Tuesday, August 30, 2011

George W. Bush, 9/11, and Intelligence

I plugged for the National Geographic interview of George W. Bush yesterday in The Short List.  Hopefully our (limited) readership watched it last night, because I think it's important for a few different reasons.  The interview kicks off two weeks of solemn commemoration of the events of 9/11, how it changed our world, how the United States changed, and what it might mean for the future.  It's fair to say that the events of that day, unbeknownst to me at the time, changed my life and I will always remember where I was, and what I felt watching the second plane hit.

The interview splices in images and video from 9/11 and the days immediately following.  The feeling in the pit of my stomach is as visceral as it was 10 years ago when I saw it happen live.  Anger, sorrow, fear, anxiety all flash through my body every time I see the second plane hit.  And you can tell that discussing 9/11 still gets to President Bush.  That unmistakable mix of anger and sorrow is evident in his eyes.  He discusses why he lingered in a Florida elementary classroom after Andy Card told him about the second plane.  He discusses his frustration in being shuttled around the country and not being allowed to return to DC immediately.  He discusses how Saddam Hussein's name was mentioned on September 11th, though he doesn't indicate a particular member of his senior staff.  He also spends a fair bit of time decrying the communication equipment available to him onboard Air Force One.  He discusses a great many things, but two things really stood out to me.

First, as if a mantra he discusses how he never planned to be a "war time president," and how America was now "at war."  This could be legacy protection, but it could also be that he legitimately felt he was suddenly transformed into a war time president in the mold of Lincoln or Roosevelt (he draws no such comparison).  I've had a hard time, in retrospect, considering the acts of 9/11 and our actions following as a "war."  And I fear that President Bush wraps himself in the "war time president" cloak so we might dismiss the extra-judicial actions of his administration in the years that followed.

The second thing that struck me was toward the end of the interview.  He says "I was not acting strategically," and follows up saying he believed what he was doing was protecting the American people.  I know that 9/11 was an extreme case of terrorism, but to think that in the following seven years that the President of the United States did not act strategically just dumbfounds me.  Certainly in those first 24 to 48 hours it is about command control and strategy comes later, but the admission that the whole response was not strategic seemed to confirm for me a bias I had before the interview that the interview just reinforced.  President Bush was not up to the challenge of the situation.

If you listen during the interview you notice how little he decided as President.  There are briefings.  Information is coming in.  Things are happening, but there doesn't seem to be any decisions that began with President Bush.  He was a passenger to his own administration on that day.  Perhaps it was due to the poor communication system on Air Force One.  Perhaps the military had a protocol for a terrorist incident of this magnitude and it was implemented step-by step.  Perhaps the gears of the state were well-oiled and responsive to this kind of shock.  I have my doubts.  And so what emerges is the image of a figurehead president being shuttled around the country while the serious people make decisions and secure America.

In a post at Democracy in America today, E.G. posts commentary on the recent exploration of Gov. Perry's intelligence.  Towards the end of the post he says something that captures a bit of my reaction to the interview.
So this kind of examination leads us to a broader question: even if we could assess a candidate's intelligence... how clever does a candidate need to be, and how important is intelligence in a president? It's tempting to say that a person elected president can't actually be stupid, because otherwise we would be hard-pressed to explain how they got to be president.
And yet it wasn't intelligence that Bush was lacking in the interview.  He knew what was going on, the gravity of it, and that action needed to be taken.  E.G. continues:
I would prefer a president who isn't overtly anti-intellectual or hostile to empirical analysis, both of which suggest small-mindedness and ideological devotion.
So would I, and I don't think President Bush is hostile to empirical analysis as it related to terrorism, but by his own admission he did not approach the issue of terrorism strategically.  That's why his account of the day makes him sound like a bystander.  He was overwhelmed by the situation, and could not break it down strategically.  He knew something needed to happen or rather that many somethings needed to happen, but the sequence eluded him. The interview, I think, reveals a man with good intentions for his actions on 9/11 and in the years that followed, but a man sorely out classed by the gravity and complexity of the problems that led to 9/11 and the consequences of our responses.  

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