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He Kept Us Safe (Except When He Didn’t)

I'm really sick to death of hearing the Bush administration people brag about how they kept us safe from terrorists, matrimonially inclined homosexuals, and other really mean people. 

Sure, I understand why they do it.  And, no, I'm not referring to the fact that regressives seem to be congenital liars, or that, because they themselves are so existentially frightened, they understand instinctively just how the politics of fear work. 

No doubt all of that is part of the equation.  But I think the bigger reason that we are continually exposed to this insane mantra is because, despite their delusional tendencies, even conservatives recognize the paucity of plausible alternative claims. 

I mean, would you want to go to the public bragging about having booted two wars, one based entirely on lies, and both strung out now about twice the length of America's involvement in World War II?  Would you run for office touting your party's achievements at doubling the size of the national debt?  Would you point to Hurricane Katrina and say "Heckuva job, Bushie", expecting the public to agree? 

The truth is that, yes, regressives almost always lie, and, yes, they love to play the politics of fear, but the key reason that they brag about having kept the country safe during the Bush years is because it's the only claim they can plausibly make without being laughed out of the room. 

In fact, though, they should be laughed out of the room for making what is in reality the most absurd claim of all.  And then they should consider themselves damn lucky only to be laughed at. 

Disingenuous regressives (and what other kind are there?) who try to sell you on this notion want you to believe that the Bush administration somehow began on September 12, 2001.  They love to tell you about how the country was protected from terrorist attack after 9/11.  But that's odd, isn't it?  I always thought the job of the president was to protect the country for the entire length of his administration, not just nine-tenths of it. 

It gets even odder still if you inject a little bit of logic into dissecting their argument, always a hugely dangerous enterprise from the perspective of regressive mythology.  That is, let's just take them for a moment on their own terms, for the sake of argument.  We're supposed to be impressed that George W. Bush kept the country safe from major terrorist attack.  But of his forty-two predecessors in the Oval Office, can you think of any single one who failed to meet that test?  Me neither. 

Indeed, only one president experienced a major foreign terrorist attack on his watch over the two and a quarter centuries the United States has existed.  His name was Bush, George W.  Somehow, they don't mention that part.  Of course, the joys of having conservatives around have always included the pleasure of hearing lies to cover truth, bluster to mask fear, and arrogance bluffing for insecurity.  Likewise, the folks running hither and yon squawking about how they kept us safe are actually the only ones in the entire history of this country who, simply, did not.  Did.  Not. 

Yet, in fact, this is only the beginning of the crime (and I won't even comment on the many strands of compelling evidence suggesting that some or all of the official 9/11 story is a fabrication).  When I say that George W. Bush is the only president to have "experienced" a major terrorist attack on his watch, that is the most charitable possible reading of events.  Even if one does manage to intrude upon regressive hallucinations by pointing out that, uh sorry, it wasn't Jimmy Carter who was president of the United States on 9/11, any regressive worthy of his stripes will demonstrate great umbrage at the suggestion that Bush might have prevented that day's attacks. 

And, you know, personally, I suspect that blocking secretly-planned terrorist strikes is pretty tricky business, even for the best of governments at the top of their game.  And so, ordinarily I'd be inclined to cut any president some serious slack on this question, assuming there was a competent team making its best efforts at the admittedly difficult project of swatting flies in the dark, with the necessity of getting them all. 

And it is precisely this widely held sense of fair play upon which regressives prey when they implicitly exonerate the Bush administration for the failure of 9/11.  But there are two crucial flaws to this unstated (because it is never challenged, and therefore doesn't need to be spoken) line of thought, and they are in fact monstrous in both scope and effect. 

The first is the notion - generally implicit, but sometimes stated by people like Condoleezza Rice - that nobody could have seen this sort of attack coming.  She, for example, has noted that when one used to think of terrorist airplane hijackings, those scenarios involved simply flying the plane to Cuba or some such place and demanding a ransom.  Leave aside that some security officials did, in fact, game out precisely the possibility of hijacking airplanes and crashing them into buildings.  And leave aside the odd twist of logic that this approach entails, suggesting that mere ‘regular' hijackings would be acceptable and unnecessary to guard against. 

Even apart from all that, what is so galling about this lame defense is that it comes from the very same people who consistently criticized the Clinton administration for supposedly being weak on terrorism.  In fact, Richard Clarke, who served both presidents, in addition to Bush's father and Ronald Reagan, has indicated emphatically - despite the fact that he's a Republican who voted for Bush in 2000 - that Clinton was far more serious about combating terrorism than his successor was. 

It's well beyond outrageous for regressives to simultaneously attack the Clinton administration for its failures at preempting terrorist attacks - against the World Trade Center, against the USS Cole, against American embassies in Africa - and yet fully exonerate Bush, heroically even, for 9/11.  Unless I'm reading my history book upside down again (as I am sometimes wont to do ‘cause it makes so much more sense that way), the Bush administration came after Clinton.  They had no excuse for being less vigilant against an Al Qaeda attack, especially given their fondness for labeling Clinton as weak on terrorism. 

But the second implicit logic underlying the exoneration of the Bush administration for 9/11 is even more gratuitous.  It's the unspoken presumption that the administration did everything it could and simply couldn't prevent the attack any more than all the will and all the effort in the world could stop a tsunami coursing across the ocean from reaching its destination. 


