The decade of bin Laden politics

George W. Bush responded to 9/11 with a binge of hubris that shaped American politics for years to come

Published May 3, 2011 12:01PM (EDT)

It was three years before 9/11 that Americans first met Osama bin Laden, back in 1998, when their summers were (briefly) interrupted with news that a terrorist group called al-Qaida had launched deadly attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa. The domestic reaction consisted mainly of fleeting expressions of sadness and concern, nothing more.

When President Clinton, days after admitting that he had, in fact, had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, launched airstrikes on targets linked to bin Laden in Sudan, the press responded by obsessing over whether Clinton was taking a page from the movie "Wag the Dog" -- in which a president manufactures an overseas crisis to distract attention from a sex scandal back home.

This was the extent of bin Laden's role in American politics -- and in American life -- right up until 8:45 in the morning on Sept. 11, 2001, when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center's North Tower. Within hours, three more hijacked planes would crash, nearly 3,000 Americans would be dead, and the country's politics would be radically changed.

It was out of this tragedy that the Bush presidency was truly born. And it was out of the response of Democrats to the Bush presidency -- a response that was frustratingly slow to develop -- that Barack Obama ultimately emerged.

Public apathy had defined the previous year's presidential race, with neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore stirring much passion among voters. ("Gush and Bore," they were sometimes derided as.) To many Americans, Bush was still a joke eight months into his presidency -- a lazy son of wealth and privilege who'd taken four decades to grow up and who owed his "victory" to voter confusion, a friendly Supreme Court, and the archaic Electoral College system. But he was the only president they had, and as the reality of 9/11 sunk in, they instinctively looked to him for comfort, reassurance and leadership.

At first, Bush dropped the ball. News of the attacks reached him while he was taking part in an elementary school reading lesson in Florida. The footage would haunt him for years -- seven minutes of sitting, staring, fidgeting and flipping through "The Pet Goat" after hearing what had just happened from Andy Card, his chief of staff. Was it a display of poise, a president taking care not to project panic? Or was it proof that he was in over his head, shocked into paralysis by news he didn't know how to process? That it was even an issue underscored the lack of moral authority Bush carried into 9/11. He seemed steadier in a televised address to the nation later that day, but still unsure of himself, a man struggling to convince his countrymen that he meant the words others had written for him.

"These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat," Bush declared. "But they have failed."

The turning point finally came three days later, when Bush faced a skeptical, maybe even dismissive, crowd of rescue workers at ground zero. He recited his prepared remarks and they talked over him and told him they couldn't hear him. He raised his voice and ad-libbed: "I can hear you! I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!" With one confident, unscripted and eloquent line, Bush had won over the men and women of ground zero -- and across the country.

Just before the attacks, Bush's approval rating had hovered around 50 percent, the lowest it had been during his first eight months in office. He'd taken some heat for governing as if he'd received a mandate in the '00 election (when Gore had actually received more popular votes), alienating a moderate Republican senator, Vermont's James Jeffords, who left the GOP and handed control of the chamber back to the Democrats. The Bush agenda had been focused on domestic policy: tax cuts, the "No Child Left Behind" bill, limits on stem cell research, and industry-friendly energy policy. International affairs had barely been an issue in the '00 campaign, with Bush promising a "humble" foreign policy and no "nation-building."

But now, Bush felt emboldened. His approval rating soared to 95 percent -- a few points better than the record-shattering mark his father has set in early 1991. But Bush 41's high mark had represented a collective national sigh of relief -- the successful end of Operation Desert Storm, which had evicted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait (and defied widespread predictions that it would result in another Vietnam quagmire). Bush's 43's poll numbers represented the nation's profound, unprecedented anxiety; Americans weren't celebrating his achievements -- they were expressing their support as they waited for him to make a move.

