By Joe Conason
Bush’s 9/11 memorial address sought to justify the war in Iraq by stoking fear, while at the same time hypocritically urging national unity.
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 that 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.”
His 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 those 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, Bush’s fatuous words are especially bitter.
Anything but resolute, he 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 bin Laden. “There’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive,’ ” he said on Sept. 17, 2001.
Later that year, 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 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.” By then the Pentagon and the CIA, on orders from the White House, had essentially called off the manhunt. 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 insurgency. The promises we made to the Afghan people remain unfulfilled and dishonored—and the president’s repetition of his pledge to bring bin Laden to justice is merely campaign rhetoric.
Turning to Iraq, the president said nothing that reflected an honest assessment of his decision to invade Iraq. “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? 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, 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.
To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website, www.creators.com.