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A Pre-9/11 Mentality

It's Bush who remains unchanged by Sept. 11

By Eoghan W. Stafford

I can’t help feeling embarrassed for the president whenever he attacks John Kerry on the “mentality” issue. And I don’t just say that because the leader of the free world has declared “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” his favorite book or because he apparently believes that “Mexican” is a language.

The Bush-Cheney campaign constantly accuses Kerry of having a “pre-9/11 mentality.” So what was on the senator’s mind before September 2001? As a member of the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations (which he chaired in the 1990s), Kerry lead investigations that exposed and shut down international financial networks that gave a lifeline to terrorists. In 1988, Senator Kerry authored and passed legislation that forced foreign governments to crack down on these networks or lose access to U.S. markets. In his 1997 book, “The New War,”Kerry argued that international terrorist and criminal networks were the greatest emerging threat the U.S. faced.

That was Kerry’s “pre-9/11 mentality.” Bush’s pre-9/11 mentality—as of 36 days before 9/11—was to ignore a briefing entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the United States,” because he felt it was an “historical” curiosity.

While Kerry displayed prescient insight into the terrorist threat years ago, Bush is stuck in a pre-9/11 mentality that was unwise then and is shockingly obtuse in the wake of the terrorist attacks. What emerges from the president’s record on security is a persistent attention gap: time and again, on issues that should be no-brainers after September 11, the administration dropped the ball.

It was bad enough that, in February 2001, the White House ignored the Hart-Rudman commission’s recommendation to create a “National Homeland Security Agency” to defend against international terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. But the President’s initial opposition to the Department of Homeland Security after 9/11 was simply unfathomable. On October 24, 2001, Ari Fleisher said the president believed “there does not need to be a Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security,” and Bush only flip-flopped on this issue when forced to by political pressure. The President still plans to cut $1 billion in Homeland Security funding in both 2005 and 2006.

Or consider the President’s decision, in August 2001, to cut funding for the effort to secure Russia’s nuclear materials. It seems pretty dumb now, but they’ve learned their lesson since then, right? Well… not really. Even today—despite Cheney’s ceaseless apocalyptic warnings about terrorists smuggling nuclear bombs into American cities—the administration has still not provided enough funds to finish securing Russian nukes before 2017.

And of course, invading Iraq was a pre-9/11 pet project of the administration’s neocons, repackaged as a response to the al Qaeda attacks. During his confirmation hearing, Paul Wolfowitz told the Senate Armed Services Committee he “would certainly think it was worthwhile” for the U.S. to invade Iraq to achieve regime change. In those heady early days of Bush’s reign, Wolfowitz and fellow administration neocons Armitage, Perle and Rumsfeld tirelessly pushed for the U.S. to arm and lead an Iraqi opposition in toppling Saddam.

The run-up to the Iraq war further revealed how little Bush learned from September 11. The president now blames his flawed rationale for the war on bad intelligence, but the “WMD-that-weren’t” fiasco was the second major intelligence failure on his watch. The crucial lesson of 9/11 was that U.S. intelligence needed to be overhauled immediately, before another intelligence flaw imperiled American lives. Bush failed that leadership test with catastrophic results.

Because the White House crowd remained obsessed with Saddam Hussein, they have ignored terrorist threats that really are “grave and gathering.” Failed and conflict-torn states provide safe havens for terrorists, but the Bush administration’s response to crises like Liberia and Sudan has been lackluster and glacially slow. The proliferation of nuclear technology could enable a terrorist network like al Qaeda to develop a bomb, yet the administration failed to sanction Pakistan for pardoning Abdul Qader Khan, the scientist who confessed to selling nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea.

What Bush calls “resolve” actually amounts to a resolute unwillingness to reconsider the preconceptions he brought to the presidency in the face of new and profound threats. After four years, it has become all too clear that Bush’s lack of curiosity extends even to national security. In that realm, his foibles have become a liability this country cannot afford.

Eoghan W. Stafford ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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