Creating a new Department of Homeland Security, and fixing the obvious deficiencies exposed by the last crisis, does not address the reality that government, as it is currently configured, does not adapt fast enough to changing missions to be effective in the post-Cold War and, now, post-9/11 world.
JOHN FARMER (SENIOR COUNSEL TO THE 9/11 COMMISSION), THE GROUND TRUTH (2009)
THE “KUMBAYA” MOMENT OF POST-9/11 WORLD SYMPATHY FOR AMERica passed quickly. Perhaps this was inevitable. Nevertheless, a warrior-like President Bush refused to deviate from his “with us or against us” course as he turned America into a superlative martyr. In terms of policy, he seemed dismissive of the UN and NATO. He focused almost exclusively on protecting the United States from another terrorist strike. This overarching objective allowed him to spin any proposed U.S. policy as a righteous one. As “the only remaining superpower,” the United States was still in the process of defining itself in the evolving post-Cold War era in which Communism was no longer a formative element in U.S. foreign relations. With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the opening of China to market capitalism, Bush had inherited no serious enemies among nations. Unlike Clinton, he didn’t even feel obliged to work with NATO allies to spread democracy in eastern Europe. He responded to the global outpouring of post-9/11 sympathy in crisply diplomatic terms. “I thank the many world leaders who have called to offer their condolences and assistance,” he said, but then switched to a harsher tone that would become the basis for his subsequent foreign-policy stance and the impetus for the basic philosophy known as the Bush Doctrine. “We will make no distinction,” Bush said, “between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” The statement indicated precisely how the “war on terror,” as the Bush administration termed its wide-reaching response to the 9/11 attacks, would differ from all wars in U.S. history.
In the past, America’s adversaries were other nations. The early twenty-first century, though, saw the rise of groups with international political agendas but without specific geographical bases or diplomatic recognition. In the developed world, there were NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) like Greenpeace, Amnesty International, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center that took advantage of advances in technology—especially in Web-based communications—to transform themselves from being what many regarded as inconsequential, fringe, or splinter groups into influential and powerful entities. Ironically, al Qaeda operates within a similar model, recruiting members across borders and using technology to coordinate training, planning, and action.
Early reports linked the heavily armed, radical Islamist coalition to the attacks of September 11, 2001. American intelligence reports indicated that al Qaeda’s leaders, including its founder, Osama bin Laden, had been given sanctuary in the mountains of Afghanistan along Pakistan’s border. On the day of the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan’s Taliban leadership made a weak response to that insinuation, leading some observers to question whether the Taliban would even know whether bin Laden or anyone else was operating in the loosely organized, and very rugged, country. What everybody in the world knew was that the Bush administration had a strangulation order out for bin Laden.
Hotter than a pistol for revenge, President Bush didn’t officially refer to al Qaeda or bin Laden in the days following 9/11. He did, however, habitually acknowledge that the target in the new war on terror would be one without borders. For that reason, he declared war on any nation harboring terrorists. Stateless terrorist networks had to be dismantled. If a government harbored terrorists, it was an enemy of the American people. By defining the enemy in this way, Bush could bring a traditional style of warfare to the new type of multinational enemy. With public outrage over 9/11 sky-high, Bush asked Congress for powers of war. On September 14, 2001, he received sweeping authority to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks.” Congress also made an initial defense budget allocation of $40 billion. Almost immediately, fifty thousand troops were called up from the National Guard and reserve, and within eight days of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. homeland, a fighting force was en route to the Persian Gulf, where it gathered in a naval staging area within range of Afghanistan. In public Bush repeatedly refused to negotiate with the Taliban leadership for the surrender of bin Laden. For their part, the Afghans issued the same refusal. Behind the scenes, though, through diplomatic channels, efforts were made to avert full-scale war, with Pakistan making the strongest attempt to broker a deal for the arrest of bin Laden.
All such attempts failed, and on October 5, 2001, American and British planes started bombing al Qaeda and Taliban base camps in Afghanistan. A few weeks later, the Taliban leadership fled Kabul, and within a month Kandahar had also collapsed. The U.S.-British forces had toppled the Taliban and pinned down bin Laden in a network of tunnels in the mountainous region of Tora Bora, but bin Laden miraculously escaped aerial bombardment.
THE MIDDLE EAST IN 2010
In the covert battle to serve justice (not revenge) on the terrorists responsible for the attacks, President Bush proved uninhibited in using “all necessary and appropriate force,” as he saw fit. In interpreting the legal status of suspected al Qaeda terrorists who were captured by the United Sates, the president soon crossed into new ground, rejecting many assumptions regarding U.S. constitutional law as well as international protocol. Among the latter were the agreements in the Geneva conventions regarding the treatment of enemy combatants.
While the first months of the war in Afghanistan did not produce the primary objective—the capture of bin Laden—it did see hundreds of other accused Islamic fundamentalist terrorists taken into custody. Jihadists were also apprehended in nations all over the world, including the United States, and most were immediately isolated and incarcerated at the U.S. military installation in Guantánamo Bay (located on the western tip of the island of Cuba). On November 13, Bush issued an executive order citing the “extraordinary emergency” at hand and applying a stripped-down form of military justice to those captured. The order allowed the U.S. government to hold foreign nationals (as well as U.S. citizens) without showing cause, scheduling a trial, allowing for legal representation, or even communication of any kind with the outside world. It justified this suspension of human rights by claiming that terrorists, “if not detected and prevented, will cause mass deaths, mass injuries, and massive destruction of property.” The order reflected another aspect of the Bush Doctrine as it coalesced in 2001-02: the assertion that civil rights might be re-interpreted and even suspended indefinitely in the face of a “national emergency.” The majority of Americans supported the Bush position in the autumn of 2001. But many foreign nations were dismayed by the use of Guantánamo and other sites as a system of secret prisons.
President Bush’s attitude was not entirely the result of the events of September 11. His bold and nationalistic stance had its historic inspiration in the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose Cold War successes on the international stage Bush greatly admired. In a more immediate sense, though, Bush was influenced by a think tank established in 1997 and named the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). It attracted dozens of neoconservative Washington insiders who were intent on expanding upon what its founders, citing Reagan, called “American exceptionalism.” Turning aside decades of foreign policy based on collective security—through formal alliances such as NATO or tacit ones based on mutual interests—the PNAC asserted that American foreign policy should be based on “military strength and moral clarity.” In this context, therefore, the White House had the right to make decisions based on America’s best interests and survival, to overthrow governments (Iraq) that it considered threatening, and to use force without consulting others (i.e., the United Nations). Bush was not among those who signed the PNAC’s original statement of principles, but his brother, Jeb, a Florida governor, was on the list of twenty-five names. More significant were some of the other names at the PNAC’s founding core: Dick Cheney, Bush’s handpicked vice president; Donald Rumsfeld, his Secretary of Defense; Condoleezza Rice, his National Security Adviser (and later Secretary of State); Lewis “Scooter” Libby, one of his senior assistants; and Paul Wolfowitz, his Deputy Secretary of Defense.
Cheney and Rumsfeld, close friends, were veterans of the Washington, D.C., hierarchy. They had spent decades, including many long nights, discussing America’s preeminent role in the world and how to bolster it to Pax Americana status. They were, in the words of the neoconservative thinker Richard Perle, “appalled at the feebleness of the Clinton administration.” Indeed, Cheney’s strength in the area of international relations was cited by Bush as a primary reason why he was selected as the vice-presidential candidate. Bush himself did not boast any experience in developing or implementing foreign policy and so chose his running mate, not for his following at the polls (which would have been scant), but for his power in navigating matters of state. Cheney was a die-hard believer in a central PNAC tenet: Saddam Hussein and the Baath party had to be terminated. “Above and beyond toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and dismantling its deadly weapons,” Fouad Ajami wrote in The Dream Palace of the Arabs, “the driving motivation of a new American endeavor in Iraq and in neighboring Arab lands should be modernizing the Arab world.”
