Is Jeb Bush justified in claiming his brother “kept us safe” from terrorism? Obviously not.

Let me be clear: It is grotesquely wrong to suggest that George W. Bush is in any way to blame for the 9/11 attacks. That odious distinction belongs to Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the 19 evil young men, most of them Saudi nationals, who hijacked airplanes, turned them into missiles and killed 3,000 Americans.

The undeniable fact, however, is that Bush was president at the time of the worst terrorist assault on the United States in history. Jeb is only rising to Donald Trump’s bait if he continues to engage in an argument he cannot win.

Being goaded by Trump, the GOP front-runner, into weak and awkward positions almost seems to be part of Jeb’s campaign strategy. He defensively explains that “kept us safe” means the time after Sept. 11, 2001. The safekeeping includes measures such as intrusive domestic surveillance, torture of suspected terrorists and the invasion of Afghanistan. For Jeb, it excludes the invasion of Iraq, at least in retrospect, knowing what we know now. Or maybe it does include Iraq, since that was the subject of the exchange at the second Republican debate that prompted Jeb’s “kept us safe” declaration.

Quite a thicket of weeds. And as long as Jeb is trying to hack his way out of it, Trump has the upper hand.

“Do I blame George Bush?” Trump asked rhetorically in an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday. “I only say that he was the president at the time, and you know, you could say the buck stops here.”

Once again, Trump has created a problem not just for Jeb Bush but for the Republican establishment. The party is desperately trying to blame Hillary Clinton for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead. Clinton was secretary of state at the time, and the GOP wants to convince voters that the buck stopped with her.

Clinton is set to testify Thursday before the House Select Committee on Benghazi in what was supposed to be a made-for-television show trial. But the panel was already discredited by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who said its salutary impact has been to drive Clinton’s poll numbers down. Now Trump, with his impugning of the Bush legacy, points out an inconvenient parallel: By the committee’s warped logic, the most recent Republican president was guilty of negligence far beyond anything the GOP could ever pin on Clinton.

There is an obvious lesson to be learned in all of this: Bad things happen on every president’s watch — also, every secretary of state’s — and the proper place to lay blame is on the perpetrators.

To wit, the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, which killed 241 Americans, was not Ronald Reagan’s fault. Blame can only be ascribed to the group called Islamic Jihad and the miscreant “martyr” who drove a truck laden with explosives into the facility. Reagan was president at the time, but we do not hold him accountable for the fact that there were terrorists in Lebanon determined to kill Americans.

Likewise, Bill Clinton was not responsible for the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center or the deadly 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Ramzi Yousef and al-Qaeda, respectively, were to blame.

No president can claim to have “kept us safe” from all harm. Every president has tried his best to do so, and it is shamefully cynical to pretend otherwise. I strongly opposed many of the steps George W. Bush took after 9/11, for example, but I never doubted that his motive was to protect our nation and its interests.

That’s what is so appalling about how Republicans have tried to take political advantage of the Benghazi tragedy. Through selective leaks, cherry-picked facts and smarmy innuendo, they seek to give the impression that Clinton could have averted the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the others but decided not to. Maybe she deliberately provided inadequate security, they imply. Maybe she told rescuers to stand down.

This is nonsense, and I hope Clinton tells the Benghazi committee in no uncertain terms how deeply offensive it is. Benghazi happened on her watch, and for that reason she accepts ultimate responsibility. But blame the terrorists, not dedicated public officials — even if they happen to be named Bush or Clinton.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is [email protected].

© 2015, Washington Post Writers Group

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