Our Politicized Fight Against Terrorism: An Excerpt

In his new book, Bin Laden's Legacy: Why We're Still Losing the War on Terror, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross catalogs America's strategic failures in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. The following is an excerpt.

Bush in front of Pentagon - Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP - banner.jpg

It was perhaps inevitable that the fight against al Qaeda and other jihadi groups would become politicized, but it has nonetheless been extremely harmful. The fact that being seen as tough and effective in the fight against terrorism could help one's political fortunes was evident almost immediately, for the standing of two politicians--George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani--and that of the entire Republican Party dramatically changed because of the events of September 11, 2001.

President Bush's initial reaction to the attacks was in fact rather confused and unimpressive due to security concerns that kept him out of sight for most of the day. After concluding his time on the morning of September 11 with a class of second grade students at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida, Bush went to a classroom where a secure phone had been set up. He spoke to Vice President Dick Cheney, and after a brief address to the nation about the attacks, Bush was rushed to Air Force One. Concerned that the president could be a target, his security detail kept him on the move. In the thick fog of war, Bush heard reports that Camp David and the State Department had been attacked, that there was a fire in the White House, and that his ranch in Texas may have been targeted. His general invisibility throughout the day made strong leadership impossible.

Fortunately, President Bush hit his stride rapidly. That night, back in Washington, he declared in an address to the country, "Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts." The speech outlined several themes that would become his administration's staples, including the need to bring the full weight of the country's resources to bear against those responsible, and Bush's refusal to distinguish between terrorists attacking America and regimes harboring them. President Bush declared that "none of us will ever forget this day, yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in our world."

Bush would give several more increasingly forceful speeches that month. The public's connection with him was obvious; Bush's approval ratings rose from 55 percent to over 90 percent within two weeks of the attack. The remarkable rise in his ratings just after 9/11 showed the public's fear, concern, and desire for action. It also showed why politicians would be so tempted to politicize terrorism.

New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani also found his fortunes dramatically changed by the attacks. A former prosecutor known for his toughness, Giuliani had won two mayoral terms because of his ability to return good governance to the city, in particular for tackling its seemingly intractable crime problem. But despite his accomplishments, Giuliani's popularity had eroded, and he was viewed as a divisive figure at the time of 9/11.

But the mayor's inspiring response to the attacks caused these critical perceptions to recede. Giuliani projected not only leadership and toughness but also compassion. The mayor took time to condemn the racial and religious hatred that might be directed at New York City's Muslim community, a move that New Yorkers, and Americans as a whole, saw as genuine and laudable.

Giuliani became known as "America's mayor," an iconic figure who was instantly recognizable countrywide. He was named Time's Person of the Year, and he became regarded as a viable presidential candidate. When he did run for president in 2008, early polls put Giuliani at the forefront of Republican contenders. A Gallup poll's issue-by-issue breakdown made clear that the coolness and resolve that Giuliani displayed on September 11 was his key political strength.

Giuliani ultimately did not receive the Republican nomination. There were multiple reasons for his loss, including his blemished personal life and a bizarre campaign strategy that involved skipping the Iowa caucuses, running halfhearted campaigns in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, and placing all his bets on winning the Florida primary. (Giuliani finished third in that contest.)

And even though he was dealt a strong hand on terrorism issues, Giuliani may have overplayed it. Joe Biden famously commented in an October 2007 debate that Giuliani only mentions three things in a sentence: "a noun, and a verb, and 9/11." But if Giuliani did overemphasize his response to those attacks, it was because he realized that it was such a political asset. Though Giuliani didn't win the presidency, his experience confirms the political benefits of being seen as strong on terrorism.

It should be said that the fact that there were political benefits to being seen as strong on terrorism wouldn't inevitably create a problem. After all, it could be healthy to motivate politicians to perform admirably under intense pressure. Rather, the problem was that terrorism became politicized as an issue within a year of the attacks in an incredibly divisive manner. A climate was created that has harmed rather than helped America's effectiveness.

The Republicans were able to capitalize in the 2002 midterm election on the fact that their party was identified as tougher on terrorism. Before the attacks, it seemed that the Republicans could face significant midterm losses. Layoffs and rising unemployment, projected to hit 5 percent by the beginning of 2002, created the risk that voters would punish the party. (The fact that 5 percent unemployment was considered a major political liability seems quaint today.)

The 9/11 attacks, however, transformed the political landscape. Although the economy had been voters' predominant concern until terrorists struck the United States, Gallup polling from January to June 2002 consistently found that terrorism and national security had eclipsed the economy as the issue voters cared about most. And if terrorism was on voters' minds, this was good for the Republicans. An August 2002 Gallup analysis found that Republicans enjoyed a commanding nine point lead among voters who considered terrorism to be the most important issue.