Cheney had been a congressman (R-WY) for five terms in the 1980s. In his early Washington days, he considered Donald Rumsfeld his mentor. In 1988 Cheney left Congress to serve as Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush, and he helped to administrate the successful Gulf War (1990-91). Cheney left government and entered the private sector during the presidency of Bill Clinton, but—unsurprisingly—the corporation that he worked for was one with strong international operations: the oil and field-services company Halliburton, based in Houston, Texas. Donald Rumsfeld, a native of Illinois, had already been Secretary of Defense once, having served under Gerald Ford. Nearly thirty years later, Bush asked him to take the post again. Thus Dick Cheney’s influence could be seen in the earliest foreign-policy decision: the selection of his friend, Rumsfeld.
Condoleezza Rice was a brilliant academic, previously employed as the provost at Stanford University and as senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, where she refined her dedication to implementing peacemaking policies through international dialogue. Her area of expertise was international studies, the former Soviet bloc in particular, knowledge she implemented as George H. W. Bush’s ace adviser during the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the process of German unification. Rice then served as George W. Bush’s foreign-policy adviser during his 2000 campaign and soon became indispensable to him as a trustworthy and succinct source of information. Immediately after he was elected, she was tapped as national security adviser.
Nearly all of Bush’s foreign-policy advisers advocated a far more unilateral approach than that of the previous two administrations. The aura of bipartisanism that even Ronald Reagan had promoted was largely scoffed at; he had considered Clinton too weak. A hawkish change of direction was almost inevitable under George W. Bush. One of Bush’s advisers, however, stood in marked contract to the others, especially those from the PNAC crowd. That was Colin Powell, the Secretary of State. Now a retired army general, Powell had, like Cheney, been instrumental in the senior Bush’s administration, having been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a primary architect of the Gulf War. Powell, who was raised in New York City, was practical, naturally diplomatic, and moderate in comparison with Bush’s other senior advisers. His attitudes would cause him to be at odds with the others, complicating his relationship with the President. Bush respected Powell, appreciating that he had earned his five stars the hard way: on merit. But Bush often chose to follow the opposing advice of Cheney and Rumsfeld.
The tendency for conflict among President Bush’s foreign-policy advisers became public at the end of 2001 when human-rights abuses at the Guantánamo prison in Cuba were widely reported. On January 18, 2002, Bush announced that the United States would not adhere to the Geneva conventions in its treatment of the 186 prisoners there. Imbued with the flimsiest of legal reasoning, Bush claimed that the efforts to capture terrorists made habeas corpus moot. Other nations objected. So too did Democrats and the American Civil Liberties Union. President Bush was unmoved. Torture was also an issue, but Bush argued that sleep deprivation and waterboarding weren’t really torture. When Bush’s decision to depart from the respected Geneva conventions was made, Attorney General John Ashcroft reported that the President “didn’t think about the world reaction.” Such an admission sent a signal that the United States was accepting no constraints in its pursuit of safeguarding the homeland. It was a wartime policy that was understandable in the short term but could have ugly ramifications in the long run. Secretary Powell, recognizing this problematic fact, asked the President to reconsider his abandonment of the Geneva conventions, arguing that the United States could not expect international law to prevail in the treatment of Americans overseas—civilians, as well soldiers—if the nation did not uphold it in reverse circumstances.
On February 8, the President rescinded his decision to ignore the Geneva conventions, as Powell had requested. The episode would not, however, mark the last time that the Bush administration was questioned on its abysmal treatment of suspected terrorists. Two predominant aspects of Bush’s foreign-policy formulation would have their roots in this episode. First, the moderating influence of Colin Powell was invaluable in relation to the more extreme neocon attitudes of most of the senior staff. And second, Bush’s first priority—to protect the nation from another terrorist attack—could distort his long-term decision making. While no sensible American wanted to allow another sneak attack on the scale of 9/11, the ramifications of military actions on other endeavors or future events had to be considered. Powell brought that sense of restraint to the White House deliberations on how best to win the war on terror.
Unfortunately, the ongoing war in Afghanistan did not achieve its primary objective: to capture Osama bin Laden. But the Bush administration could point to dozens of al Qaeda leaders who were apprehended or killed, including Muhammad Salah (November 2001), Tariq Anwar Ahmad al-Sayyid (November 2001), and Abu Salah al-Yemeni (January 2002). Additionally, the war took on a humanitarian goal (i.e., the demand that women, who were accorded very few basic human rights under Taliban rule, be treated equally to men). While the war in Afghanistan accelerated, with the United States sending ten thousand troops to the area by December 2001, President Bush did not consider the deployment the only front in the war on terror. On January 29, 2002, he made perhaps the most important foreign-policy speech of his presidency, announcing an anti-terror policy position of great urgency in his State of the Union address. It would have been hailed the hallmark of Bush’s foreign-policy decisions even if the 9/11 attacks had never occurred. Explaining that the eradication of terrorist activity was the primary goal of the administration, Bush didn’t mince words. “Our second goal,” he bluntly said, “is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction.” He identified three such regimes as North Korea, Iran, and Iraq.
“Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror,” Bush said. “The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax and nerve gas and nuclear weapons for over a decade.” He then called the three nations that he had cited “an axis of evil.” The phrase, the handiwork of speechwriter David Frum, harkened back to the world wars, when the German-led coalition was known as the Axis powers. It became symbolic of Bush’s view of the world order, and it was reminiscent of the PNAC view that America needed to preemptively “challenge regimes hostile to our interests and values.”
Many world diplomats cringed at Bush’s overwrought “axis of evil” gauntlet. Consequently, after the State of the Union address that January, Bush was forced by the spread of false rumors to deny that the U.S. government had plans to attack North Korea. “We’re a peaceful people,” he said. “We have no intention of attacking North Korea. . . . We’re purely defensive.” While making a trip to Asia in February of that year, Bush emphasized the need for Thailand, Indonesia, and other nations to actively fight terrorist groups within their borders. Bush, of course, had to tread a fine line: He had to advocate severe action against potentially violent radical Islamists, but he also had to approach the general Muslim populations of the world with equanimity. The administration was especially careful not to criticize the Koran. While in Asia, he continued to chastise North Korea and to seek UN support for ostracizing the leadership there. Bush’s immediate suggestion, the reunification of the two Koreas, was well received in South Korea but could not be considered a serious diplomatic initiative.
Meanwhile, in February 2002 the President instructed General Tommy Franks of U.S. Central Command to start moving U.S. troops from Afghanistan to the Persian Gulf. The next month Bush made his intentions unambiguously clear to three U.S. Senators. “Fuck Saddam,” he said. “We’re taking him out.” Bush was interested in sending a broad message throughout the Middle East. “By the early spring of 2002,” George Packer wrote in The Assassin’s Gate, “a full year before the invasion, the administration was inexorably set on a course of war.”
While Bush was occupied with the war on terror and with positioning the United States in opposition to the “axis of evil,” many seasoned diplomats worried that he was ignoring the ongoing troubles between Palestinians and Israelis in the Middle East. Violence was increasing in the Holy Land, settling into a disturbing pattern of suicide attacks by young Palestinians against civilian targets in Israeli cities like Tel Aviv. Hosni Mubarak, the moderate President of Egypt, personally appealed to his American counterpart to renew an active role in negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The Bush administration had designated a Middle East envoy, Anthony Zinni, but he was not directed to visit the region on a regular basis. Bush’s reply to Mubarak strongly implied that the United States would not involve itself in talks on the level of an envoy, let alone of higher officials, until the violence stopped. The Bush administration’s attitude disappointed those diplomats who felt that the attention of U.S. officials in the negotiations was integral to imbuing the combatants with hope for a solution—and that hope was integral to putting an end to Middle East violence.