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But here's what Clarke said in 2004, and it's important to remember that he was not some off-the-pigs-counterculture-beret-wearing-dope-smoking-stuck-forever-in-1968-radical-Mao-spouting-militant, but, rather, the very man that George W. Bush hired to head his anti-terrorism efforts:  "Frankly, I find it outrageous that the president is running for re-election on the grounds that he's done such great things about terrorism.  He ignored it.  He ignored terrorism for months, when maybe we could have done something to stop 9/11.  Maybe.  We'll never know.  I think he's done a terrible job on the war against terrorism." 

Clarke had good reasons to say these things, too.  He had tried in vain for eight months to get a meeting of top Bush administration officials on the question of terrorism and the Al Qaeda threat.  Nobody would take the matter seriously.  He finally got his meeting, but it was one week prior to 9/11, and the administration still had little interest in terrorism, because it was already entirely focused on Iraq.  His meeting got hijacked, so to speak. 

The myth of basic Bush administration competence in fighting terrorism is similarly shattered by George Tenet's efforts of a similar nature.  The CIA director was also hearing alarm bells going off like crazy in the weeks before 9/11.  Unable to shake the administration out of its stupor, Tenet finally resorted to calling an emergency meeting with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.  He still could not manage to move the Bush team into action.  She wasn't interested. 

And then there's the president himself.  He was famously briefed on August 6, 2001, one month before the attack, with an urgent report entitled, "Bin Laden Determined To Strike In US".  Bush was in Crawford, Texas, chainsawing brush, pretending to be a Texan, and playing cowboys and Indians.  What was his reaction to this seven alarm emergency?  This president - who, by the way, spent more time on vacation than any other American president in history - remained on vacation for an entire month prior to 9/11. 

Even more telling was Bush's immediate reaction to this briefing.  He telegraphed his level of concern by responding to the CIA briefer who presented him with the report using these infamous words:  "All right.  You've covered your ass, now."

Unless one lives with Alice, the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts in some sort of LSD-soaked Wonderland - which I'm increasingly convinced all regressives in fact do - it's impossible to reconcile these historical facts with any plausible argument that the Bush administration was competent, or even seriously concerned, about fighting terrorism.  If there is any doubt about this whatsoever, just try replacing the name Bush in these stories with Obama.  The lunatics on the right are literally already calling Obama a socialist, communist, and fascist, while worrying out loud about his secret plan to turn America into a Muslim paradise.  Imagine what they would say about him if his top terrorism advisor and his CIA director warned him of a looming attack, he responded to that warning by accusing them of bureaucratic ass-covering and by spending the next month on vacation, and then 3000 Americans died in an attack he failed to take seriously. 

Given what they already say about Obama, or Clinton, and given a repeat of these same set of facts that actually do apply to George Bush, I could quite literally imagine a massive, angry and violent march on Washington - think tea parties on steroids, complete with roid rage - in which the president's life would literally be in danger.  And you know what?  People should be incredibly angry at any president so incompetent, so negligent, and so cavalier. 

But, of course, George Bush's job approval ratings only skyrocketed in the wake of 9/11, and he remains a favorite of regressives unto this day, who also miraculously completely buy into the myth of George the Protector, the guy who kept us safe (except when he didn't).  So much so that even the former vice president could wait only a week or two into the new administration to begin lining up the predicate for blame should the United States experience another terrorist attack during the Obama administration. 

In the end, all of this is powerful testament to the skill regressives possess at bludgeoning and marketing.  Even middle Americans, who long ago migrated from supporting George Bush out of fear to despising the little puke for all the manifold and righteous reasons there are to choose from, still buy into the myth that Bush kept us safe.  Nobody ever blames him for 9/11, despite the fact that there is ample evidence overwhelmingly demonstrating his administration's complete failure leading up to that day. 

And, miraculously, nobody thinks of him with any sort of historical accuracy on this question.  Not only is he not the president who kept us safe, he is indeed precisely the opposite.  He is the one president - out of forty-four, serving for over two centuries time - on whose watch a massive terrorist attack took place. 

Even as Barack Obama endears himself to America by returning the careening, hurtling eighteen wheeler to the middle-of-the-road - right there with Jim Hightower's proverbial yellow stripes and dead armadillos - and even as the Republican Party finds new ways each week to commit political suicide by increment, attitudes on this question still remains nothing short of astonishing. 

Those among us - including tens of millions who voted for Bush not just once, but twice - wishing to dismiss the last eight years as some sort of aberrant nightmare should stop for a long moment to consider the meaning of Bush administration mythology on the question of terrorism and national security. 

Maybe it's true that regressive freaks can no longer plausibly run around bragging about how great the boy king was on economics, or fighting bad guys abroad.  Woo-hoo.  Yep, we've come a long way, for sure. 

But surely it is a measure of this society's profoundly pathetic and unyielding political immaturity that these lunatics can still get away with lauding the former president with the monumental claim of keeping America safe, when in fact he did just the opposite. 

What kind of country is it where so manifestly absurd and oxymoronic a line as that goes unchallenged? 

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David Michael Green

David Michael Green

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.

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