How Bush lost the war on terror

J.B. Sivanich

In all of his farewell interviews, Bush has made it clear that he regarded the war on terror to be the central theme of his presidency. Bush would be wise to take up another issue to be remembered for, one that he looks more positive on, since he has failed on this front.
In a tape made and released right before the presidential elections in 2004, Osama bin Laden said that the point of the Sept. 11 attacks was to force the United States into bankruptcy by overextending themselves in war.
“All that we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations,” bin Laden said.
Al-Qaeda’s intent was not to destroy the United States militarily – it might have been if they had the capabilities, but that was not the case. It was to “provoke and bait,” as bin Laden said, America into ruining itself. It would not be a far stretch to say that bin Laden wanted to make America reveal its ugly side, or what would be its true self in bin Laden’s mind. The remarkably sad part is that Bush and Cheney have appeased him on so many different fronts.
Much of the obsession with the war on terror could be either assigned to a feeling of guilt in the administration for not preventing 9/11 and/or to an overly emotional fixation with terrorism bordering on a romanticized self-perception among the administration as noble warriors fighting an epic battle.
Whatever the origins, this preoccupation prevented the U.S. from taking rational action on many different fronts – many of which were mundane – that could have saved many more innocent American lives.
Besides his ever-costlier inaction on global warming, the most obvious example that comes to mind is Hurricane Katrina. In total, at least 1,836 people lost their lives; though the initial hurricane itself was responsible for a rather small amount of people dying, it was the lack of the governmental response that is responsible for most. Another clear example is his veto of the expansion of child healthcare, claiming it was too expensive. The emotionalism caused by 9/11 led the administration to make an ill-prepared intelligence case against Iraq before the invasion, in which they drew evidence to support their pre-determined conclusions instead of drawing conclusions from the evidence.
Much of this blame falls on Bush himself. He set up his administration in a way that favored loyalty over competence. The head of FEMA at the time of Katrina was Michael Brown, who rose to the position due to graft, not expertise, and whose previous job was as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. Bush seems to have taken the conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation’s advice to “make appointments based on loyalty first and expertise second” to heart.
He also refused to make any bold decisions that would not be politically popular or would upset his friends in big business. In his recent book “Hot, Flat, and Crowded,” Thomas Friedman argues that if Bush had asked the American people to make a sacrifice and put a $1-a-gallon tax on gas, we could have broken our addiction to foreign oil.
Instead, Bush told us that shopping was now our American duty, and even today we still send money over to Saudi Arabia, whose wahhabi sheikhs justify and financially support violent jihadists across the world and support other countries that act aggressively in their regions like Venezuela, Iran and Russia.
But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of his presidency was Bush’s almost immediate reaction to turn his back on the Constitution, arguing that the war on terror was such that the executive branch needed as much unburdened power as possible.
He asked Congress to forfeit the power to declare war – in the case of Iraq – to the president, which, it should be said, Congress did willingly. Likewise, he never asked for congressional approval on the recently signed Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq detailing troop withdrawals that also had a clause saying that the U.S. would potentially use military means to deter any “external or internal threat or aggression against Iraq that would violate its sovereignty … democratic system or its elected institutions.”
Bush also plainly just broke the law in many areas. He gave approval for warrantless wiretaps on American citizens in direct violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which is a felony.
He got legal patsies like John Yoo to maneuver his way around applying the Geneva Conventions to “terrorists” even when they were part of an organized army such as the Taliban.
In theory, the government could detain anyone who Bush deemed was an enemy combatant for an indefinite period of time. Bush suspended habeas corpus for “enemy combatants,” sending a majority of them to Guantanamo Bay prison camp, where they argued that the U.S. Constitution does not apply since the prison camp is not on U.S. soil. In June of 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the suspension of habeas corpus in regard to Guantanamo Bay was unconstitutional in the court case Boumediene v. Bush.
Even more troubling, he largely ignored the U.N. Convention Against Torture, an international anti-torture effort led by Americans and signed into law in 1984.
One could find many examples of the horrible nature of this part of recent American history; one particular bit that sticks out is that the CIA sent terror suspects to Syria to be tortured even after Bush added Syria to the list of outlaw states Bush called the “Axis of Evil” and condemned their human rights record.
Commenting on the presidential oath of office, editor and blogger for The Atlantic Andrew Sullivan noted, “The executive branch’s first duty is to protect and defend the Constitution, not the territory, of the U.S. On that score, Bush and Cheney did not keep us safe. They did to the Constitution what Osama bin Laden could never have done.”
Bush’s satisfaction to rule 51 percent of the country, his overwhelming incompetence, the economic faults including this latest crisis, and his failure to act boldly in response to 9/11 are all part of what history will remember about his presidency.
And yet, it is his assault on our Constitution and other American legal framework that will go down as the defining characteristic of this, the most failed presidency in our 200-year history.
We have a new president now. It is up to him and the rest of government to restore American values, thereby fighting the real war on terrorism and proving Osama bin Laden wrong.