The president took a similarly hard-line approach in another long-standing area of U.S. diplomacy: Russia. Just as a lead role in Middle East peace negotiations was considered de rigueur for U.S. presidents before Bush’s term, the goal of arms reduction in conjunction with Russia (and the former Soviet Union) had been a goal of administrations of each party for two generations. But Bush stunned many observers around the world when, in early 2002, he declared his intention to withdraw America from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The treaty covered short-range weaponry, and his action was taken by the Russians as a potentially aggressive act, one that jeopardized its borders with eastern European nations. Nonetheless, in late winter of 2002 Bush accepted overtures from Russian president Vladimir Putin for closer ties between the two powers. As a positive result of their efforts to find common ground, they signed the Treaty of Moscow, which called for a significant reduction in nuclear weaponry. He was less agreeable on another topic of intense international interest: the Kyoto Protocol. Bush refused to sign the protocol, insisting that in the interest of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, industries would do a better job of policing themselves than any gaggle of cross-border global regulations. Predictably enough, Bush’s recalcitrant position infuriated environmentalists throughout the world.
But Bush’s cavalier attitude also alienated him from GOP hard-line conservatives. Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk-show host who represented the opinions of many right-wing Americans, lamented the fact that Bush had even admitted that global warming was a result of human activities. Conservatives disapproved of Bush’s tact on global warming and of his overspending taxpayers’ dollars, and this was markedly different from the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who had maintained a firm hold over the conservative wing of the electorate with policies that were, in many cases, far more moderate than those of Bush. Many fiscal conservatives rejected Bush’s war in Afghanistan (and later in Iraq) because they would cost trillions of dollars. Libertarian conservatives believed that the United States needed to mind its own business.
In the aftermath of the 2002 State of the Union address, the Bush administration focused on Iraq, one of the three nations that comprised the so-called axis of evil. Secretary Rumsfeld claimed in early June that Iraq and its president, Saddam Hussein, were actively producing weapons of mass destruction in direct violation of UN sanctions imposed after the Gulf War. The UN had carefully monitored Iraq’s capabilities through the intervening years, albeit with periodic friction from Baghdad. But the current UN assessment was that Iraq was not engaged in the development of banned weapons. The American view was far harsher. “They’ve had an active program to develop nuclear weapons,” Rumsfeld said of the Iraqis. “It’s also clear that they are actively developing biological weapons. I don’t know what other kinds of weapons would fall under the rubric of weapons of mass destruction, but if there are more, I suspect they’re working on them, as well.”
Dick Cheney was also commenting freely on the weapons threat from Iraq and the need for the United States to combat it. An unusually active Vice President, Cheney traveled on high-level diplomatic missions, including one to the Arab nations in the spring of 2002. According to one contemporary report, Cheney’s well-staffed office was “a kind of free-floating power base that at times brushes aside the normal policymaking machinery under National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. On the road to war, Cheney in effect created a parallel government that became the real power center.” Cheney exerted his influence both inside the White House and outside it. He made statements warning that the window of opportunity for destroying Iraq’s nuclear capability was drawing to a close and that, in any case, the UN inspectors like Hans Blix of Sweden could not be trusted to spot active installations. He also made repeated allusions to a direct connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein—a connection that was even more incendiary than the specter of weaponry in the minds of Americans unable to forget the horror of the terrorist attacks on New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.
The fierce opinions of Cheney and Rumsfeld were vividly clear: A U.S. invasion of Iraq aimed at destroying illegal weapons stockpiles was necessary. The two were undoubtedly potent in presenting their hawkish viewpoint in White House policy meetings. The degree to which President Bush drew his own sense of military imperative from them is not certain (though Washington insiders suspected in the early years of the Bush administration that Bush was fundamentally influenced by his Vice President and Defense Secretary). In a speech at West Point on June 1, the President expressed the Bush Doctrine forcefully, stating that the United States would make preemptive strikes against nations suspected of preparing to attack the United States or of giving a home to terrorists who might be planning such attacks. “If we wait for threats to materialize, we will have waited too long,” he told a thousand graduates of the academy.
The United Nations was then evaluating the situation in Iraq and the potential need for intervention in the country. But with rhetoric heating up, no one could be sure that Bush would wait for the final UN report. The administration began leveling more damning charges at Hussein. The rhetoric got so harsh, in fact, that Bush was compelled to assure the nation that he would not attack Iraq without congressional approval. On the first anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it was apparent that in terms of priorities the Bush White House had changed its policy mind. Bush and his senior advisers were no longer speaking of al Qaeda and bin Laden as the primary threat to the American homeland. While the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorism acts were certainly still wanted, the Bush administration was pointedly directing even more attention toward Iraq, which it painted as the potential perpetrator of violence against Americans in the future. Bush’s remarks on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while somber, contained the same tone of impending action he had used at West Point. Clearly, he was preparing the American citizenry for a second war front in the form of military action against Iraq. Opposition voices insisted that he produce tangible evidence to support another war (i.e., proof of Iraq’s production of weapons of mass destruction or of the Iraqi government’s support of al Qaeda or other terrorist groups with designs on Western targets).
In September 2002, the White House issued its update of the National Security Strategy of the United States of America. It laid out the hard realities of diplomacy and defense in a crazy world in which multinational groups with no state sponsorship and well-armed fanatics could realistically wage war on a superpower (such as the United States) or even on huge segments of civilization (e.g., on capitalism as a whole or on the entire Western way of life). “The gravest danger our Nation faces lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology,” the Strategy explained. Much of the seminal document described the need for increased cooperation with allies and diplomatic groups such as the United Nations. It accentuated the goal of enhancing human dignity. And yet one document phrase resonated as if it had been written in Day-Glo paint. It was employed to describe the most forceful of the goals listed for the nation: to “prevent our enemies from threatening us, our allies and our friends, with weapons of mass destruction.”
The term “weapons of mass destruction” became the fulcrum of the debate over Bush’s apparent inclination to attack Iraq. In discussions regarding the wisdom of such a move, the evidence of Iraq’s ability—or imminent ability—to make such weapons was presented as sufficient justification; it meant that Iraq was in direct violation of international agreements. The National Security Strategy explained that the possession of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq would destabilize the entire Middle East region. Certainly, Israel concurred. By the late summer of 2002, the question no longer centered on supranational militias or cave-dwelling terrorists in the al Qaeda mold. The Bush administration had reverted to what might be called a traditional enemy—a country, and one with an antagonistic leader. That was a throw-back to the sorts of cold war conflicts that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, and Powell had been fighting—in reality or in their minds—throughout their careers. The mood caused by the war in Afghanistan both supported Bush’s impulse to declare war on Iraq and, in another sense, countered it. A new war would cause American military strength, and the resources that support it, to be stretched thin, leaving the United States vulnerable in the event of another attack. Would a draft have to be reinstated? Could America fight in the Middle East and make infrastructural improvements at home? In addition, the will of the nation to wage two wars at once was in question. But even though the war in Afghanistan was not producing the quick results that Americans had hoped for when the first bold assault was made one year earlier, the inclination to start a more familiar, more strategically “winnable,” war made the possibility more acceptable. Bush, in any case, was making an aggressive move in preparing to wage war on Iraq. In poker terms, Bush was placing practically all his chips on the table, and many skeptical observers wondered what was behind the president’s absolute determination to unseat Saddam Hussein. Was it to finish off the Gulf War of 1991? To defend his father’s honor?
