Politics & Policy

Bush Failed on 9/11, but Trump Would Have Done No Better

(Bill Pugliano/Getty)

It is a simple and undeniable fact that the American national-security apparatus failed on September 11, 2001. How do we know? Because al-Qaeda succeeded in carrying out the bloodiest, most devastating attack on American soil in our nation’s history. The military, law enforcement, and intelligence assets tasked with preventing just such an attack failed. The political leaders who ultimately determine our national defense priorities failed. To state this rather obvious fact doesn’t make one a “truther.” It does not in any way imply that George W. Bush or any other American politician was complicit in the attacks or didn’t do the best he could with the information at hand. A leader can care deeply, seek with his whole heart to protect Americans, and still fail. After all, the enemy always gets a vote.

On September 11, George W. Bush failed. But the failure, of course, was not his alone. Two successive administrations failed to treat al-Qaeda as an enemy capable of inflicting catastrophic damage in America’s cities. Two successive administrations initiated and maintained policies that, quite obviously, failed to deter al-Qaeda, detect its specific plans, or locate its individual terrorists. Yes, there were ample warnings that al-Qaeda was a deadly foe — the 1998 embassy bombings and the 2000 near-sinking of the U.S.S. Cole raised alarm bells throughout the national-security establishment — but when the extent of the damage on September 11 surprised even Osama bin Laden, it’s safe to say that American leaders did not comprehend our true peril.

So when Donald Trump disputes Jeb Bush’s characterization that his brother “kept us safe,” he’s simply stating facts. The American civilian death toll to terrorism was higher under George W. Bush than for any American president before or since. George W. Bush no more “kept us safe” than Franklin Roosevelt kept America secure on December 7, 1941, when we suffered arguably our most catastrophic military defeat, losing most of the surface striking power of the U.S. Pacific fleet in one devastating surprise attack.

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But it’s one thing for Trump to state facts, it’s another thing entirely for him to claim that he would have prevented the 9/11 attacks. On Fox News Sunday, he declared, “I believe that if I were running things, I doubt those families would have — I doubt that those people would have been in the country.” Oh, really?

Trump is asking us to believe that his mere presence alone would have caused the State Department bureaucracy to suddenly become competent.

This statement is simply stunning. He’s asking Americans to believe that he would have brought a post–September 11 mindset to a nation that had not suffered a catastrophic foreign attack on the mainland since the War of 1812 and that he would have been able to draft, pass through Congress, and fully enforce a comprehensive new approach to immigration by the summer of 2001. He’s asking us to believe that he would have then caught the terrorists who had already been let in the country under the old immigration regime. He’s asking us to believe that his mere presence alone would have caused the State Department bureaucracy to suddenly become competent.

After all, in 2002, National Review obtained 15 of the 19 hijackers’ visa applications and discovered that none of them had been completed properly. None of them should have been approved. In other words, existing systems should have prevented the hijackers’ entry into the United States. They failed because people failed — people living in a pre–September 11 world who never imagined lower Manhattan shrouded in smoke and flames, with thousands of their fellow citizens dying in the ruin and the rubble.

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The tragedy isn’t that Donald Trump wasn’t in charge in 2001 — the tragedy is that we still haven’t learned from defeat, that we still don’t adequately track visa overstays, that we still don’t enforce our immigration laws, and that our border is still absurdly porous. The truly damaging critique of George W. Bush — indeed, of both parties — is that not only did our national-security establishment fail to protect us on September 11 but that it still hasn’t learned the right lessons about immigration policy.

#share#After September 11, President Bush did, in fact, keep us safe — in part by pursuing an aggressive military strategy that put our troops front and center in the Middle East, striking terrorists where they live. He also implemented surveillance measures of extraordinary breadth and depth — measures President Obama continued and expanded. But if we pull back from the Middle East, if we roll back our electronic surveillance, and if our border remains laughably insecure, then how will we defend our nation? Through magical thinking, happy thoughts, and festive Ramadan meals at the White House?

#related#Yes, the Bush administration failed on September 11. No, there’s no real evidence a President Trump would have fared any better. And neither of those statements should be the least bit controversial or relevant for the 2016 election. The real issue is far more practical: Which candidate is best equipped to drag the entire national-defense apparatus — including (but not limited to) our immigration system — into the post–September 11, post-ISIS reality? Which candidate is best equipped to learn from the undeniable mistakes of the past and change the unjustifiable foolishness of the present?

Trump’s best argument is that he’s learned from the past, but the past also teaches us that hubris can be just as deadly as incompetence. Let’s change course, but let’s not pretend that any leader can guarantee American security.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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