The Republicans exploited this advantage. During the campaign Karl Rove, a senior adviser to President Bush, misplaced a computer disk that contained his PowerPoint presentations about the upcoming midterm election. One piece of advice to candidates was that they should "focus on the war." Rove's advice proved controversial once the public learned of it, but the issue resonated with voters, as did President Bush's focus on selling the coming Iraq War during the campaign.

"We ought not to politicize this war," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle responded. "We ought not to politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death." (Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott responded to Daschle with a bizarre non sequitur: "Who is the enemy here, the president of the United States or Saddam Hussein?")

The bottom line is that Daschle was right: politicizing national security when there was general agreement between Republicans and Democrats on how to combat terrorism was bad for the country. But even though Daschle was right philosophically, the Republicans read national politics correctly. They regained control of the Senate in 2002, picked up five seats in the House, outperformed expectations in the gubernatorial races, and even gained in state legislatures. The GOP's overwhelming victory was not just unexpected but also historic: not since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 had a president's party made gains in both the House and Senate during the midterm election of his first term.

Terrorism was the key to this victory. Summarizing what many commentators had come to realize, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote, "Why did the Democrats lose? Forget the tactics. Forget the fundraising. Forget even the President's popularity. This election was about Sept. 11."

Terrorism and national security would continue to be a critical, divisive issue for the next few elections. It was clear from the outset that terrorism would factor heavily in the 2004 campaign. The Republicans' choice of New York City as the location for that year's Republican National Convention and their decision to hold it in September were obvious references. Terrorism was invoked almost constantly throughout the convention. In a speech that mentioned terror or terrorism forty-four times, and 9/11 eleven times, Rudy Giuliani said, "President Bush sees world terrorism for the evil that it is. [Democratic nominee] John Kerry has no such clear, precise and consistent vision."

Although the Iraq War helped the Republicans in 2002, by 2004 the public perception was mixed. The death toll and economic costs of the war were mounting, and an intensive search had failed to unearth evidence that Saddam Hussein had rebuilt his nuclear weapons program. Kerry campaigned on the idea that the invasion had been "the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time."

President Bush's campaign would not back down from its claim that the Iraq War had been good for America. Instead, President Bush argued that the invasion of Iraq made America safer. In the first of three presidential debates, he argued that one critical lesson of 9/11 was to "take threats seriously, before they fully materialize." Because of the invasion of Iraq, he said, "Saddam Hussein now sits in a prison cell. America and the world are safer for it." Later in the debate, Bush said that Kerry's criticism of the Iraq War reflected a "pre-September 11th mentality, the hope that somehow resolutions and failed inspections would make this world a more peaceful place."

For his own part, Kerry did himself few favors on these issues. For example, the Democrats were eager to capitalize on the popularity of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, a documentary critiquing the Iraq War. Moore spoke at several events at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, and the cameras caught him sitting next to former president Jimmy Carter at one point. The problem is that Moore was more than just an antiwar filmmaker. In one statement on his personal website, posted about three months before the convention, he wrote: "The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not 'insurgents' or 'terrorists' or 'The Enemy.' They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow--and they will win. Get it, Mr. Bush?" Rather than simply disagreeing with the war, this post celebrated insurgents who were killing American forces--and it generated justifiable controversy. Predictably, the image of Moore sitting next to Carter featured prominently on conservative cable news shows, making the concerns that the Bush campaign raised about Kerry's seriousness on national security issues seem credible to many voters.

On October 29, mere days before the election, Osama bin Laden appeared in a video address that was broadcast on the Al Jazeera Arabic-language satellite station. Obviously timed to coincide with the U.S. election, bin Laden addressed the American people. In the speech, he boasted that al Qaeda was winning its war against the United States. The primary reason he gave was the economics of the fight and his group's strategy of "bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy."

The voting public was largely uninterested in the substance of bin Laden's speech. Rather, the most significant aspect was that the video showed that bin Laden was still alive. Before that, he featured infrequently in al Qaeda's propaganda, and it had been years since he'd appeared in a video, leading many commentators to believe that he had been killed. Bin Laden's video dominated the news cycle in the days leading up to the election, again putting national security at the forefront of voters' minds.

President Bush won the election in 2004, and the GOP again made gains in both the House and the Senate. Party insiders correctly pointed to national security as a critical issue.

But by 2006, national security issues had been transformed from a significant Republican advantage into a thorn in the party's side. The overarching reason was the Iraq War. Bloodshed markedly increased in that country during the course of the year, and many observers thought it was mired in civil war. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been able to take and hold territory. It became the dominant player in Iraq's expansive Anbar province and was able to erect a governing structure in the city of Mosul.