In speaking to the nation on October 7, 2002, President Bush cited CIA reports that supported the claim that weapons production sites were being rebuilt and that “if the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy, or steal an amount of highly enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year.” At the time, Congress was waiting for reports from the United Nations, due at the end of 2002, regarding the Iraqi weapons program. Nevertheless, on the basis of the CIA’s grim assertion, Congress authorized the President to use force, at his own discretion, to disarm Iraq. Even if Iraq had admitted that it had nuclear capability, if that were not even a debatable question, it would be hard to understand Bush’s obsessive focus on the oil-producing nation. Career diplomats made the case that Iraq, as harsh and dictatorial as its genocidal leader was, was one of the few places in the Middle East that had successfully held al Qaeda at bay. Hussein had no use for religious fundamentalists or for any Islamic group that might disturb his own totalitarian grasp on power in Baghdad. Among countries in the so-called axis of evil, for example, North Korea not only had various nuclear weapons of mass destruction but had proven itself active in selling arms to other countries. Yet Bush concentrated on Iraq. His father had waged war against Hussein in the Gulf War, ordering Operation Desert Storm to successfully boot Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. The President, along with Cheney and Powell, was well schooled in the first Iraq war. One possible rationale behind his determination to send troops to Iraq again stemmed from the legacy of the Gulf War and what some hawks considered the unfinished business of defeating—and deposing—Saddam Hussein. Taking Baghdad seemed like an easy and logical next step. “Hussein faced the prospect of being the last casualty in a war he had started and lost,” Bush said in 2003. “To spare himself, he agreed to disarm of all weapons of mass destruction. For the next twelve years, he systematically violated that agreement.” That deep resentment may have formed the impetus of Bush’s feelings toward Hussein, but a broader implication may have been at work as well.
Part of the philosophy that Bush brought with him to the White House was that all nations—even indigent and helpless ones—would benefit from democracy and that the United States could not shirk from its historic role in spreading the gospel. One of the goals delineated in Bush’s National Security Strategy was to “expand the circle of development by opening societies and building the infrastructure of democracy with ever-increasing speed.” While few of Bush’s presidential predecessors (particularly Woodrow Wilson) would have agreed about the gold-starred value of democracy for all human societies, they didn’t necessarily consider a U.S. military invasion a reasonable preamble to democratic rebuilding. Certainly, the idea that forcing and reforcing repressive governments to blossom into democratic ones was a inherent right—and even an obligation—of the United States had gone out of style when the last helicopter evacuated Saigon in 1975 (thereby ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War). George W. Bush and his advisers (Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice) were all adamant, however, that if the United States could exchange Hussein’s dictatorship for a fair democratic system based on popular sovereignty—taking Iraq, as it were, from worst to first in the region—then democracy would spread to other nearby nations as well. It was the old Cold War domino theory in reverse. That impulse, born as it was long before September 11, 2001, was one factor at the heart of the administration’s brazen march toward war at the end of 2002.
The prefabricated idea of invading Iraq, on almost any basis, was sorely unpopular with America’s allies and other nations. Judging by the negative reaction of the UN, it’s safe to say that Bush quickly became something of an international joke. The mere sight of Bush’s ironic smile—a smirk, really—caused Old World leaders to raise the specter of American arrogance. The post-9/11 sympathy that many of those foreign countries had expressed vanished like the last grains of sand running through an hourglass. International suspicion grew that Bush was using the war on terror as an excuse to break the human-rights conventions that had guided Western powers for decades. Invading a sovereign nation without direct cause was an inane act and one considered beneath the aforesaid standards of American foreign policy.
Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain, a Labourite generally regarded as a liberal-moderate leader, was staunch in his initial support of the Bush initiative on Iraq. But he was sui generis: the only leader of a powerful European nation to take such a public pro-war stance in late 2002. A majority of other European allies, such as France, pleaded with Bush to allow the United Nations to oversee the difficult Iraqi situation. Secretary Powell, alone among the President’s advisers, was of much the same opinion. Having experience in the uniformed Armed Forces, Powell was wary of U.S. overextensions. As the so-called Powell doctrine went, “You break a nation. You own it.” Did the United States really want to run Iraq? Were we really going to mediate grievances between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds? Powell suggested a diplomatic solution and worked toward it around the clock. He traveled to Europe early in the New Year, looking for military support in France, Germany, and other countries. He got only tepid responses. If Bush held the moral high ground it was the mass killings that Hussein had overseen of Kurds. Shouldn’t the United States end such wholesale slaughter?
And then Bush was proven wrong. The forensic evidence went against his administration’s claims that Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. The UN report released on January 27 contended that Iraq’s weapons program was inert, if not totally dead. That conclusion, however, did not satisfy the Bush administration. The next day, the president spoke to the nation in his State of the Union address and delivered a stunning revelation. “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa,” he said. “Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.” The evidence that Iraq was indeed in the market for the ingredients of nuclear production changed the minds of many Americans, who had been wavering about whether a war with Iraq made sense.
A little bit more than a week later, Secretary Powell appeared at the United Nations. His goal was to draw support in the Security Council for a resolution calling for military action against Iraq. Known for his fact-based analytical skills, Powell was a convincing witness as he underscored the President’s frightening assertion that Hussein had attempted to buy the specialized aluminum tubes. Moreover, Powell made a bedraggled case for the connection between Hussein and al Qaeda. “Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants,” Powell said. “[A Hussein representative] offered Al Qaeda safe haven in the region. After we swept Al Qaeda from Afghanistan, some of its members accepted this safe haven. They remain there today.”
Powell’s testimony before the United Nations, widely repeated as fact, was instrumental in bringing the American public to accept the proposition that, for its own security, Saddam Hussein had to be removed and Iraq reborn as a democracy. In 2005 Powell would recant much of his testimony before the United Nations and admit that it had been based on faulty intelligence given to him by the CIA. He contended that there were those at the CIA who probably knew that the facts presented were fabricated. George W. Bush would later make the same admission about the intelligence that he reported to the American people in his State of the Union address. There was also a great deal of controversy centered on the extent to which the erroneous intelligence was coerced into being by the White House.
On March 17, after the United Nations failed to support the Security Council resolution calling for military action against Hussein, Bush issued an ultimatum to the Iraqi president: resign and leave in exile or face a U.S. military assault. A disbelieving Hussein did not obey, and on March 19, 2003, the United States sent more than two hundred thousand soldiers into war against Iraq. The total force included a somewhat smaller, but potent, military contingent from Great Britain. The number of troops from other nations—the so-called Coalition of the Willing—fell off sharply after Britain. The specter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in fact, was devastating in terms of foreign relations. Theodore A. Couloumbis, the director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens, Greece, wrote about the effect of the news: “Following the decision to attack Saddam Hussein without authorization of ... a UN Security Council resolution, the Bush administration has managed to squander the unconditional goodwill that the U.S. had enjoyed after the September 11 terrorist attacks.”
But U.S. forces did an excellent job of capturing Baghdad. The Iraqi Army was pitiful. The Iraqi government, in fact, collapsed within two months of the invasion. A panicked Saddam Hussein fled his palace and lived as a fugitive. (He was later captured, hiding in a foxhole, by the U.S. occupational forces and, after a trial, executed via gallows by the new Iraqi government.) With the initial American victory, Baghdad and other Iraqi cities came alive with citizens celebrating the end of Hussein’s reign. In Baghdad the towering town-square statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down by jubilant citizens as surely as were the ugly concrete slabs of the Berlin Wall. That was, perhaps, the high point of the Iraq War during Bush’s administration. The U.S. occupational force was soon bogged down in a grueling civil war being waged by Sunnis and Shiites.
On May 1, George Bush garnered memorable, if regrettable, publicity when he appeared in an Air Force pilot jumpsuit on a Navy aircraft carrier in front of a huge banner reading MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. The cable TV media had a field day showing Bush playing peacock. One of the reasons the photo op was considered offensive was that the Iraq War was far from being over. Hussein had been deposed, but the nation of Iraq was immediately thrown into bloody turmoil as factions representing different religious sects, like Sunnis and Shiites, and, to some extent, different regions began to wage a violent guerrilla war. In the United States, the news surrounding the Iraq War was as deeply unsettling. Had the United States stumbled into an Iraqi civil war? “At last realizing the futility of superior kinetics—roughly speaking, putting a lot of metal in the air—American forces belatedly adopted a counterinsurgency strategy,” Newsweek explained. “Using a new field manual—FM3-24, written under the supervision of General David Petraeus—U.S. forces began to focus on protecting civilians while ruthlessly targeting jihadist leaders.”
Bush found himself in deep water. Investigations revealed that several of the intelligence reports on which the U.S. government had based its drive toward war were blatantly false. As if the breaches of trust and the overall inconsistency were not damning enough, someone in the Bush administration compromised the identity of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame, after her husband, Joe Wilson, wrote an article in the New York Times that was critical of President Bush’s use of bogus intelligence in advancing its Persian Gulf military agenda. It looked to have been retribution or a kind of grim warning for those who crossed U.S. government policy. For an administration that relied on covert operations and prided itself on the support of all of its “warriors,” the case was disturbing.
And then stories broke claiming that some U.S. troops had been torturing Iraqi prisoners in violation of the Geneva conventions. Even before the U.S. government seized control of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the complex twenty miles from Baghdad had been a factory of torture and annihilation. Under Saddam Hussein’s demented administration, the prison was a death house where beatings and hangings were commonplace. Constructed in the mid-1960s by British engineers, with American blueprints, the campus-like penal colony was where Saddam denied human rights with the sadistic flare of Goebbels. Prisoners were kept in dungeons and subjected to electric shocks, sleep deprivation, and even castration. Arms and hands were chopped off as punishment. Saddam’s son, Qusay, acting as chief of the secret police, is said to have ordered mass executions for his own on carnival-like amusement.
Even though Abu Ghraib had a god-awful reputation during the Saddam years, the U.S. government, unwilling to wait two years to build a new prison, gave the cursed facility a face-lift and went into the incarceration business. The huge portrait of Saddam was replaced by a banner that read in both English and Arabic: “America is the friend of all Iraqi people.”
Everybody from Ambassador Paul Bremer to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz failed to understand the atrocious symbolism of Abu Ghraib. They scoffed at officials from Amnesty International and the United Nations, who wanted the detention center closed. The absence of an Iraqi government had turned U.S. policy makers into braggarts, gloating over the fact that Saddam’s palace on the Tigris River had become an American garrison. Not since the Vietnam War had American arrogance been so blatantly on display for the world to gasp at.
As this debate went on, workers were ordered to speed up the remodeling of Abu Ghraib, and a huge new tented compound named Camp Ganci (named after a New York firefighter killed on September 11) was erected on Abu Ghraib’s grounds. American troops had started picking up prisoners in routine sweeps, and they needed somewhere to put them. The Bush administration sanctioned interrogations about the al Qaeda menace, and they were already under way. Ignoring concerns that the United States wasn’t adhering to the Geneva conventions, Vice President Cheney told NBC’s Tim Russert that America sometimes had to work “the dark side.” Members of the army’s 372nd Military Police Company, acting without conscience, started engaging in jailhouse humiliations at Abu Ghraib. Inmates were hooded and stripped, forced into sexual acts, repeatedly kicked in the groin. Ferocious dogs—a “black blur of muscle and jaw,” in journalist Philip Gourevitch’s words—barked at them from only one or two feet away. The U.S. military investigation ultimately found that three-quarters of all Abu Ghraib prisoners had not committed any crimes. Even President Bush deemed the abuses unacceptable after seeing the ghastly photographs taken at Abu Ghraib. One picture, for example, showed a hooded prisoner balancing on top of a box, with electrical wires connected to his outstretched arms. Americans were deeply disturbed by the photographs—snarling German shepherds, sleep deprivation, forced acts of pornography—and by the eyewitness accounts of abuses perpetrated by U.S. soldiers on Iraqi prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib.
Overseas, the reaction to Abu Ghraib was one of understandable revulsion. Objections included the fear that inhumane treatment of POWs by Americans would lower the standard of treatment of prisoners in conflicts worldwide and possibly even incite further terrorist attacks. Bush expressed his disapproval of the sickening antics portrayed in the photos, but he was inexplicably slow to act to stop further abuses. He preferred, he said, to allow the military to police itself.
As U.S. war casualties mounted, a growing number of Americans wondered what American soldiers were doing in the middle of another nation’s civil war. Antiwar protests grew in crescendo, but Bush was impervious to any suggestion that invading Iraq had not been in the best interests of the United States. He was equally unfazed by repeated calls for his impeachment.
Though the impeachment initiative came largely from Democratic liberals and moderates, the president could not ignore the fact that his popularity was slipping sharply from its high-water mark in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when everybody rallied behind Old Glory. Domestic issues were not the root cause of Bush’s flagging support. His foreign policy—which had alienated many traditional allies—and the disintegrating situation in Iraq were the focus of criticism. When asked about his low poll numbers, Bush pointed out that many of the U.S. presidents regarded as strong and effective by history were unpopular in their own day. He mentioned a Democrat, Harry Truman, as exhibit A. Bush was, by nature, a cocksure sort of personality, void of insecurity or second-guessing. Moreover, his administration had one towering achievement and it was the one that mattered most to him. The United States had yet to sustain another terrorist attack. Bush was keeping the homeland safe. In September 2002, surveillance by the CIA led to the arrest of six Yemeni Americans living in or near Lackawanna, New York; while they had ties to al Qaeda, they posed no immediate threat. In 2006 the U.S. government acted on intelligence from what it identified only as “a Southeast Asian nation” to stop a planned attack on Los Angeles. Those involved apparently planned to use hijacked airliners, as on September 11. Similar covert operations resulted in the arrest of others who had the training and the plans to plot an attack.
While the face of the war on terror continued to be the military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration also expanded its covert operations in the Middle East. Espionage and the infiltration of terrorist groups was a renewed priority after the 9/11 attacks. Bush attempted to revamp the various spy agencies in the federal government, although the entrenched cultures of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the CIA were difficult, if not impossible, to merge. In the immediate aftermath of the September attacks, Congress passed a law, known as the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, which gave vast new authority to the executive branch in terms of gathering information within the United States. The act, an acronym for “Uniting and strengthening America by providing appropriate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism,” stipulated that government officials have the authority to “intercept wire, oral, and electronic communications relating to terrorism, computer fraud, and abuse offenses, and the authority to share criminal investigative information.” The rationale was that the government needed to track the communications, financial transactions, purchases, travel arrangements, and medical records of foreign nationals as easily in the United States as in other countries. While the PATRIOT Act by definition affected domestic activities, it was, in effect, an extension of some of the President’s most effective foreign-policy assets: for example, because of the PATRIOT Act, the CIA could, for the first time, spy on American citizens within U.S. borders. The amount of information collected on individuals and groups, both domestically and abroad, expanded enormously. The Bush administration, which tended to trust government with private information more than many libertarians would have liked, was faced with the problem of processing a constant deluge of information. The inability of seasoned government agencies to cooperate—with far less raw data—in the days leading up to September 11, 2001, was cited as one of the missed opportunities that might have thwarted some or all of the airline hijackings.
In the summer of 2004, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (known as the 9/11 commission) issued a report that found serious fault with the actions of the Bush White House and several government agencies on the eve of the attacks. One of the most perplexing, to those outside the government, was the inability of the CIA and the FBI to share information. Bush’s solution, announced in August 2004, was to create another agency, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). It would report directly to the President, with the capacity to assess the quality of the intelligence presented by the various other agencies. In addition, the NCTC would employ representatives from those organizations to work on ways to streamline communications and open the flow of information between them.
