You're quite right that Osama bin Laden's rants verge on incoherence. What he says is less important than his survival, which reflects administration failure in the war on terrorism. Bin Laden alive serves as a symbol for radical Islamists around the globe.
For a time, President Bush focused on Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts. But a desire to re-engineer the Middle East alas, the belief that lack of democracy leads to terrorism is no better grounded in reality than the liberal argument that poverty leads to terrorism quickly led the administration astray.
With administration attention diverted by Iraq, the group has revived. Last November, CIA Director Michael Hayden pointed to Al Qaeda's "deep bench of lower-ranking personnel capable of stepping up to assume leadership responsibilities." We face a "heightened threat environment," according to a recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE).
Downgrading the Afghanistan war also opened the door for the Taliban. Should the Taliban regain control of significant portions of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda would take root again in contrast to Iraq, where, you are right, Al Qaeda can't win. Sunni tribes already have turned against those who slaughter even their co-religionists.
Indeed, the principal issue for the U.S. in Iraq is sectarian war, not Al Qaeda terrorism. But America's military brave, competent and lethal as you say should not be expected to resolve Iraq's underlying political conflicts.
The administration now downgrades Bin Laden's importance but, absent its fecklessness, Bin Laden might not be alive to inspire independent terrorist groups in Britain, Spain and elsewhere. Iraq's terrorist cadre likely would have chosen a different role model.
Bin Laden has become a symbol for America as well. Fear of him, and what he represents, encouraged administration overreaching that yielded little or no security benefit. Expanding executive power is not the same as defeating terrorists.
We must realistically assess what new powers would target bad guys and what safeguards would limit abuse by good guys. To allow the president, any president, on his (or her) arbitrary authority to deny a citizen constitutional due process is to act out of fear, not wisdom. To confuse anti-communist refugees with Islamist terrorists is to substitute blindness for discretion.
Perhaps the biggest mistake is to act as if most terrorists are a magic asterisk, a set number of crazed theocrats whom we need only kill to be safe. Even Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz recognized that people become terrorists for a reason, observing that America's presence in Saudi Arabia has "been a huge recruiting device for Al Qaeda."
Unfortunately, killing Muslims in the name of freeing them angers those whom we are supposed to be freeing. In the most recent BBC poll, 60% of Iraqis say attacks on coalition forces are justified. The latest NIE warns that the occupation of Iraq has become Al Qaeda's principal recruiting tool. The British government similarly points to Iraq as inciting its home-grown terrorists.
The Bush administration likes to talk tough. But Osama bin Laden's continued freedom highlights the administration's biggest blunder, its misguided invasion of Iraq.
Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance. A former special assistant to President Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire.