When Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace asked former President Bill Clinton, “Why didn’t you do more to put bin Laden and al Qaeda out of business when you were president?” Clinton vigorously defended his record and admitted that although he didn’t get bin Laden, “At least I tried.” And then Clinton took a swipe at conservatives and the Bush administration: “They ridiculed me for trying. They had eight months to try. They did not try. I tried.” The next day, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice fired back, “What we did in the eight months was at least as aggressive as what the Clinton administration did in the preceeding years.” Less than a week later, Bob Woodward’s book State of Denial was released, which claimed that on July 10, 2001, then CIA director George Tenet and his counterterrorism chief, Cofer Black, met with Condoleezza Rice (then the National Security Advisor) to warn her about an impending attack, but that both Tenet and Black felt Rice brushed them off. Rice responded to the accusation, “What I am quite certain of is that I would remember if I was told as this account apparently says, that there was about to be an attack in the United States, and the idea that I would somehow have ignored that I find incomprehensible.”

The hard truth of all this “he said, she said” is that prior to 9/11, neither the Clinton nor the Bush administration had made al Qaeda the highest national security threat. According to the former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden Unit, Michael Scheuer, the Clinton administration had 10 chances to get bin Laden and did not take action, but also that “the Bush administration was absolutely negligent for not paying attention in their first eight months in office.” But if neither administration was paying enough attention to the al Qaeda threat before (which does not mean that either administration could have prevented 9/11), what about after (especially since President Bush has claimed that the al Qaeda threat was “obvious” even before Sept. 11)?

Except for U.S. military action against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, U.S. actions and attention have been almost singularly focused on Iraq, which represents the administration’s pre–Sept. 11 threat and national security paradigm—rogue states, weapons of mass destruction, and missile defense. Indeed, a review of President Bush’s speeches and statements on national security prior to 9/11 reveals that he was preoccupied with missile defense; he acknowledged the threat of terrorism only once and did not mention al Qaeda at all. The only time he mentioned terrorism—talking to members of the foreign press on July 17, 2001—he argued for “the capacity to rid the world of blackmail, terrorist blackmail. And so we have to have the capacity to shoot somebody’s missile down if they threatened us.”

In other words, after 9/11 the Bush administration went back to the future. The result of conflating the terrorist threat with rogue states and WMD led to the invasion of Iraq, which was an unnecessary action of choice and a dangerous distraction. While we should expect a superpower to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, by definition it is not possible to devote 100 percent attention to more than one thing at a time. If the al Qaeda threat demands our nearly undivided attention, the United States cannot afford dalliances that do not contribute to the goal of destroying al Qaeda. More importantly, America cannot afford to take actions that actually contribute to making the threat worse by increasing anti–American sentiment in the Muslim world, which is the basis for Muslims to become terrorists—yet that is exactly the result of the decision to invade Iraq according to one of the key judgments in the most recent National Intelligence Estimate: “The Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause célèbre’ for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of U.S. involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.”

Instead of going back to the future, we need to get back to basics. It seems blindingly obvious, but we must remind ourselves and remember who attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001: al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. Therefore, instead of Iraq, the focus of what we have come to call the war on terrorism must be on al Qaeda, which is a terrorist organization that has morphed into a network of networks and is representative of a radical Islamic ideology that is seeping through the Muslim world.