George W. Bush Didn't Keep Americans Safe Before or After 9/11

There were other terrorist attacks perpetrated on American soil, and thousands of Americans killed in the war of choice he incompetently waged.
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The Boston bombing attack and George W. Bush's return to the headlines have given new prominence to the old talking point that, whatever else you think of his White House leadership, "he kept Americans safe."

That is factually inaccurate.

Although I don't blame President Bush for 9/11, it is nevertheless true that he failed to anticipate or prevent the bloodiest terrorist attack in American history. Thus the modified version of the talking point:

That is factually inaccurate too.

Even if you define safety as "preventing death from terrorism on U.S. soil" -- and I don't know why you'd define it that way -- Bush's tenure included anthrax attacks that killed five people (more than died in the Boston marathon bombing) and that injured between 22 and 68 people. Bush was president when Hesham Mohamed Hadayet killed two and wounded four at an LAX ticket counter; when the Beltway snipers killed 10 people; when Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar injured six driving his SUV into a crowd; and when Naveed Afzal Haq killed one woman and shot five others in Seattle. A fuller list of terrorist attacks that took place during his tenure can be found here.

I don't blame Bush for those attacks -- but no, he didn't "keep us safe."

That's particularly true when you recall, as Bush supporters never do, that the Iraq War, a conflict he chose to enter based on mistaken intelligence, killed more Americans than the 9/11 attacks.

Almost 5,000 American troops were killed in Iraq. Tens of thousands more were wounded, many seriously. Bush did not keep them safe, by virtue of sending them to fight an unnecessary war. Even if you think that the war was necessary, he didn't keep them as safe as he could have, due to his administration's shocking negligence preparing for the conflict.

The bungled execution unarguably cost lives.

If you're unaware of it, read "Blind into Baghdad" by my colleague James Fallows: "The U.S. occupation of Iraq is a debacle not because the government did no planning," he concluded, "but because a vast amount of expert planning was willfully ignored by the people in charge." An excerpt can't do the article justice, but here is the thesis that, by the end, is persuasively demonstrated:

Almost everything, good and bad, that has happened in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime was the subject of extensive pre-war discussion and analysis. This is particularly true of what have proved to be the harshest realities for the United States since the fall of Baghdad: that occupying the country is much more difficult than conquering it; that a breakdown in public order can jeopardize every other goal; that the ambition of patiently nurturing a new democracy is at odds with the desire to turn control over to the Iraqis quickly and get U.S. troops out; that the Sunni center of the country is the main security problem; that with each passing day Americans risk being seen less as liberators and more as occupiers, and targets.

All this, and much more, was laid out in detail and in writing long before the U.S. government made the final decision to attack. Even now the collective efforts at planning by the CIA, the State Department, the Army and the Marine Corps, the United States Agency for International Development, and a wide variety of other groups inside and outside the government are underappreciated by the public. The one pre-war effort that has received substantial recent attention, the State Department's Future of Iraq project, produced thousands of pages of findings, barely one paragraph of which has until now been quoted in the press. The Administration will be admired in retrospect for how much knowledge it created about the challenge it was taking on. U.S. government predictions about postwar Iraq's problems have proved as accurate as the assessments of pre-war Iraq's strategic threat have proved flawed.

But the Administration will be condemned for what it did with what was known. The problems the United States has encountered are precisely the ones its own expert agencies warned against. Exactly what went wrong with the occupation will be studied for years--or should be. The missteps of the first half year in Iraq are as significant as other classic and carefully examined failures in foreign policy, including John Kennedy's handling of the Bay of Pigs invasion, in 1961, and Lyndon Johnson's decision to escalate U.S. involvement in Vietnam, in 1965. The United States withstood those previous failures, and it will withstand this one. Having taken over Iraq and captured Saddam Hussein, it has no moral or practical choice other than to see out the occupation and to help rebuild and democratize the country. But its missteps have come at a heavy cost. And the ongoing financial, diplomatic, and human cost of the Iraq occupation is the more grievous in light of advance warnings the government had.

George W. Bush failed to keep us safe, partly because he happened to be president when al-Qaeda succeeded in perpetrating a major attack, partly because various other attacks happened during his tenure, and most unforgivably because of his reductionism and hubris, pursuing a needless war of choice on false pretenses and executing that war poorly for years on end, in part because he elevated loyalty to his immediate underlings above having competent help.

The "he kept us safe" talking point is factually inaccurate. In closing, it's worth noting that the president doesn't swear an oath to keep us safe, but to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution.

Bush failed at that too.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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