for another round of hopeless peace talks. As long as they last for years and lead to nothing, as they usually do, it’s all manna in the desert to me.
5. What you can do for me
One teeny, tiny complaint I would like to add, Mr. President. I really do wish you would ratchet up the anti-Arab rhetoric a bit more. This is supposed to be a Holy War, after all, and all this touchy-feely stuff with American Muslims is putting a crimp in my effort to jazz up the jihad. It’s a sad day in American when ethnic differences no longer inspire hatred.
On a related note, I was actually quite disappointed to find, early on, that you hadn’t merely written Sharon a blank check to clear out the West Bank and Gaza — you know, the same check you handed Russian President Vladimir Putin for Chechnya. (By the way, I notice you changed the State Department Web site so that those troublesome “Human Rights” reports no longer appear on the home page. See — something else we agree on!)
Otherwise, my complete and utter thanks to you, Mr. President. It is a real pleasure waging war with you.
Michael Moran is senior producer for special projects at MSNBC.com.