Bush didn't have to choose the path he took. But in the hours, days and weeks after 9/11, he was won over by those in his administration who had long advocated aggressive, military-led efforts to overhaul the Arab and Muslim worlds. Bush embraced the concept of a "war on terror," vowing to confront not just bin Laden and his lieutenants, but the government in Afghanistan that had supported them -- and any government anywhere that made a home for any element that might post the same kind of threat to the United States as al-Qaida.

Speaking to a joint session of Congress nine days after the attacks, Bush offered an ultimatum to Afghanistan's Taliban leaders: Give up bin Laden and his men or face an invasion. Then he went further: "From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime."

Today, this kind of language would set off all sorts of alarms. But not in the America of 2001. That fall, as the Bush doctrine formed, Americans went about their lives convinced that the next deadly attack was just weeks, days or even hours away. They sat glued to cable news channels, where the bottom-of-the-screen "news crawls" -- which popped up in the frantic hours immediately after the 9/11 attacks and never disappeared -- kept them updated on the latest Anthrax case. The best that Tom Ridge, Bush's newly appointed Homeland Security czar, could tell them was that the U.S. mail was safe -- "by and large." Polls found that wide majorities of Americans believed the question was when -- and not if -- al-Qaida would strike again, a sentiment that leaders from both parties stoked.

This overwhelming fear left little room for debate. Days after 9/11, Bush asked Congress to authorize "all necessary and appropriate force" against anyone who -- in Bush's determination -- had anything to do with 9/11. The vote in the Senate was 98-0. In the House, it was 420-1. The lone dissenter, California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, received a flood of death threats.

On television, Bill Maher -- whose "Politically Incorrect" show was airing late nights on ABC -- tried to make a philosophical point about the 9/11 terrorists, arguing that "we have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, responded that, in the wake of 9/11, "people have to watch what they say and watch what they do." Maher's show was canceled soon thereafter. 

On Oct. 7, Bush announced that the invasion of Afghanistan had begun. On the same day, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made it clear that this was just the start. "Our aims are much broader," he said. Three weeks later, the Patriot Act sailed through Congress, by a vote of 357-66 in the House and 98-1 in the Senate. The nation continued to find enormous comfort in its president, who now carried himself with a confidence and swagger that had previously been absent. The whole country, it seemed, cheered for Bush when he was called to throw out the first pitch of Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 30 -- and delivered a perfect strike.

By 2002, the campaign to roll the "war on terror" into Iraq was well underway. In his State of the Union address at the end of January, Bush -- with Dick Cheney sitting behind him, the first time since 9/11 that the president and vice president had appeared in public together -- told Americans that "our war against terror is only beginning" and singled out three new potential targets: Iran, Iraq and North Korea, "the axis of evil."

"For too long," Bush said, "our culture has said, 'If it feels good, do it.' Now, America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: Let's roll."

Bush's approval rating was still over 80 percent -- and support for invading Iraq was nearly as high. The case was easy to make to most Americans, who had spent the previous decade being exposed to one story after another about how Hussein represented the second coming of Hitler. Sure, there was no proof that Saddam and Iraq had had anything to do with 9/11, but to Americans who badly, dearly wanted to avoid another attack on their homeland, it didn’t take much convincing to satisfy them that they'd be safer without this bad man running a Middle East nation.

Moreover, the popular consensus was that toppling Saddam would be an easy operation. The example of the '91 Gulf War, when victory was achieved quickly and American casualties were tiny, was still fresh in the public's mind. And Afghanistan seemed to be going well, too (even if bin Laden had managed to elude capture in the late '01 battle for Tora Bora). The hubris that Bush and his team were feeling was shared by most Americans.

This was not a climate conducive to the opposition party playing its role. In the run-up to the first Gulf War, most Democrats in Congress had sided against George H.W. Bush's request for military authorization, warning Americans that engagement in the Gulf could lead to massive casualties -- the next Vietnam, many suggested. In that war's aftermath, they'd all eaten crow (and some of them stayed off the 1992 presidential campaign trail because of their "no" votes). As Bush and his team ramped up their push for war with Iraq in '02 -- first subtly, then blatantly -- many Democrats in Congress resolved not to make the same mistake twice. The economy still seemed fragile; if Bush was going to be vulnerable in 2004, they reasoned, it would be because of that -- not his post-9/11 foreign policy.