As the situation deteriorated, the Democrats realized that this time the Republicans were vulnerable on terrorism and national security. Democratic senator Evan Bayh of Indiana said in February 2006 that "for both substantive and political reasons," the Democrats should take the Republicans on over terrorism and national security. Key Democratic politicians promised to push for immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

Sure enough, campaigning on national security issues again paid off in 2006, this time for the Democrats, who took back the House and Senate. According to late November 2006 polling data from the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of Americans considered the Iraq War one of the top two issues in the election.

Although Iraq had been central to the GOP's defeat, President Bush did not hasten to withdraw. Instead, he announced a "surge," an increase in the presence of American soldiers in an attempt to clear out al Qaeda's strongholds and diminish sectarian violence. There was nothing wrong with the Democrats campaigning on national security: the Iraq War was incredibly costly, and there was a strong argument for political accountability. But many Democrats went beyond this, arguing that Bush's surge ignored their "mandate" to get the U.S. military out of Iraq as soon as possible.

For example, Representative Dale Kildee of Michigan said, "President Bush either did not get or did not understand the message the American people sent last November. Before the end of this year, United States troops should be redeployed and their efforts focused on support and training the Iraqi Security Forces."

Indeed, one of the surge's biggest critics was Illinois senator Barack Obama. On January 10, 2007, as the surge was announced, Obama said, "I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse." Obama swore that he would "actively oppose the president's proposal."

Ultimately, the surge worked. Although serious questions remain as the United States draws down its troops, President Bush made the right decision by undertaking a surge rather than a withdrawal. This is particularly true when one recalls the dark days of 2007, when Iraq was wracked by sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing, and AQI was able to carve out geographic safe havens. Obama himself conceded in a September 2008 interview with Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, "I think that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated.... It's succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."

National security and terrorism was not the key election issue in either 2008 or 2010 that it had been previously; the September 2008 financial crisis caused economic issues to overshadow everything else. This does not mean, however, that the issue was entirely absent.

By 2008, Bush's approval rating was microscopic, and he was considered politically toxic. The Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, found himself in the unique position of running a general-election presidential campaign that took aim at his own party's incumbent. The Democratic nominee, Senator Obama, ran against the Bush administration virtually across the board, including on national security.

When the Obama administration took office after a resounding electoral victory, the new president trumpeted the new direction he would take on terrorism and foreign affairs. His efforts appeared so derogatory toward the Bush administration's approach that they prompted Juan Zarate, President Bush's counterterrorism advisor, to tell NPR, "I don't think the administration has helped themselves, or frankly helped the country, by trying so hard to paint their policies as being so radically different from the past. They're not, and for the sake of the country they shouldn't be."

Zarate was right. Although Obama swore on the campaign trail that his national security efforts would differ markedly from those of his predecessor, Obama's counterterrorism policies have largely been a continuation of those forged during the last two years of the Bush administration. Some conservative pundits still attempt to show Obama's overarching weakness on national security, and a select few portray him as dangerous, but there is a growing awareness among analysts of the continuity between Bush and Obama on counterterrorism policy.

Indeed, national security was marginal as an issue in the 2010 midterm election. One Republican pollster noted during that campaign that the economy "dwarfs everything. It's sort of like looking at a house and there's all these things that need repair, but if the roof's on fire, all these things are secondary. Jobs and the economy are the equivalent of the fire on the roof."

From 2002 through 2008, the politicians and parties that benefited from their politicization of terrorism and national security got a number of significant substantive points wrong. In 2002, the Republicans were wrong to politicize the issue in the first place. Moreover, the midterm results were viewed by many as a mandate for the disastrous invasion of Iraq. In 2004, President Bush's winning campaign insisted that the country was safer due to this invasion, and that the administration would change neither its decision to go to war nor its execution of the conflict if given the opportunity. Not only did the invasion not make the United States safer, but the situation in Iraq would not improve until the administration dramatically changed its approach.

The Democrats finally gained some advantage from Bush's foreign policy failures in the 2006 election, but they interpreted the vote as a mandate to get out of Iraq while it was mired in civil war and al Qaeda enjoyed a significant foothold. They used the 2006 results as a bludgeon with which to attack the surge that would help to reverse that dangerous situation. And in 2008, Obama exaggerated the aspects of Bush's counterterrorism policies that should be changed, even making campaign promises that he couldn't keep.

The good news is that because of the continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations on terrorism and national security, as well as waning voter interest, it may be possible to eliminate some of the harmful partisanship that has produced a suboptimal policy. Though doing so will not be easy, it would be one of the most productive accomplishments that could enhance America's security.

Image credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP