The 9/11 factor: How unforeseen events shape the presidency

Walter Shapiro

Twelve years ago, four top CIA officials flew to Crawford, Texas, for the traditional national security briefing offered to presidential nominees. At the end of Gov. George W. Bush’s three-hour crash course, Ben Bonk, the deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, ominously warned the GOP nominee, “Sometime in the next four years, Americans will die as a result of a terrorist incident.”

To punctuate his bleak assessment, Bonk opened his non-descript briefcase to show a red digital clock counting down the seconds. While this particular device was harmless, Bonk explained that it was a replica of a suitcase chemical weapon. He dramatically added, “This one would be going off in two minutes.”

That Sept. 2, 2000, anecdote is how Vanity Fair contributing editor Kurt Eichenwald begins his new book, published today, “500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars.” Eichenwald’s dramatic re-creation of the fear, folly and frenzy that gripped American policymakers during the 500 days from the 9/11 attacks to the Iraq War offers telling insider details. But the sad-eyed storyline remains familiarhow the tragedy of Sept. 11 morphed into an ill-conceived war to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s non-existent arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

Sometime in the next few weeks, Mitt Romney will receive his own national security briefing. In all likelihood, some small part of the presentation will seem, in hindsight, to be eerily prescient if Romney becomes the 45th president. Every new occupant of the Oval Office grapples with crises that could not have been envisioned two months before Election Day. For Bill Clinton, it was genocide in the Balkans. For Barack Obama, it was everything from revolution in Egypt and Libya to the grisly civil war in Syria.

Harry Truman, who took office knowing nothing about America’s atomic weapons program, famously declared, “I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.” Eleven years ago today George W. Bush lived it, enduring a day so ghastly that it makes words like “tragedy” seem banal. Reading Eichenwald’s non-judgmental account of the days immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks left me with empathy for Bush grappling with the unfathomable. But it also serves as a cautionary lesson in the fateful consequences of White House decisions made on the fly in the midst of crisis.

In Eichenwald’s telling, the most important words of the Bush presidency were from the eight-minute Oval Office address the night that the Twin Towers were toppled. The president unequivocally declared, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” That single sentence, quickly crafted by Bush himself with the encouragement of then-national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, committed America to more than simply retaliating against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. It set the stage for a decade of debilitating wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

After the speech in the White House bunker, Bush told aides, “This is an opportunity beyond Afghanistan. We have to shake terror loose in places like Syria and Iran and Iraq.” (According to Eichenwald’s footnotes, this expansive quote is based on the contemporaneous notes of a Bush adviser.) For all the resolve in Bush’s words, for all the horrors of that wrenching day, that was the moment of tragic hubris. That was the moment when Bush’s global ambitions raced far ahead of America’s capabilities, resources and geopolitical wisdom.

Every president should understand that crises are not opportunities to be exploited, but grave problems to be solved. The 2008 financial crisis triggered the same sense of grandiose over-reach among Obama’s top advisers. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, eerily echoed Bush when he told the Wall Street Journal shortly before the inauguration, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. ... This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.”

For Bush, it was, of course, the opportunity to invade Iraq. According to Eichenwald, the day after the 9/11 attacks, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was already arguing during a National Security Council meeting with the president, “I’m not even sure that Afghanistan is the right place to start. What if Iraq is involved?” he asked. That same week, a worried British Prime Minister Tony Blair became convinced that the Bush administration was already looking for a pretext to depose Saddam Hussein.

Reading “500 Days” also provides a reminder of the understandable fear that haunted the White House in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. That fateful morning most of the White House went racing out of the building convinced that a deadly jet was headed their way. Senior officials held meetings in bunkers hardened against nuclear attack. On Sept. 14, Bush chief of staff Andrew Card held a meeting with White House staffers in which he assured them that they could quietly leave “with no recrimination or dishonor or bad feeling.” But even those whose stomachs had been recoiling in terror stayed on the job.

Eleven years later, in the midst of the third presidential campaign since the 9/11 attacks, American politics has abandoned even the pretense of an adult discussion of foreign policy. Instead of substance, there is skirmishing over near meaningless symbolism like Romney’s failure to mention Afghanistan in his nomination acceptance speech and the Democratic Party platform’s initial failure to affirm that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Not once in this campaign has there been a glimmer of serious debate over such tinderbox questions as Iran’s purported nuclear program and the civil war in Syria.

So many American men and women have died or been gravely wounded on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq since terror rained from the skies on Sept. 11, 2001. So much American treasure and international goodwill have been squandered. It would be a fitting tribute on this hallowed day to seriously contemplate where we have been and where we are going in the unending war against terrorists.