The Magazine

Are We Safer?

Yes, George W. Bush has made America more secure since 9/11.

Jun 30, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 40 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Are we safer now than we were before 9/11? Safer than before we invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein? Barack Obama insists we are not. Seeing Iraq as the crucible of our growing weakness, the Democratic nominee for president asserts that "we have now spent over $600 billion, thousands of lives lost, and we have not been made more safe .  .  . [and] al Qaeda's leadership is stronger than ever." According to the senator, moreover, George Bush's policies have also "made Iran stronger"; under his administration Iran has been "able to fund Hezbollah and poses the greatest threat to America and Israel and the Middle East in a generation." Joining Senator John McCain to the president, Obama assails the "Bush-McCain record on protecting this country" and the Arizona Republican for his intention "to double-down on" the "fear-mongering," "saber-rattling," and "failed policies" which endanger the nation.

Now, it is certainly true that the Bush administration in its conduct of both war and diplomacy has too often been inept. Even if the provincial elections in Iraq this fall and the national elections next winter establish a long-lasting means for Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, fortify the country's nascent democracy, and decisively prove the wisdom of the surge last January, President Bush's allowing Iraq to descend into hell in 2004 will likely haunt his legacy. Whether it is Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, extraordinary rendition and the CIA's not-so-secret prisons, or the Patriot Act and the gargantuan Department of Homeland Security, there are many things that thoughtful critics could wish the United States had not done or had done better in the war on terrorism.

But Obama's charge isn't really about the arrogance, clumsiness, and lack of foresight that often characterize presidents and their administrations at war. For him, and many of his supporters, the Bush administration has uniquely and comprehensively degraded the nation's security, especially against the lethal threats emanating from the Middle East. America was much more secure under Hillary Clinton's husband--with the first attack on the World Trade Center, the truck bombing of Khobar Towers, the embassy bombings in Africa, the aborted attempt on the USS Sullivans in Aden, the other attempts at millennial bombings in the Middle East and the United States, and the near sinking of the USS Cole--on the road to 9/11.

Yet when we look at what George W. Bush has actually done, it's pretty hard not to credit him with massively improving America's security, both at home and abroad.

Before 9/11, America's counterterrorist capacities were, to put it politely, disorganized, unfocused, poorly staffed, and poorly run. (The exception was the ever-emotional and self-referential Richard Clarke, the former head of counterterrorism at the National Security Council, who should always get credit for being deadly serious about Islamic terrorism and Osama bin Laden.) The 9/11 Commission report is a chronicle of growing danger unmatched by bureaucratic seriousness or political will. And Bill Clinton, unlike George W. Bush, had nearly eight years to think about Islamic extremism. To President Clinton's credit and great shame, he intellectually understood the nature and horrific potential of bin Ladenism and al Qaeda--as he understood, and regularly tasked his senior officials to explain nationally, the dangers of an increasingly restless Saddam Hussein. Yet he could not summon the fortitude to strike devastatingly against al Qaeda and its Taliban protector or Iraq. Instead in 1998, we had "Operation Infinite Reach" in which cruise missiles were launched at a rock-and-mud Afghan village and a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory that may have had an al Qaeda or Iraqi chemical-weapons connection. Only in the fall of 1999 did a CIA team, timorously, land in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley to meet, but offer no military aid to, the anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Massoud.