the national interest

Fighting Terrorism Was the Biggest Weakness of the Bush Administration

President George W. Bush holds a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House May 24, 2007 in Washington, DC. Bush spoke about the Iraq war funding and the compromise immigration bill.
President Bush was bad at a lot of the parts of being president, but noine worse than fighting terrorism. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When Donald Trump impugned the honor of his brother earlier this year, Jeb Bush proudly fell back on the achievement of the Dubya administration that has endured in public memory, despite his other failures: “He kept us safe.” Even in 2008, at the nadir of Bush’s presidency, Americans still gave him a fair measure of credit in this area. But the impression that Bush was successful, or even especially well-focused, on protecting Americans from terrorism is an inversion of reality, and the fact that it can still be asserted with a straight face is the residue of one of the most successful propaganda campaigns in American history.

Chris Whipple’s revelations about the CIA’s urgent, ignored pleas to focus on the threat from Al Qaeda before 9/11 flesh out an increasingly consistent portrait drawn by Kurt Eichenwald and other reporters. A broad and consistent body of evidence had persuaded intelligence officials that Al Qaeda was poised to carry out a devastating attack against the United States. It was not just the famous August memo, “Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.” — the one Bush dismissed at the time as ass-covering — but a much longer and more desperate campaign to wake up Bush’s inner circle. Whipple reports, “Months earlier, starting in the spring of 2001, the CIA repeatedly and urgently began to warn the White House that an attack was coming.

But the Bush White House was dominated by neoconservatives, who were ideologically fixated on the threat posed by states and dismissed the threat of non-state actors. The administration’s defenders tend to gloss over the wee problem of Bush’s abject failure before the attack by treating it as a passing transitional problem, a matter of getting one’s feet wet, often speaking of the Bush presidency as if did not really begin until September 12. This willfully erases the administration’s gross negligence before the attacks.

It also ignores the reality that Bush and his closest advisers clung to their state-focused neoconservative dogma even after the attacks. That is why the administration began planning to invade Iraq immediately — not because they had some sinister conspiracy to distract the public into going along with their scheme, but because their misguided ideology left them unable to comprehend the power of a threat that did not emanate from a state. As Charles Krauthammer, a leading Republican intellectual, wrote in a column weeks after the attacks:

Yes, we need to get Osama bin Laden. Yes, we need to bring down the terrorist networks. But the overriding aim of the war on terrorism is changing regimes. And it starts with the Taliban. Searching Afghan caves for bin Laden is precisely the trap he would wish us to fall into. Terrorists cannot operate without the succor and protection of governments. The planet is divided into countries. Unless terrorists want to camp in Antarctica, they must live in sovereign states.

Krauthammer was expressing the convictions that blinded the Bush administration to the threat of a band of terrorists unmoored from a government. That same blindness caused the Bush administration to woefully mismanage its response. Having surrounded Osama bin Laden and some 2,000 of his most committed fighters in Tora Bora, the Bush administration left the task of killing them to weak Afghan pseudo-allies. The administration was already shifting its military resources and attention to Iraq. After all, the Afghan government had already fallen. Why bother, as Krauthammer scoffed, searching a bunch of caves? There was a government to topple in Iraq.

Of course everything about the Iraq war served to further weaken the American position against terrorism. The invasion, with its chaotic and almost completely unplanned occupation, left an anarchic void that has given rise to a newer and even more virulent Sunni terrorist movement in Iraq’s north, the threat of which has rippled out. The invasion, and revelations of American torture, helped radicalize Muslims against the United States while alienating potential allies.

In retrospect, Bush’s ability to portray himself to America as a committed and triumphant vanquisher of terrorism rested almost entirely on emotional manipulation. Bush standing on the rubble at Ground Zero; Bush throwing a strike at Yankee Stadium before a cheering crowd; Bush landing on an aircraft carrier — it was all brilliant political theater. And it supported a conclusion 180 degrees from reality. Of the manifold failures the Bush administration wrought, its handling of the terrorist threat should rank as the worst.

Fighting Terrorism Was Dubya’s Biggest Weakness