In 2004 Bush was in the midst of a reelection campaign. The problems highlighted by the 9/11 commission don’t seem to have helped his cause. Among other things, the commission found no evidence at all of ties between Hussein and al Qaeda. In reply, Bush reiterated his belief that Hussein had indeed been working with al Qaeda and giving it’s members refuge in Iraq. At the same time, Bush blocked the release of an official report on the alleged connections between al Qaeda and the Saudi government. It was the sort of inconsistency that fostered resentment and suspicion, accelerating the drop in Bush’s popularity. Some Washington veterans suggested that in the 2004 election Bush would replace Dick Cheney as his vice-presidential selection. The questionable management of the war was traced by some to Cheney’s hawkish advice, as was the hard-line atmosphere of the Bush administration. Bush retained Cheney, however, and they ran against a Democratic ticket headed by Senator John Kerry (D-MA).
A so-called Kennedy liberal, Kerry campaigned on a platform that advocated an orderly withdrawal of troops from Iraq, a position that was, according to polls near election day, popular with most voters. Bush made no such promises. Faced with widespread antipathy for the Iraq War, he continued to maintain that America was safer because Saddam Hussein had been deposed. The facts, and results of objective investigations, did not support that claim, but it was typical of Bush’s leadership style that he stood stubbornly by his hard decisions. While diplomats, who are used to give-and-take, found this character trait consternating, the voters apparently considered it reassuring, as they elected Bush to a second term in November 2004 with a 286-251 win in the Electoral College.
The execution of the war in Iraq remained the most troubling aspect of Bush’s second term in the White House. Immediately after the 2004 election, Colin Powell resigned as Secretary of State, leaving Bush with the his homogeneous senior advisers: Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Rice. To replace Powell as Secretary of State, Bush selected Rice, who was sworn in on January 26, 2005. Closer to Bush, ideologically and personally, than Powell had been, Rice would have more latitude in the foreign-policy-making realm. Among other tasks, she hoped to bring about a renewed commitment to Middle East peace. In February of 2005, Bush applied pressure to Syria, with the demand that it withdraw its troops from Lebanon. Bush was able, just the same, to speak bluntly with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon about the need for greater flexibility in dealings with the Palestinians. The peace process, largely neglected during Bush’s first term, began to interest the President more keenly in his second, partially as a result of Secretary Rice’s steady influence.
Bush’s regard for Rice continued unabated throughout his second term. But his relationship with his other senior foreign-policy advisers would suffer setbacks. The situation was probably exacerbated by the pressures of two wars, neither of which was going as well as planned. According to media reports, Bush became increasingly impatient with bully-like advice he was receiving in tandem from Rumsfeld and Cheney and was even annoyed by the brash attitude they displayed in meetings. In an attempt at humility, Bush dropped his defiance act and tried to burnish his global image. He made a trip to Europe in February 2005 that was planned as a way to reestablish friendly relations with nations—such as France—that had been overtly criticized by administration officials. Clearly, the differences between the nations on either side of the Atlantic were more pronounced than they had been under previous U.S. presidents. Morale within NATO was at an all-time low. “America seems to be hard power incarnate and Europe the embodiment of soft power,” observed a British diplomat. Hard power emanated from military might and the will to use it; by contrast, soft power is, as he explained, “civilian power.” The official reception throughout Bush’s European trip was polite, but the visit elicited huge protests in the streets of European capitols.
Three months later, Bush traveled to Europe again. The trip was focused around the sixtieth anniversary of the end of World War II. The reception from leaders was warmer, but Bush was still distressingly unpopular among the anxious throngs who turned out to march against his perceived militarism, unilateral engagement, and rejection of the rights of prisoners. The same charges were leveled at home during the summer of 2005, when massive demonstrations were held around the country. In response, Bush tried to place himself in a historical perspective, delivering the same message several times over the summer: that the war on terror was equivalent to the world wars. The argument was self-serving, but it helped to explain why Bush felt he had to win, and win outright, as opposed to withdrawing the troops on some other basis. At the same time that a majority of U.S. citizens were telling pollsters that they opposed the war in Iraq, Congress continued to vote in support of expenditures for the wars. The overriding fear was that a vote against further allocations of money would appear to be a vote against the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In late August of 2005, President Bush got distracted from foreign-policy matters due to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi. As hurricanes go, Katrina was a whirling menace, wider and more disparate than the South’s Gulf coast had ever witnessed. A surge propelled by 150 m.p.h. winds caused howling breakers to swamp Louisiana parishes and Mississippi counties. The Weather Channel’s “blob” in the Gulf had become an on-land beast. The category 3 storm first made landfall at Buras, Louisiana, on the morning of August 29, 2005. Then the man-made disaster started to unfold. Large sections of the levees built (circa 1965) by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were breached and then crumbled like clay. Whole cities were swallowed up in floodwaters.
A gargantuan 460 miles in diameter, Katrina devastated 90,000 square miles of Gulf infrastructure. Millions of lives were shattered by the fury. Watching their own communities collapse caused many disoriented survivors to weep and unrealistically wait for the U.S. cavalry to swoop in with massive amounts of federal aid and a kit bag full of normalcy. It never happened. Thousands of Louisiana National Guardsmen, for example, had been deployed in Iraq. Meanwhile, an unbearable humidity embalmed homes with a stuffy aquarium-like air. Breathing became difficult. Electricity was knocked out for weeks. Everything smelled rotten. People trapped in attics desperately punched holes into their roof-tops with hammers and axes, praying to be rescued. And they waited, and waited. Tens of thousands of SOS calls weren’t heard. And then they waited some more.
Katrina helped burst the bubble of American can-do-ism in an unprecedented way. Government ineptitude on all levels—federal, state, and local—proved as cruel as the natural disaster itself. The refugee crisis in the storm’s wake was the largest in the United States since the Civil War. The U.S. Coast Guard did its heroic best but, in the end, helicopter basket drops weren’t enough. The death count mounted. Dozens of horrific words and repellent images became part of our national discourse: feces contamination, toxic soup, looters, pervasive damage, highway triage, and FEMA indifference among them. The Oz curtain had been pulled back on police corruption, endemic poverty, unattended-to costal erosion, and shoddy engineering. Rescue efforts were marred by bureaucratic inertia, bad preplanning, and hurry-up-and-wait-ism. Was this really the same country that had staged the D-day invasion and put a man on the moon?
The Homeland Security Department, which President Bush had organized in 2001, particularly the FEMA division, failed abysmally in delivering essential items to homeless victims of the Katrina disaster (to be fair, the U.S. Coast Guard, also a division of Homeland Security, did an outstanding job). The Bush administration, which ridiculously declared “mission accomplished” in Iraq, was now feebly unable to properly help the Gulf region in the recovery effort. Why was the United States spending billions to rebuild Baghdad but not New Orleans? During the first week after Katrina, aid shipments from several foreign countries reached the ravaged region before any substantial deliveries had been made by the U.S. government. Ever since the notion of international aid had its start about one hundred years before, the United States had always been on the donating end; it had never been in the position of needing help to take care of its own. In the first two months after Katrina, Americans gave well over $1 billion to help people whose lives were torn apart by the storm. But the Gulf coast still needed assistance from countries like Saudi Arabia and Japan.
