History does not view as
“great” those presidents who presided with little
challenge over periods of prosperity. It is only those who
successfully led this nation to triumph in the face of dire
difficulties that achieve “greatness.” Following Sept.
11, 2001, President Bush had a chance to distinguish himself in
this manner and join the ranks of Washington, Lincoln and F.D.R.
His speech on Sept. 20, 2001 to a joint session of Congress was
undeniably the best of his career. The “cowboy from
Texas” sounded like John Kennedy when he pledged that
“the advance of human freedom – the great achievement
of our time, and the great hope of every time – now depends
on us … We will rally the world to this cause by our
efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter and
we will not fail.” In the days following Sept. 11, as members
of Congress stood on the steps of the Capitol singing “God
Bless America,” they threw out partisanship to celebrate
their common love of this nation. When the Germans played the
American national anthem at the Brandenburg Gate and the French
newspaper Le Monde headlined (in French) “We are all
Americans,” they stood in solidarity, political and
spiritual, with the United States. For the first time in its
history, NATO invoked Article 5 of its charter: An attack on one
member is an attack on the alliance at large. Domestically and
internationally, Bush was handed the mandate his administration had
previously lacked. He was given the public support and political
capital necessary to lead the fight for the fundamental human
values binding the free world.
As an initial, defensive response to Sept. 11, the United States
embarked on a course of action against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Around the world, Bush did not need to actively seek support for
this war — American allies gave it freely. Militarily,
financially and politically, the major alliances entwining the free
world held firm. Even the American public was fully committed
— for the first time since Vietnam, we were willing to accept
significant military casualties to secure a victory. The Bush
administration was not merely leading; it was securing its place in
Three years after the attacks, however, domestic and
international unity is merely a memory. Since 2001, the
international coalition behind the “war on terror” has
faltered, and the bipartisan domestic consensus behind homeland
security has deteriorated into shameless electoral strategizing.
The Bush administration turned its post-Sept. 11 mandate into a
false justification for a radical agenda. The attacks have provided
a rationale for the war in Iraq and explained the weak economy, the
gaping budget deficits and even the need for additional tax cuts.
He took his incredible opportunity to lead the nation and create a
great legacy … and passed it up.
Instead of continuing this war against known terrorists in
Afghanistan, Bush embarked on a mission to invade Iraq. Asserting
that Saddam Hussein possessed dangerous weapons of mass
destruction, the administration presented military action in Iraq
not as a possibility, but as an inevitability. Even though the
United Nations sent weapons inspectors to Iraq to find and
dismantle WMD, they were not allowed to complete their work. Even
though Bush pledged to consult the United Nations, he deemed it
irrelevant when the Security Council appeared unwilling to
authorize war. The rhetoric of “rallying the world” to
defend human freedom was forgotten; the chance to unify the free
world in a fight for liberty was lost.
Even at home, Bush’s politics obliterated any vestiges of
post-Sept. 11 political unity. During the 2002 midterm elections,
the GOP unabashedly exploited the attacks for electoral purposes.
In Georgia, it attempted to link Sen. Max Cleland, who did not
support the president’s homeland security bill, to
terrorists. Cleland’s opponent, Saxby Chambliss, ran TV ads
that compared Cleland, a veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam,
to Osama bin Laden, the Sept. 11 mastermind. Leading Republicans
and conservative pundits regularly exploit patriotism as a partisan
emotion when they make the absurd argument that liberals love this
country less because they don’t support the president. In
spite of a campaign promise to “unite, not divide,”
Bush has worked closely with the Republican-controlled Congress to
remove Democrats from discussions of energy policy, defense policy,
tax policy and health care policy. The administration has
inexcusably taken the immediate post-Sept. 11 notion of reaching
across aisles and working with all Americans for the betterment of
this nation and put it in a trash can.
When voters head to the polls on Tuesday, they will hold a
referendum on the Bush presidency thus far. Whether he wins or
loses, however, history will view these past three years as nothing
more than a missed opportunity. Few presidents are ever given the
type of mandate that Sept. 11 gave George Bush, and fewer yet have