When Bush asked Congress in the fall of '02 to authorize action, the two top Democrats on Capitol Hill -- Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt -- lined up with him and predicted smooth passage. Both were eyeing runs for president. Bush's popularity was still comfortably over 60 percent -- much higher in red states. Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a decorated veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam, learned this the hard way when his '02 Republican opponent launched an ad highlighting Cleland's votes against the Bush White House -- implying that the senator had sided with bin Laden and other terrorists.

The war resolution cleared both chambers with ease: 297-131 in the House, and 77-23 in the Senate (where a majority of Democrats supported it, too). In the November midterms, Bush's Republicans actually gained seats in the House and Senate -- only the second time since the Depression that a president's party had actually picked up seats in a midterm.

That U.N. weapons inspectors still couldn't find any of the weapons of mass destruction Bush and his team had assured Americans were in Iraq didn't matter: The invasion began on March 19, 2003, the U.N. be damned. It had been 18 months since 9/11, and Bush's popularity had yet to drop below 60 percent -- and in the weeks after the invasion, as Baghdad fell, Saddam fled and his statue was toppled, it climbed back over 70 percent. Democrats despaired: Even a plurality of their own voters didn't want the party's budding presidential field to challenge Bush's leadership on Iraq. The president who had come to office a widely ridiculed man had guided the country through one of its darkest hours, turning a terrible tragedy into an opportunity to assert America's might like never before, and to reclaim its pride and dignity in the process. Oh, and he'd also thoroughly marginalized the opposition party.

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That, I suppose, is how the story of the Bush presidency would have been written if history had frozen on May 1, 2003 -- the day Bush dressed up like a pilot, landed on an aircraft carrier and delivered his "Mission accomplished!" speech. But time plowed forward, and as it did, it steadily revealed the ugly consequences of Bush's 18-month hubris binge. America was totally unprepared for the post-invasion phase in Iraq. Sectarian violence flourished, a civil war broke out, American casualties mounted, and the administration tried to dismiss it all with excuses and empty promises.

Meanwhile, Democrats found their voice: first in the form of Howard Dean, who emerged in the spring of '03 as the only major presidential candidate in the party to oppose Iraq from the start. On paper, Dean never should have gone anywhere, but as the bad news from the battlefield mounted, Democratic voters struggled to digest the explanations from John Kerry, John Edwards and Gephardt for why they'd supported the war in the first place. After putting a profound scare into the party's establishment, though, Dean collapsed and Democrats settled on Kerry, betting that his decorated Vietnam service would inoculate him from the GOP's foreign policy attacks. It was a bad bet: There was just enough fear left for Bush to pull out a three-point victory. A late-campaign cameo from bin Laden, in the form of a videotaped message released the weekend before Election Day, may have helped tip the scales.

But Bush's '04 win merely prolonged the inevitable. The worst was yet to come in Iraq, and the president's poll numbers sunk ever lower in 2005 and 2006. Why did we ever listen to this guy in the first place? Americans seemed to wonder. Democrats stormed back in the 2006 midterms, reclaiming the Senate for the first time since '02 and the House for the first time since 1994. Then they set out to elect a new president, and the same base that had rallied around Dean in '04 quickly found its candidate: Barack Obama, whose keynote speech had been the '04 Democratic convention's brightest note.

It's fitting that it was Obama who announced the killing of bin Laden on Sunday night. It was a moment that Bush and his team had planned -- and yearned -- to enjoy themselves. But it was Obama who'd built his own campaign around a critique of Bush's original post-9/11 sin: the decision to pursue an ill-defined, borderless and resource-exhausting "war on terror" -- instead of focusing on finding the one man who really was at the heart of America's darkest day. 

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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