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Fans fawn, but Bush fails as commander
by Jay Bookman
Atlantic Journal-Constitution
September 2, 2004

NEW YORK CITY -The goal of this week's GOP convention is not merely to nominate George W. Bush for re-election as president of the United States. Its planners have a far greater ambition, seeking to install the president in the pantheon of great wartime leaders alongside historic figures such as Roosevelt, Lincoln and Churchill.

Speaker after speaker, from Arnold all the way to Zell, have come to the podium to laud Bush's virtues as commander in chief, but the most remarkable contribution to the cause came from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In his speech Monday night, Giuliani recalled the horrible moment almost three years ago when he stared up at the burning towers of the World Trade Center and realized that those objects plummeting toward him from the sky were human beings who had hurled themselves from the top. At that moment, he said, he turned to a colleague and thanked God that our president was George Bush.

However, as critics of the president will point out, Bush himself was sitting transfixed in a Florida schoolroom in those minutes, clearly uncertain of what to do next.

So how should the president's performance as commander in chief be assessed? How well has he met the central challenges that confronted him and the nation in the aftermath of Sept. 11?

The most immediate of those challenges was to reassure a nation shaken to its core by the experience of watching thousands of their fellow Americans die on live television. All but the most virulent of the president's critics will concede that Bush met and exceeded that initial test of leadership, exuding an aura of confidence, strength and compassion in those early days that continues to pay political dividends for him even today.

The next challenge for the president was to strike and strike hard at those who had attacked us, both out of justified vengeance and as an act of self-defense. On this test, the record is mixed. We have succeeded in disrupting but not destroying the al-Qaida network, in part because we withheld troops from Afghanistan and hired local militias to do much of our fighting. It seems fair to say that on Sept. 12, 2001, most Americans would have been deeply disappointed and perhaps even shocked if they had known that Osama bin Laden would still be at large almost three years later.

Capturing bin Laden, however, was not the most important challenge facing Bush. The attacks of Sept. 11 taught us that there were no limits on the brutality that terrorists were willing to inflict, a lesson with particularly grim implications in an age when weapons of mass destruction have become more widespread. Recognizing that danger, President Bush publicly identified three rogue countries with the capacity to develop such weapons -- Iraq, Iran and North Korea -- and made them targets of U.S. efforts to force them to disarm. He eventually decided to invade and occupy one of those countries, Iraq, with consequences that will hound us for a long time.

In an interview Tuesday, Bush told Rush Limbaugh that no American president should ever take his country to war without first exhausting every diplomatic option, and he went on to claim that he had been forced to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein had refused to disarm and because diplomacy had proved fruitless.

That is, to be kind, a gross rewriting of history, and it does not become more truthful simply because Bush himself seems to believe it.

Diplomacy had not been exhausted when we chose to go to war. Quite the contrary, diplomacy, combined with the very necessary threat of military action, had succeeded and was continuing to succeed. By the spring of 2003, Saddam had been forced to open up his entire country, including his precious palaces, to U.N. arms inspectors, and as those inspections went on week after week, they produced no evidence of weapons or weapons programs. The inspections ended only when they were pre-empted by Bush's decision to go to war.

If the inspections had been allowed to continue -- if we truly had tried to exhaust our diplomatic options -- we would have learned through peaceful means what we have so far sacrificed almost 1,000 American lives and almost $200 billion to discover: Far from refusing to disarm, as the president continues to claim, Saddam had actually dumped his illegal weapons of mass destruction years earlier.

With its initial justification for invasion rendered moot, the Bush administration has now embraced a larger mission of bringing democracy to Iraq. At best, it will be a generation before we know whether that effort will succeed, but the prospect of catastrophic failure is very real. Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an enthusiastic and early advocate of invasion, asserted Tuesday in New York that even with all of our setbacks in Iraq, "the odds of ultimate success are better than 50-50." When the optimistic outlook is 50-50, that tells you something.

And unfortunately, while we have been preoccupied with Iraq, the other two charter members of the axis of evil have become more dangerous. Over the past three years, Iran has made significant progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons, and North Korea is believed to have expanded its existing nuclear arsenal. If Bush was correct in stating that the biggest danger facing this country is the possession of nuclear weapons by rogue nations, then we are significantly less safe today than we were three years ago. More chilling yet, because of Iraq, we may not be able to muster the diplomatic credibility and military capability we would need to alter the course of events in those countries.

In other words, if we judge Bush's performance by the challenges that he set for himself and this nation in the wake of Sept. 11, he must be deemed a failure as commander in chief. And while his ability to don the external trappings of strong leadership has shielded him from that conclusion in the eyes of many, it cannot shield this nation from its consequences.

Posted: September 27, 2004


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