George W. Bush seems to believe that if only he speaks the same discredited phrases often enough, the rest of us will somehow come to believe them too. That must be why he misused the solemn occasion of the fifth anniversary of 9/11 to deliver a memorial address justifying the war in Iraq and seeking partisan advantage by stoking fear, while hypocritically urging national unity.
It is this transparent gambit, reprised in every election year since his first inauguration, which will permanently deface his legacy as President—along with his continuing refusal to confront the grave strategic and tactical errors of his administration’s “war on terror.”
Instead, Mr. Bush’s Sept. 11 speech indulged in self-congratulation while ignoring the grim situation on the ground. We “helped drive the Taliban from power in Afghanistan … put Al Qaeda on the run, and killed or captured most of those who planned the 9/11 attacks,” he boasted. “Osama bin Laden and other terrorists are still in hiding. Our message to them is clear: No matter how long it takes, America will find you, and we will bring you to justice.”
Every American ought to be angered by his hollow declarations. For those of us who watched the towers fall and breathed the smoke of death on that day in New York City, however, those fatuous words are especially bitter.
Anything but resolute, Mr. Bush has vacillated on the subject of Osama bin Laden, who of course was “in hiding” years before 9/11. During the first weeks after the attack, the President emphasized the importance of getting Mr. bin Laden. “There’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive,’” he said on Sept. 17, 2001. The choice of words was juvenile, but the sentiment resonated.
Later that year, Mr. Bush assured reporters that “he is not escaping us …. He’s on the run …. I said to the American people, ‘Our objective is more than bin Laden.’ But one of the things for certain is we’re going to get him running and keep him running, and bring him to justice. And that’s what’s happening. He’s on the run, if he’s running at all …. ”
Only months later, incoherent blustering gave way to pouting, when the President said that Mr. bin Laden’s fate no longer mattered. In March 2002, he told reporters, “I don’t know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don’t care. It’s not that important. It’s not our priority.” In fact, by then the Pentagon and the C.I.A., on orders from the White House, had essentially called off the manhunt and pulled out the Special Operations troops and C.I.A. paramilitaries assigned to that task. Their orders were to leave Afghanistan and prepare for the invasion of Iraq.
Now, as The Washington Post reported last Sunday, the trail has gone cold—and worse still, the Taliban allies of Al Qaeda have mounted a successful effort to dominate much of southern Afghanistan. The government of Pakistan has stopped looking for Mr. bin Laden and signed a truce with the Taliban. The promises we made to the Afghan people remain unfulfilled and dishonored—and the President’s repetition of his pledge to bring Mr. bin Laden to justice is merely campaign rhetoric that will be forgotten as soon as Election Day passes.
Turning to Iraq, the President said nothing that reflected an honest assessment of the decision to go to war or the dismal results of that choice. “I’m often asked why we’re in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks,” he said. “The answer is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat. My administration, the Congress and the United Nations saw the threat—and after 9/11, Saddam’s regime posed a risk that the world could not afford to take. The world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power.” Not a word acknowledging the false premise of “weapons of mass destruction” that led to the war. If there were no such weapons, then how did the Iraqi dictator represent a threat to the security of the United States? Mr. Bush has no plausible answer to that question.
Even worse, he ignored what is actually happening there now. For political expediency, he pretends that the main enemy is Al Qaeda, when the most serious threat to Iraq is ethnic and religious civil war. “We’re adapting to stay ahead of the enemy, and we are carrying out a clear plan to ensure that a democratic Iraq succeeds,” he claimed, although everyone knows there is no useful plan—and his own military officers warn that we are not winning.
Five years ago, Mr. Bush had an extraordinary opportunity to bring together the United States and the world. He spurned that chance at greatness for the sake of power—and now, ironically, sees his power diminish every day as a result of that venal decision. His televised incantations cannot restore what he so wantonly squandered.