Bush Survives Iraq Attacks, 9/11 Accusations

Posted April 16, 2004 at 3:44pm

Despite the best efforts of his enemies and the media, President Bush has politically weathered the latest violence in Iraq and implications that he could have stopped the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

[IMGCAP(1)]Bush’s overall approval rating has taken a hit — his early-April average is 48 percent, down from 54 percent in January — but it’s evident that recent bloody insurgent activity in Iraq did not constitute a general uprising in the country and that no conclusive intelligence ever got to the White House in advance of 9/11.

The Iraq story is nowhere near over, of course. It remains to be seen whether a full U.S. offensive will be necessary to clean out Sunni resistance in Fallujah. The issue of who will manage Iraq after the U.S. handover of sovereignty June 30 remains unresolved. And the entire Bush enterprise of building a stable multi-ethnic democracy could prove impossible.

But, in the short term, militant Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr seems to be in retreat — and without the general Shiite rebellion widely worried about in the media. Pretty clearly, Iraq is not Vietnam, as charged by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), chief attack dog for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Moreover, Kerry’s strategy for Iraq — hand over civilian oversight to the United Nations — is not substantially far from what Bush is doing in having U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi determine the form of Iraq’s interim government.

Bush has rightly rejected — given the U.N.’s past record of corruption — Kerry’s idea of putting the U.N. in charge of spending the $18 billion Congress appropriated for Iraqi reconstruction.

And, if Bush could get France and other countries to contribute forces to help police Iraq, he surely would. Kerry, appealing to Spain’s newly-elected Socialist prime minister on that score, has had no luck.

Kerry deserves credit for saying that, if elected, he would not “cut and run,” from Iraq and would keep U.S. forces in military control, meaning he would keep in place the basic Bush policy.

Bad news and grim predictions about Iraq were so rife in the media over the April 9-10 weekend that it was critical for Bush to speak to the nation, as he did in the 17-minute opening statement of his press conference.

In the speech, he allowed as how U.S. forces had faced “tough weeks,” but outlined the basic U.S. strategy for handing over power to Iraqis and made his usual passionate moral case for U.S. involvement.

He did not provide an “exit strategy” for U.S. forces, reiterating that they will stay “as long as necessary, but not a second longer,” which is the only responsible answer. Kerry could not give a better one.

Increased U.S. casualties and a pessimistic press have depressed Bush’s approval ratings on Iraq to close to 50-50, but all recent polls show that 55 percent or more of voters still believes that the Iraq war was “worth doing.”

Besides the economy and the possibility of another terrorist attack, future developments in Iraq are likely to be the determining factor in the November election. At this point, Bush looks to have turned a potentially-dangerous corner. No one knows what may be around the next one.

Meantime, it’s now almost certain that Bush’s pre-9/11 activities will not be a decisive issue, despite the hopes of some Democrats that former White House aide Richard Clarke’s allegations would damage Bush’s image as a terror-fighter.

The 9/11 investigating committee’s hearings demonstrate that no one did enough to fight Al Qaeda before it attacked in New York and Washington — not Bush, not Bill Clinton, not the FBI, not the CIA nor the Clinton or Bush Justice Departments.

Might the 9/11 attacks have been prevented? It appears, yes — if the CIA had focused on the importance of the FBI’s arrest of Zacharias Moussaoui, if the FBI had gotten the authority to inspect his computer and if FBI criminal investigators had gained intelligence on two hijackers who were in the United States.

Testimony at the 9/11 hearings suggests that the FBI was — and still is — disabled by a pathetic computer system and that all the agencies were hobbled by a “wall” erected between criminal investigators and intelligence agents by the Clinton administration and not dismantled until after 9/11.

On the other hand, none of this suggests that Bush could have stopped the attacks. He did not have the government at “battle stations” after receiving the Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Brief warning that Osama bin Laden aimed to attack in the United States, but he had no specific warning of attack.

The one group whose responsibility for intelligence failures has not be adequately explored is Congress. Historically, Congress fell over itself to support the monster FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover. Then it overreacted in the post-Vietnam era by hobbling the agencies through the Church committee reforms.

More recently, neither the House nor Senate Intelligence or Judiciary committees offered adequate oversight of FBI Director Louis Freeh — with the exception of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — and in 1996, both the House and Senate denied then-President Bill Clinton authority to conduct roving wiretaps.

President Bush is not going to be judged by voters on his pre-9/11 conduct, but on what he’s done about terrorism since then. And, on that score, he remains strong. Various commentators have argued that he dare not use 9/11 images in campaign ads. To the contrary, he can. And he will.