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
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Post 9/11, under President Bush, the situation changed drastically, as it certainly would have changed also under a President Gore. What is striking about Obama's Iraq-obsessed critique of the Bush presidency is his unwillingness to give any credit where credit is obviously due. Today in the mainstream press, with its pronounced anti-Bush reflexes, we are more likely to see articles and op-eds about America's unfair and labyrinthine visa system than about its effectiveness in our counterterrorism campaign. (And yes, the system is offensive, inflexible, and denies entry to many innocent, talented, and potentially pro-American Arabs, Pakistanis, and Iranians.) But if Obama wins in November, we can be assured that he will leave it in place. It is just too effective in complicating the operational planning of al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

As president, Obama would also likely leave untouched the intelligence and security liaison relationships energetically developed by the Bush administration. Listening to the Illinois senator's speeches about America's current place in the world, one would think because of our many transgressions, we no longer have helpful friends. But if one talks directly to European security and domestic-intelligence services (and my colleague Gary Schmitt and I have spent the last two years visiting these organizations to get a realistic picture of how western Europeans are approaching counterterrorism after 9/11), one cannot avoid the conclusion that America's counterterrorist cooperation with them has blossomed under Bush. It is closer and more amicable today than it was in March 2003 when we invaded Iraq, and the relationships then--especially with the French, our most zealous Iraq war antagonists--were already good.

President Bush would certainly not win a popularity contest anywhere in western Europe (he does a little better the closer one gets to Russia), but the effect of this anti-Bush sentiment on our security and intelligence cooperation has been minimal. Most Europeans don't like the term "global war on terror," seeing counterterrorism primarily as a police exercise and are uncomfortable in their post-Kantian way with bellicose language. (But the Europeans know that without American assistance, they would have great difficulty striking terrorists abroad, as they don't possess the military means to do so.) As was the case before 9/11, the Europeans occasionally express some anxiety about transatlantic cooperation that could lead to death-penalty charges in U.S. courts or military tribunals, but this is usually expressed as a mournful afterthought.

European internal security officers certainly don't dwell on Iraq. They believe that the present generation of Muslim holy warriors--and both European and American security officials regard these European jihadists as the most dangerous of the would-be terrorists out there--are more products of homegrown causes than any American action. European security officials, especially in Great Britain with its large Pakistani immigrant community, put much more emphasis upon the conflict in Afghanistan--the "good war" for most Democrats--as fueling lethal jihadism.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of Britain's domestic intelligence service, MI5, and France's internal security service, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, to our fight against al Qaeda and its allied groups. If European-passport holding jihadists get past the European services, the odds are not great that the FBI is going to catch them on this side of the Atlantic. Although the Bureau is certainly a better counterterrorist outfit than it was before 9/11, that difference, given the threat and the enormous amount of money spent on homeland security since 2001, isn't inspiring. (Obama could fairly criticize the Bush administration and the Republican-controlled Congress for its post-9/11 handling of the FBI.)