Will all the focus and discipline for which it is deservedly known, the Bush political team has made the president’s leadership in the war on terrorism the central theme of his case for re-election. At the Republican National Convention and in every campaign event since, Bush has been presented as a decisive president who would wage a more consistent and effective war on terrorism than his rival John Kerry.
And the strategy seems to be working: Bush now has a nearly 30-point lead over Kerry on the issue of combating terrorism, helping the president overcome his mediocre overall approval rating of 52 percent, and guiding him to a double-digit lead over Kerry in general election polls.
The problem, however, is that for all Bush’s unquestionable steadfastness, the claim that his conduct of the war on terror deserves high marks—and sets him apart from his challenger—does not stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, while Bush has undeniably taken steps to make America safer over the last three years, it is far from obvious that his record distinguishes him positively even from what a hypothetical Kerry administration would do. Most of the good things Bush has done would have been done by just about any American leader, while other aspects of his conduct of the war on terrorism have proven counterproductive.
Take, for example, the resolute leadership for which Bush was so effusively praised at the convention. The president certainly deserves credit for many of his words and actions in the weeks after Sept. 11. But resolve in itself is not a strategy, and plenty of resolute leaders—Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, for example—have led their nations to ruin by pursuing the wrong course. Bush’s resolve, moreover, has been accompanied by what many perceive to be arrogant, nationalistic rhetoric that has alienated allies America needs and provoked potential enemies around the world.
In Afghanistan, Bush also did the right thing. Overthrowing the Taliban regime and putting the country on a course toward democracy was a necessary step, and America and the world are now safer because of it. Again, however, it is hard to argue that Bush did something that any other president would not have done, or that he did it better.
Whereas Bush supporters criticize the Clinton administration for failing to stand up to terrorists adequately in the 1990s, none was calling for an invasion of Afghanistan then, just as no serious Democrat opposed that invasion in 2001. By relying on more troops and involving NATO allies rather than experimenting with the light forces concept dear to Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, a different administration might even have prevented Osama bin Laden’s escape and further set back the Taliban’s efforts to regroup.
Homeland security is another area where Bush has undeniably done much to help make America safer. With the United States now spending $40 billion a year on areas like airport security and border protection, we are in many ways more secure. But again, what U.S. president would not have taken such steps after 9/11?
Former Brookings Expert
Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations
Meanwhile, funding is not available to fill other important gaps. U.S. ports are vulnerable to smuggled weapons of mass destruction, chemical plants are unguarded, support for first responders is inadequate, and civilian airliners are defenseless against surface-to-air missiles.
Then there is the war in Iraq, which the Bush team claims as central to the case for why Bush can best protect Americans from terrorism. Here, of course, Republicans are right that another president might not have pursued the same policy, or might have pursued it differently from Bush.
What is puzzling, however, is how the results of the decision to invade Iraq can be portrayed as proof of Bush’s success on the terrorism front. The case that Saddam was in cahoots with al-Qaida has been discredited. And while a free, stable and democratic Iraq would in theory have helped wean some Muslims away from extremism, we are now so far from that goal in Iraq—with little prospect for getting there anytime soon—that the Iraq war cannot credibly be presented as a blow against terrorism.
Indeed, with many thousands of American and Iraqi dead and wounded, tens of billions of dollars spent, and 130,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, the war has proven at best a distraction from the war on terror and at worst a boon to the Islamist extremists trying to foment anger at the United States.
Other Bush policies have been equally destructive to U.S. efforts in the war on terror. The administration’s assumption that foreign policy could be built on strength and determination alone led to a lack of engagement on the Israel-Palestinian conflict that has damaged America’s image in the Muslim world. And that image has been further corroded by the abuses in Iraqi prisons and the indefinite detentions at Guantanamo, policies that arose from an attitude that rules no longer applied to an America that had been attacked.
Bush’s supporters have every reason to tout the president’s leadership and the positive steps he has taken since Sept. 11 to make Americans safer against the terrorist threat. But Americans should examine the overall balance sheet carefully rather than accept some of the facile notions being put forward on the campaign trail.