WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President George W. Bush has not quite five months to make good on his seven-year-old vow to get Osama bin Laden “dead or alive” before his successor inherits the hunt for the terrorist mastermind.
But the vastly unpopular president rejects suggestions that he’s making any special effort to nab the elusive Saudi-born extremist ahead of the November 4 US elections that will decide who succeeds him at the White House.
“I read some of the headlines that said, ‘Bush orders special hunt for Osama Bin Laden’ — a little bit of press hyperventilating: after all, that’s what we’ve been doing since September 11,” 2001, he told Sky television in June.
In January, however, he seemed to accept the idea that it might not happen on his watch, telling Fox News: “He’ll be gotten by a president.”
If he feels regrets about not capturing bin Laden, it hasn’t stopped Bush from mentioning the Al-Qaeda leader in an applause line attacking his Democratic foes’ commitment to the so-called global war on terrorism.
“When it comes to the war on terror, our Democratic leaders should pay more attention to the warnings of terrorists like Osama bin Laden and spend less time heeding the demands of MoveOn.org and Code Pink” activist groups, he says.
And the White House has rejected Democratic charges that Bush diverted resources from the Afghanistan war to go after Saddam Hussein in Iraq, enabling bin Laden to slip away to a remote region on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
While his status is not publicly known, White House rivals Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain have been at it hammer and tongs over which of them would be more likely to oversee the terrorist chief’s capture.
“For while Senator McCain was turning his sights to Iraq just days after 9/11, I stood up and opposed this war, knowing that it would distract us from the real threats we face,” Obama said in late August.
“John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the Gates of Hell — but he won’t even go to the cave where he lives,” the Illinois senator charged.
“(Democratic) President (Bill) Clinton had opportunities to get Osama bin Laden. President Bush had opportunities to get Osama bin Laden. I know how to do it. And I’ll do it,” McCain shot back to ABC television on Wednesday.
Bush made his dramatic “dead or alive” promise six days after bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network carried out history’s worst terrorist strikes, leading the US president to declare a global war on terrorism.
Asked at the Pentagon whether he wanted the Saudi-born author of history’s worst terrorist attacks dead, Bush replied: “I want justice. There’s an old poster out West as I recall that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or alive.'”
Six months later, his focus already shifting to the war in Iraq, Bush told reporters in March 2002 that the war on terrorism was bigger than bin Laden and declared: “I truly am not that concerned about him.”
Six year after the September 11 attacks sent the US president’s popularity soaring to record highs as the US public rallied behind its wartime leader, they languish at record lows, with bin Laden still on the run.
And Bush now lists “dead or alive” with other colorful but “unfortunate” phrases he regrets uttering — and US First Lady Laura Bush has publicly criticized the invocation of the rough justice of the US Wild West.
“It didn’t sound serious, really,” she told Sky News television in June. “It makes it look like I like war. And I don’t,” the president agreed in the same interview.