Commentary: Bush and Cheney hyped the terrorist threat

Special to McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 24, 2009 

Did George W. Bush really keep us safe after 9-11?

Those who try to construct a positive legacy from his eight years in power claim that as a major accomplishment. They argue the absence of a terrorist attack during the 2,688 days he was in office following 9-11 proves the effectiveness of his policies and is all that's needed to justify them.

They're wrong. Three other conclusions should be drawn from the failure of terrorists to strike at the U.S. again.

– First, terrorism isn't as big a threat as the Bush administration made it out to be.

– Second, there eventually will be another attack, because the thuggish tactics of the Bush administration have made one inevitable.

– Finally, no president can prevent any and all attacks, and we shouldn't expect absolute protection from terrorism.

Despite the horrific events of 9-11, terrorism was never that big a threat to the homeland. Al-Qaida attracted a limited number of fanatics and had very little capacity to mount operations outside the Middle East. Once Afghanistan's Taliban government was removed, al-Qaida lost its operating base and much of its ability to do anything but run for cover.

That didn't prevent hysterical editorials such as the one from a State Department official (who happened to be Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter) claiming that America faced an existential threat. Just think of it. A handful of fanatics supposedly could end life as we know it. Who knew that the world's only superpower was so vulnerable, and its very existence so precarious?

That overwrought view prevailed in Washington because in the aftermath of 9-11, the officials there were like kids at camp gathered around a fire telling scary stories. No scenario was too far-fetched, and no government action was excessive or illegal in their minds if it somehow would make us safer.

The government overreaction started with Cheney in his bunker on that fateful day, ordering a fighter plane without weapons to shoot down an airliner that didn't exist on the basis of authority he didn't have. Then came Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, torture, rendition, our own secret gulag and more. Such tactics, accompanied by pronouncements about democracy, human rights and the rule of law, only demonstrated to the rest of the world that America was as hypocritical as it was powerful.

Neoconservatives think that being the strongest country in the world means being able to impose our will wherever and whenever we feel like it. What it really means is that we're the largest target, as well as the largest economy and the strongest military power.

Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City with some fuel oil, fertilizer and a rented truck. That, plus fanaticism and a total disregard for the lives of innocent people, is all that's required to be a terrorist. There've been many such people in the past, and there will be more in the future. The tactics employed in the so-called war on terror have added to their ranks and ensured that it's only a matter of time until the next attack.

A president cannot protect everyone in America from rapists, serial killers or other criminals. How is he supposed to prevent every possible act of terrorism? And if there is one, is his term in office a failure? What kind of Stalinist police state at home and aggression abroad would be necessary to provide total security? Would it require government intrusion into the lives of all Americans and the targeting of especially dangerous groups such as journalists? A whistleblower who worked for the National Security Agency claims that's already happened.

That gives no pause to the chorus of conservative cowards demanding total security. They abhor the idea of a "mommy" government and believe the free market is the only protection needed from contaminated food, unsafe products or financial scams. Yet they insist on the need for a "daddy" government that will keep them safe from any terrorist threat.

The reality is no president can guarantee our safety from all terrorist acts, anymore than he or she can protect us from a hurricane. So get used to living with the idea that terrorism is a possibility, because there never will be a final victory over a tactic.

Comfort yourself, however, with the thought that becoming a victim of it is about as likely as seeing George W. Bush on Mount Rushmore.

ABOUT THE WRITER Dennis Jett, a former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State's School of International Affairs. His most recent book is "Why American Foreign Policy Fails: Unsafe at Home and Despised Abroad." McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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