President Bush got at least one thing dead-right at the Tuesday night press conference where he attempted to defend his floundering counterterrorism policy. The terrorists, the president said, “can be right one time. We got to be right 100% of the time in order to protect the country.”
What was missing from Bush’s remarks was an acknowledgement of a central fact that has emerged from the flood of recent testimony about the war on terrorism: that the president and his advisers have been very wrong a great deal of the time in the past three years.
As the televised hearings of the 9/11 commission and a growing stream of published memoirs have made clear, the administration failed from the day it took office to grasp the strategic threat posed by Al Qaeda and its allies. Bush and his aides were ideologically blinded, fixated from the outset on the largely illusory threat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
No less important, they were blinded by their boundless contempt for the Clinton administration. That left them unwilling and unable to absorb the vast intelligence on the terrorists that was developed on Clinton’s watch, including threat assessments and plans for counterattack and homeland defense passed along to them during the transition.
After the September 11 attacks, that same ideological bullheadedness, magnified by a fatal inability to hear and digest competing viewpoints, led the administration to squander America’s vast reserve of global sympathy on a wrong-headed adventure in Iraq. That miscalculation is backfiring badly, inflaming the global fires of Islamic radicalism that it was supposed to quell and turning Iraq into a playpen for terrorists from around the world. Americans now find themselves bogged down in a quagmire with no obvious exit, isolated from our most important allies — and less safe than we have been at any time in recent memory.
This is not a partisan issue. The revelations of administration bullheadedness and ideological blindness now pouring out come not from marginal figures with axes to grind, but from central players: Bush’s former Treasury secretary, his former counterterrorism czar, senior figures on the National Security Council staff with records of service going back to the Reagan and first Bush administrations. One by one they have left the Bush administration and then spoken out against it, not because they love its opponents but because they fear its incompetence. It is hard to remember such a parade of senior figures turning on an administration over an issue of such critical importance to the nation’s well-being.
Americans are right to be riveted by the terrorism hearings and the surrounding fireworks. But the question being pressed most urgently on our television screens — whether or not the attacks could have been avoided — is no longer the crucial one for the public. The president and his defenders may well be correct that there was little they could have done, given the tools available to them at the time, to predict and interdict the 9/11 attackers. It would have taken an extraordinary combination of wisdom, flexibility and luck to put the pieces together. As we now know, Bush had none of those.
No, the critical question now is how to keep our nation safe in the future. Bush has presented his stewardship of national defense as the best argument for keeping him on the job. Given what we now know, it’s hard to take that claim seriously.
Supporters of the president owe it to themselves and the nation right now not to defend his past actions, but to acknowledge how he failed and demand that he begin to do the same. That’s the only way for him to retain any credibility — not just as a candidate, but as a commander in chief.