I just started reading Bob Woodward’s Bush at War written in 2002. It has been sitting on my bookshelf maybe 10 years. It detailed the initial planning and response to the 9/11 attacks. It’s the type of book I like to read long after the events have passed. There is more time for perspective, reflection, a cooling of emotions, and insight into how events and predictions ultimately transpired.
I do not harbor illusions about Bush. He and his presidency were a mixed bag. On the good side he was in that moment decisive, clear thinking, and aggressive in dealing with al Qaeda. He also is very human and connected to the American people and their anxieties in the weeks after the attack. His iconic image and words on the top of the rubble of the World Trade Center were moving then and remain so. On the bad side, he later allowed himself to allow his thinking to be transformed from an instinctual sense of vengeance and national self defense to the utopian idea that we could transform the Middle East by expanding democracy and addressing all of the other intractable problems in the region, such as Iraq and its alleged WMDs. In doing so, al Qaeda and the worldwide jihad movement continued to fester, and we unwittingly empowered Iran. Bush also remained somewhat abstract in his concept of “the country” and the respect due to Islam. This prevented him from closing the borders, which would have been the most effective means of stopping Islamic jihad power projection, and his failure to look deeper into the reality of Islam allowed him to be hoodwinked by the backslapping of the Saudis, who continually play both sides of the fence.
Bush appears in these early pages as a clear thinking and sympathetic figure, thrust into a dilemma that he had not been prepared for by his earlier life experience. One notable difference from Obama, made manifest in the latter’s recent “we are not really at war” speech, is that Bush understood this attack was an act of war to be addressed with military means. This seems obvious now, but it was far from obvious at the time, when the prevailing ethos on dealing with al Qaeda was one of a law enforcement problem. Bush later allowed his war footing to be chipped away by the interventions of the Supreme Court and the legion of “human rights lawyers” who gummed up what was supposed to be the streamlined detention regime of Guantanamo Bay. Worse, he allowed the mission to lose focus and expand exponentially to one of in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That said, his initial approach, one of vengeance and one of speed was memorable and correct.
What is noteworthy about Obama’s recent speech is its certitude. He declares, “So that’s the current threat — lethal yet less capable al Qaeda affiliates; threats to diplomatic facilities and businesses abroad; homegrown extremists. This is the future of terrorism. We have to take these threats seriously, and do all that we can to confront them. But as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11. ” Is this true? We hope it is. But the pre-9/11 threats did not necessarily give notice of what we faced on 9/11. Further, the homegrown radicals may be capable of great and spectacular violence if they simply are able to get some leadership, such as Mohammad Atta provided . Finally, even if the threat has diminished, that is no reason to let up on terrorists and their networks and the states that sponsor them. The Pakistans and Saudi Arabias of the world need to remain in fear of more than an unenforceable US indictment. Why tie our own hands?
France and England fought the 100 Years War. Central Europe was embroiled in the 30 Years War. The Indian Wars stretched across nearly the entire 19th Century of American History. A slippery enemy requires patience and persistence. But Obama, out of a combination of naivite and wishful thinking, simply thinks declaring victory is a substitute for actual victory. I hope he does not have to eat his words, but the 30 year track record of Islamic extremism against the West does not bode well for his sanguine and meandering words.