No, Bush Didn’t Keep Us Safe

Claims that President Bush kept America safe are counter to fact.

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George Bush and first lady Laura Bush during a service of remembrance for victims of the September 11 attacks.

One of the only times that former President George W. Bush was mentioned during the recent GOP gathering in Tampa occurred when his brother Jeb asserted what has become the reflexive conservative defense of the 43rd president: "During incredibly challenging times," the former governor of Florida told the conventioneers, "he kept us safe." No he didn't.

The "kept us safe" line depends upon on ignoring the fact that Bush had been in office for nearly eight months before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Alternately it depends upon arguing that either the attacks were so unforeseeable that the Bush administration could not possibly bear any responsibility at all for the government's failure on that day to have kept us safe or that the administration was so fully engaged that nothing more could be expected of them.

[See a photo gallery remembering the 9/11 victims 11 years later.]

And while those latter arguments were certainly made repeatedly in the months and years after 9/11, in the fullness of history they hold less and less water. The latest data point in this regard comes on the op-ed page of today's New York Times by journalist Kurt Eichenwald, who has a new history out of 9/11 and its aftermath, 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars. Eichenwald writes:

The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that "a group presently in the United States" was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later, on June 22, the daily brief reported that Qaeda strikes could be "imminent," although intelligence suggested the time frame was flexible.

But some in the administration considered the warning to be just bluster. An intelligence official and a member of the Bush administration both told me in interviews that the neoconservative leaders who had recently assumed power at the Pentagon were warning the White House that the C.I.A. had been fooled; according to this theory, Bin Laden was merely pretending to be planning an attack to distract the administration from Saddam Hussein, whom the neoconservatives saw as a greater threat. Intelligence officials, these sources said, protested that the idea of Bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist, conspiring with Mr. Hussein, an Iraqi secularist, was ridiculous, but the neoconservatives' suspicions were nevertheless carrying the day.

In response, the C.I.A. prepared an analysis that all but pleaded with the White House to accept that the danger from Bin Laden was real.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

The details may be new, but the general thrust of the conclusion is not. As Ed Kilgore notes today, Peter Bergen reached much the same conclusion eight years ago. Kilgore quotes Bergen thusly:

The real question then, is why, in the face of all this information about the threat, did the most experienced national security team in memory downgrade the problem?

The short answer is: They were in denial. Bush administration officials entered office believing that the great threats facing the country were a remilitarized China and a few, festering rogue states, especially Iraq—states that might try to challenge American hegemony with long-range missiles or, secondarily, by supporting terrorists. Al Qaeda not only didn't fit into this worldview, it also posed a direct challenge to it. If a network of stateless terrorists using truck bombs and other low-tech weapons represented the top threat to America's physical security, it would have been hard to argue that our chief security strategy should be to thwart states by building a missile defense—a goal to which Republican hawks had been committed for nearly two decades.

In other words, bin Laden and al Qaeda were politically and ideologically inconvenient and impossible to square with the Bush worldview—a textbook case of cognitive dissonance.

[Check out our collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

It's worth noting, as Kilgore and Andrew Sullivan do, that Romney has surrounded himself with neocons as his foreign policy advisers. So, Sullivan writes, "if Romney is elected in November, these same, evidence-blind, war-mongers would be back running U.S. foreign policy."

And not only was the administration given a great deal of warning about the impending threat, but as Time's Massimo Calabresi writes, they were also presented with an anti-al Qaeda plan of attack. Given that they had a host of other foreign policy priorities, they "slow-walked" the plan until finally adopting it on Sept. 10, 2001 (it then became the post-9/11 blueprint).

Oh and there's one other problem with the "he kept us safe" line. Even if you accept the premise that 9/11 somehow didn't happen on Bush's watch, that's not the end of the story.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Can Mitt Romney Best Barack Obama on Foreign Policy?]

As The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf wrote after Jeb Bush's Tampa speech :

What people mean when they say he kept [us] safe seems to be that there wasn't another terrorist attack like 9/11. By that standard, he kept us no safer than Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama. And even leaving out 9/11, for reasons that are never explained, Bush was president during the anthrax attacks, the Beltway sniper incident, the Los Angeles airport shooting, the Mohammed Reza SUV incident, the Seattle Jewish Federation shooting, and the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina. Again, I don't blame Bush for the victims of those incidents, but to harken back to his tenure as a time when the president kept America safe is ahistorical.

Finally, as Friedersdorf correctly adds, Bush led the United States into a war of choice in Iraq which did little to augment U.S. safety (especially for the 4,488 Americans who died in the fighting there) and arguably did much to hurt it.

  • Read Susan Milligan: Explaining Romney's Brain Freeze on the Troops and Afghanistan
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