In a Veterans Day speech in November 2005, President Bush, his reputation damaged by Katrina, returned to the subject of the Iraq War. He disputed the conclusion, based on several objective investigations, that before the U.S. invasion, Iraq had not had a program to produce weapons of mass destruction. “Some Democrats and antiwar critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war,” Bush said. “These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community’s judgments related to Iraq’s weapons programs. They also know that intelligence agencies from around the world agreed with our assessment of Saddam Hussein.” The speech took many observers by surprise, yet it highlighted the fact that the nation was divided not only by a difference of opinion over the war but also about the facts surrounding it. Some Americans, including the President, continued to believe in the specter of an Iraqi weapons program, even without evidence. The same was true of the connection between Hussein and al Qaeda. The nation was so sharply divided, though, that the two sides did not even seem to be speaking the same language or about the same subject.
The issue of the use (or misuse) of intelligence, which had been broached more than a year before, was in the national news again because of the trial of Scooter Libby, Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff, who had been implicated in charges stemming from the “outing” of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Libby would eventually be convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. Bush was openly disgusted with staff members involved in the Plame affair; in fact, the Libby trial may well have constituted a turning point for Bush, who drifted away from Vice President Cheney during their last two years in office.
In waging the war in Afghanistan, and attempting to locate mass murderer Osama bin Laden in the rugged territory along the eastern border of the country, Bush cultivated—and to a great extent upheld—the government of Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan. Bush made enormous U.S. grants-in-aid in exchange for Pakistani cooperation in fighting terrorism. And yet assessing the dedication of Pakistani assistance in that regard was difficult, especially since the Pakistanis, at their best, could not claim complete control of the borderland with Afghanistan. The sustained connection with Musharraf, however, was an example of the Bush administration solidifying a relationship with an important ally.
At the same time, Bush solicited new avenues for cooperation with India, opening important negotiations over a nuclear cooperation agreement. During the Cold War, India’s relationship with America was essentially frozen. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had pushed his nation toward the Non-Aligned Movement (a group of countries that were not formally associated with a major superpower), and the United States quietly backed Pakistan, which eventually pushed India to ally more closely with the Soviet Union. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, proved to be an impetus for India to liberalize its markets. India immediately became more investor friendly and welcomed billions of dollars in direct foreign investment. International corporations found it extremely cost-effective to out-source technological operations to India, and American business leaders quickly saw the economic importance of India’s emerging middle class and over one billion inhabitants.
But it was President Bush who seized on the true importance of a strong diplomatic relationship with India. Bush thought of India as the largest democracy in the world and a strong regional counterweight to China. In a major U.S. policy reversal, Bush removed almost all American sanctions imposed by President Clinton after India’s 1998 nuclear tests. He bolstered American military cooperation with India’s military in a vigorous bipartisan effort to combat global terrorism. In June 2005, India and the United States agreed to a “new framework” for the U.S.-India defense relationship. In April 2005, Washington and New Delhi agreed to the Open Skies aviation agreement that helped to increase air routes between both countries. With great fanfare, India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, visited Washington, D.C., in 2005, the first time an Indian head of state had visited in five years. Singh even addressed a joint session of Congress. In a reciprocal gesture, President Bush traveled to India in March 2006 and remained wildly popular in that nation throughout his second term.
The Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement became the signature achievement for Indo-U.S. relations under President Bush. India consented to separate its civilian nuclear power facilities, placing them under observation of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange, India was allowed to buy civilian nuclear technology from the United States. The agreement took several years to negotiate and was signed on October 8, 2008. If the Arab proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” holds true, then President Bush was loved by Hindus for taking on Muslim terrorists.
Along with India, Bush focused more attention on Africa in the later years of his administration, scheduling visits for both himself and for Laura Bush, who did not typically take part in diplomatic missions of any kind. Mrs. Bush did take a real interest in Africa, though, and would make four separate trips to the continent. She brought attention to the AIDS crisis as President Bush directed a large sum, $15 billion, a tripling of funding, to a five-year program to battle the spread of the disease in Africa. Arguably Bush saved millions of lives in Africa. This was a huge foreign policy accomplishment that warranted more media accolades than it got; Iraq had knocked it off the front pages.
The Iraq War was in the third year of a frustrating and deadly vicious cycle in July 2006, when the newly elected president of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, visited Washington. His arrival should have been a cause for celebration in the Bush White House: a democratically elected president from Iraq visiting his counterpart in the United States. Such were the decade-old dreams of the founders of the PNAC—and of Bush when he’d set his sights on Saddam Hussein five years before. Yet even the President had to admit that the security situation in Iraq was, in his words, “terrible.” He was said to be aware that his legacy was at stake in the fortunes of Iraq, where civilians and U.S. soldiers continued to die in the quicksand chaos of the sorely unreconciled nation. In October, Cheney drew further attention to one of the most detrimental controversies attached to the Bush administration, when he seemed to condone the torture of those in custody on suspicion of terrorism at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. A radio talk-show host, speaking in the brash style of his American breed, asked the Vice President, “Would you agree that a dunk in water is a nobrainer if it can save lives?” He was referring to the practice of waterboarding, a technique of torture. The Vice President unfortunately answered in the same brash tone, saying, “Well, it’s a nobrainer for me.” He then said that the government did not use torture on suspects. That was a lie. In fact, prisonershad been tortured at various installations in Iraq and elsewhere. President Bush came stalwartly to Cheney’s defense, but it was a gaffe, especially at a time when the administration was trying to leave the negative aspects of the Iraq War behind in order to find new diplomatic solutions.
The 2006 midterm elections swept antiwar Democrats into office. A strong signal had been sent that Bush’s Iraq policy was no longer acceptable to the majority of Americans. As the criticism of the execution of the Iraq War escalated, emanating from ever-higher sources, including ranking officers in the military, Bush finally made a bold reshuffling move aimed at quelling fears about the Iraqi quagmire. He asked Rumsfeld for his resignation. The notoriously unpopular Secretary of Defense left, and Bush made a brilliant choice in his successor: Robert Gates. Beleaguered by the Iraqi civil war, Katrina mismanagement, and the Army’s apparent pro-torture stance, Gates, who had served as CIA director in the administration of the senior President Bush, brought a focused, no-nonsense approach to the Pentagon. What he didn’t bring was the ideological imprint of his predecessor. A lifelong Republican, Gates was loyal to the job rather than to a particular agenda. Under his aegis, the U.S. military on active duty almost immediately experienced a distinct rise in troop morale. Many American soldiers who were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan presumed that Gates would bring changes to the strategy and execution of the overseas operations.
Such hopes were further encouraged by the release of the Iraq Study Group’s final report in December 2006. Initiated by several members of Congress, the study group—headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and ex-congressman Lee Hamilton (D-IN)—was a blue-ribbon panel that had investigated the problems and possibilities in Iraq for nine months. The final report contained seventy-nine recommendations for the transfer of responsibilities to the Iraqis, for diplomatic initiatives in the region, and for a plethora of internal matters. President Bush, however, did not indicate that he harbored any overwhelming interest in implementing the recommendations, and instead the study group worked to inspire others to consider revisions to America’s Iraq strategy, such as it existed in late 2006. The American Enterprise Institute released its own report in December and in it called for an increase in troop strength in Iraq. While people across the country debated the merits of a drawdown, a transfer (as suggested in the study group’s report), or a buildup, Bush consulted with military advisers, including Secretary Gates and other Pentagon officials.
The President began 2007 by ordering a change in command in Iraq. On January 10, he delivered a television address in which he described his plan for a greatly expanded troop presence in Iraq. He did not justify it in terms of greater security for Americans; instead, speaking frankly, he said that “Victory in Iraq will bring something new in the Arab world—a functioning democracy.” With 20,000 more troops on the way to Iraq, the total climbed to a wartime high of 162,000. It was called “the surge.” Working in specific areas one at a time, commanders on the ground implemented new strategies aimed at establishing permanent security.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration remained consistent in its antipathy toward Iran. In 2004 rumors had circulated that the United States was on the verge of war against the Islamic fundamentalist—yet modern—nation. While Bush did not engage in warmongering, he did continually campaign with other nations to isolate and ostracize Iran. He urged nations to join the United States in applying economic and cultural sanctions. Bush’s hubris was breathtaking. For example, he riled Soviet sensibilities in February 2007 by adhering to plans to construct a medium-range missile-defense system in Europe. Moscow hotly contended that there was absolutely no reason to militarize the region. Russia felt that promoting such a missile program was intolerable. The Bush administration, however, intimated that the system was intended to contain Iran’s arsenal, not Russia’s.
