Here’s Where Bush’s Fight Against Terrorism Went Wrong

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President George W. Bush’s verbal missteps were legendary. Take, for example, his September 2006 interview with Katie Couric on CBS News, in which he said, “one of the hardest parts of my job is to connect Iraq to the war on terror.” Comments such as that one hinted at the ramifications his errors had on the course of U.S. history. Bush started planning for an invasion of Iraq two months after the September 11 attacks, according to his 2010 memoir, though military operations did not begin until March 2003.

The criticisms heaped on Bush were numerous. In the months before the U.S. invasion of Iraq began, reporters in Knight Ridder’s Washington, D.C., bureau questioned the links between Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, and international terrorism made by the Bush administration. Other political experts accused Bush of starting and sustaining a “rhetoric of war fever.” However, supporters of the Iraq war, including Vice President Dick Cheney, have argued that the removal of Saddam made the Arab Spring possible.

Gore Vidal, author of Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, theorized in January 2003 that Bush wanted to be a wartime president with the ability to “suspend much if not all of the Bill of Rights.” Richard Falk, co-editor of Crimes of War, said in an April 2003 interview that the “war against Iraq is very questionable constitutionally, as well as dubious under international law.” An argument also circulated that the U.S. was doing more to encourage terrorism than eradicate it.

A former Danish jihadist touched on that concern in a Wednesday interview with the BBC. Morten Storm — once a militant Sunni Muslim activist with ties to al-Qaeda and Anwar al-Awlaki, now a whistleblower — explained to Richard Bacon on BBC Radio 5 live that many Muslims believed the Iraq war was a “blatant declaration of war on Islam.” That 2003 invasion made “those who had disagreed with 9/11 … convinced that this is actually a jihad because Britain and the allies went into wars based on lies.”

When Bush drew a line in the sand in November 2001, stating at a joint news conference with French President Jacques Chirac that there was no room for neutrality in the fight against terrorism, the repercussions were grave, according to Storm. “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” Bush said, and that phrase, per Storm, pushed him and “thousands” of people to become more radical and turn toward terrorism.

While Bacon acknowledged he had “no way” of challenging Storm’s assertion, there is evidence that backs those statements. In 2006, an assessment of terrorism trends made by American intelligence agencies revealed that the invasion and occupation of Iraq had helped to create a new generation of Islamic radicals.

Citing an American intelligence official, that National Intelligence Estimate report said “the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse,” with the radical Islamic movement growing from a core of al-Qaeda operatives and affiliated groups to a broader base of “self-generating” cells inspired by al-Qaeda but not directly connected to Osama bin Laden or his lieutenants. As Storm indicated, the decision of the Bush administration to target the regime of Saddam Hussein, whose purported cache of weapons of mass destruction was never found or never existed, seemed to show an affinity for imperialism and a disregard for the Muslim world.

Saddam was “an unusually reckless, cruel, and self-deluded dictator” whose past “included catastrophic wars with Iran and Kuwait, murderous rampages against his own people … and a clear aspiration toward regional hegemony,” Persian Gulf expert Kenneth Pollack wrote in a 2002 book that made the case for invading Iraq. The book became a key document in the lead-up to the war.

The war Bush fought bore few similarities to the one Pollack described. While the United States may have had few good policy options regarding Iraq, as Pollack wrote, even Glenn Beck has since acknowledged the mission was misguided. Bush himself wrote in his memoir that he regretted his infamous premature declaration of victory made aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln in May 2003. The former president also said he made several strategic failures, including not finding any weapons of mass destruction.

Few now would argue that the Bush administration made only a few strategic failures. In the 11 years that have passed since U.S. troops entered Iraq, political experts have argued that the president did not fully understand the implications of an invasion. “We went into Iraq without properly anticipating the consequences of being there and without properly understanding the culture of Iraq,” Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University in Washington, told USA Today. “Poor planning and poor knowledge combined to prolong that conflict way past what it should have been.”

With the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and insurgent violence growing to such a point that more than 700 troops have been redeployed to Iraq, Bush’s 2003 declaration of “mission accomplished” rings even more false than it did in the months and years that separated his assertion and the withdrawal of U.S. troops in late 2011.

In early 2012, when the growing Sunni insurgent violence was more a nagging concern than a pressing problem — with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant winning more and more territory from the Iraqi government — Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who was appointed  CIA director by Bush in 2006 and served until February 2009, wrote in a piece for CNN that the United States had pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq too soon.

Hayden argued that “whatever the withdrawal means in purely physical terms in Iraq, the psychic impact there and in the region is that America is less interested.” And “in Iraq that means that each of the factions are going to their sectarian corners and are preparing to come out fighting,” he wrote. Hawks in the United States are arguing that President Barack Obama built the foundation for the current crisis by withdrawing all U.S. troops, a move that disrupted the stability achieved by the surge ordered by Bush.

But at the end of 2011, the Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, was neither stable nor safe. And not all political analysts agree that the withdrawal came too soon.

Jason Brownlee, an associate professor of government and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in The Washington Post in June that keeping soldiers in Iraq longer would not have “halted the political hemorrhaging.” In his opinion, “the most the United States has accomplished through military interventions in the developing world is to replace or reinforce local leaders, typically in missions that lasted a year or less.”

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