The Bush administration’s relationship with the third nation in the “axis of evil,” North Korea, was even more serpentine. In mid-2006, the United States had been outraged by a North Korean test of a long-range missile that could, in theory, not only reach the West Coast, but carry a nuclear warhead as well. As it turned out, the missile test failed and the projectile did not get past the Sea of Japan.
North Korea was, however, close to having nuclear capabilities, if, that is, the secretive totalitarian nation did not already have them. Bush proved that he was willing to be flexible with North Korea, if only because his foreign-policy agenda had been swamped in the Middle East. In February 2007, he approved an agreement, the Korea Accord, which gave the heavily armed but impoverished country substantial financial aid in return for dismantling its nuclear weapons program. Conservatives in the United States were enraged by the idea of giving U.S. taxpayers’ money to North Korea and by the idealistic naïveté behind any such agreement with a “rogue nation.” Apparently, Secretary Rice managed to receive Bush’s approval for the accord without following the standard procedure of sending the agreement to Cheney’s office. Clearly, Cheney’s once formidable influence in the White House had waned.
The situation in Iraq did not see an immediate improvement in the aftermath of the troop surge. In fact, 2007 remained on track to become the deadliest year for American forces since the fall of Baghdad. And yet, November brought a glimmer of hope, as a brigade of five thousand soldiers was actually withdrawn from a province deemed secure. The new scales and methods did eventually lead to a calmer atmosphere throughout the nation. In 2008, even while U.S. casualties were dropping to the lowest monthly rate since the beginning of the war, negotiations with the Iraqi government included discussion about a schedule for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011. The war that belonged to George Bush was essentially winding to a close as he prepared to leave office at the end of his second term.
The Iraq War was the most personal in U.S. history, at least in terms of Bush’s insistence on starting it. Just as the President seemed willing, if necessary, to wage the war unilaterally, he also gave the impression that, on the home front, he would have been willing to support the war unilaterally—all by himself. Bush had hawkish advisers who gave him direction in the unfamiliar area of international relations, but there is no indication that he ever went anywhere he didn’t want to go. The Bush Doctrine was indicative of his adamant opinion that no other nation could be allowed to harm the United States, either in the overt sense of a terrorist attack or in the subtle sense of an alliance that constricted it. When Saddam Hussein was executed on December 30, 2006, the media played it up as Bush “getting” the bad guy who had disrespected his father.
From the beginning, the Bush administration worked toward a more independent and aggressive position for the United States in the world community. “The problem with diplomacy,” said President Bush in 2007, is that “it takes a while to get something done. If you’re acting alone, you can move quickly.” That hubristic Bush attitude was called “cowboy diplomacy” by his detractors. In the United States, as Bush famously put it, “we make our own reality.” The inherent danger of U.S. fantasy diplomacy, however, is that ideology naturally prevails over pragmatism. Bush never, for example, fully comprehended that Afghans would only consider American soldiers “alien occupiers”: the more U.S. troops he sent, the more he fueled the insurgency and made the Afghanistan military more codependent on Washington, D.C. Furthermore, Bush didn’t grasp the real reality that U.S. citizens weren’t going to tolerate a war that costs over $40 billion a year and kills thousands of U.S. troops.
And Bush also made a mess out of Wall Street with to his unrealistic belief that deregulation was a curative. In September and October 2008, in the midst of a heated presidential election that pitted Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) against John McCain (R-AZ), the U.S. economy almost collapsed. Due to his mismanagement of both the economy and military affairs, most historians now rank Bush at the very bottom rung of U.S. presidents, hovering somewhere between William Henry Harrison (who died after nine months in office) and Warren Harding (accused of lawbreaking). Even though many historians considered him an abject failure, Bush remained confident, free from doubt that time would eventually regard him kindly and favorably. Defiant until the end, Bush insisted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were justified and that the greatest recession since the Great Depression wasn’t his fault. The electorate, fatigued by everything Bush, handed Obama a stunning victory that November 4, 2009. He became the first African America president in U.S. history.
Turning points in history are sometimes difficult to detect. Perhaps the greatest event of the Cold War era was Dr. Francis Crick and Dr. James Watson discovering DNA; it barely registered with the national press. But Obama’s inauguration was different. By definition it was historic—like Franklin D. Roosevelt meeting with Winston Churchill in Newfoundland to agree upon the Atlantic Charter principles in 1941 on board HMS Prince of Wales. Ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Washington, D.C., had been in mortuary mode. Ugly cement barricades surrounded the White House while a hideous fence was being built along our border with Mexico. If you wanted to see the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives, you had to show your ID two or three times.
Fear dominated our collective emotional life from 2001 to 2008, and the Bush administration sought to capitalize on it: WMD, anthrax, Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, Homeland Security, the never-ending war on terror. During the Bush years, there was a repressive aura about life in Washington that unfortunately demoted our most cherished civil liberties to luxuries of the past. A kingdom of fear had been constructed in the United States, every day an orange alert. Our national rhythm had been hijacked.
The pendulum, however, started to swing back when Barack Obama was inaugurated President on January 20, 2009. There was a return to the politics of hope. Bush had done his best under the most trying circumstances imaginable, but it wasn’t enough. Americans were historically impatient with long wars of choice—which Iraq had proven to be.
Much of the world cheered Obama’s election. Due to the reach of the Internet, in fact, Obama became something akin to the first true global president. Even on the most remote South Pacific atoll or Himalayan hillsides, his victory was celebrated as a crowning achievement of American democracy. In Germany, Obama’s election was called “astonishing,” while a French newspaper deemed it “transcendent.” The Arabic daily Al-Chourouk, published in Tunisia, proclaimed flat out that Obama was the “President of the World.”
Upon reflection, there was nothing surprising about Obama’s global appeal. While America has long boasted of being a melting pot, Obama was a one-man composite of cultures. Half-black, half-white, and all-American, he personified the very notion of meritocracy. An academic with degrees from two Ivy League schools, he was the first president to come of age after the Cold War. A child of globalization, with familial ties to Indonesia and Kenya; Obama’s BlackBerry knew no borders. Hawaii, his home state, epitomized the polyglot society of varied ethnicities. His inaugural address was the world’s inaugural address. The hundreds of millions of people who listened to him speak—from Albania to Zaire, and, most importantly, in the Middle East—embraced his once inconceivable journey as their own personal odyssey.
It is not rhetoric to say that a huge global battle is being waged between the forces of light and darkness. Obama has his work cut out for him in Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. There are terrorist trapdoors and quagmires around every bend. Good intentions aren’t enough in a hypertechnological world where one dirty bomb the size of a can of California peaches can take out a big chunk of New York City, and glaciers in Antarctica are losing 114 billion tons of ice a year due to global warming. The Internet made it nearly impossible for the Pentagon to stop top-secret documents from being leaked. In many ways, the world is as dangerous as it was in 1939 when FDR started ratcheting up an industrial mobilization campaign in preparation for war against Germany and Japan. The difference is that the enemy Obama faced in 2009, stateless terrorism, was harder to identify. After defeating Fascism and Communism, America had the challenge of crushing high-tech terrorism before it crushed us. As always the U.S. armed forces were up for the job. But were the American people?