During a White House photo opportunity today, President Bush responded to questions about allegations by Richard Clarke, the counter-terrorism expert who served in three Republican and one Democratic administrations, that prior to 9/11 the Bush White House ignored threats from terrorists and, specifically, al Qaeda. The President, continuing the increasingly inarticulate defense strategy displayed by the entire administration said:
Well, the facts are these: George Tenet briefed me on a regular basis about the terrorist threats to the United States of America. And had my administration had any information that terrorists were going to attack New York City on September the 11th, we would have acted. We have been chasing down al Qaeda ever since the attacks. We’ve captured or killed two-thirds of their known leaders. And we’re still pursuing them, and we will continue to pursue them so long as I am the President of the United States.
At this point, the President has contradicted himself in the midst of a non-denial denial (he does not say he didn’t ignore terrorism, he says he took regular briefings, which every president since Carter has done), saying that “we’ve been chasing down al Qaeda ever since the attacks” as he insisted his administration took the threat seriously.
Of course, al Qaeda was a known threat before the 9/11 attack. The terrorist organization had bombed the U.S.S. Cole and orchestrated multiple bomb attacks on U.S. embassies. Yet, Bush only started chasing the organization “since [9/11].”
From here, the president moves into redirecting the question to events after, not before, the attack:
I want to thank the troops involved. We’ve got a couple of thousand troops involved in Afghanistan that are hunting down al Qaeda in that part of the world. We’ve got intelligence officers all over the world collecting information so that we can act. We’ve got a strong network of cooperative governments trying to chase down terrorist money and to prevent that money from being spread around to cause harm.
I was on the phone today to Gerhard Schroeder, reminding them that we need to stay strong in the fight on terror. And I appreciated his strong comments today by phone, that he fully understood the stakes. We’re making progress. There is more work to do. And this country will stay on the hunt. The best way to protect our country from further attack is to find the terrorists before they come to our homeland, or anywhere else, to inflict harm.
Of course the best way to protect the country is to find terrorists before they attack, and that is precisely what Richard Clarke had a plan to do at the end of the Clinton years. In fact, President Bush’s National Security Advisor, Condaleeza Rice, invited Clarke to stay on board when presented the plan during the transition period. But, because terrorism was a low priority issue for Bush prior to 9/11, that plan was not even considered until days before 9/11—almost a year after it was proposed. Moreover, that plan called for the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in order to deny al Qaeda an operating base. We could be thanking our troops for disrupting the terror network before the fact, instead of for invading Iraq, a country with no proven ties to al Qaeda (at least, prior to the U.S. invasion, though today the country is ripe with terrorists who rushed into the void created by Bush policy).
The president was asked whether attacks by Israel on Hamas leaders, particularly the assassination of Sheik Yassin, would lead to more attacks on the United States and if he was troubled by the killing. He attempted to redirect the question to reinforce the image of his administration as being engaged proactively against terror:
Yes, I’m worried about terrorist groups targeting America. And we take every threat seriously in this administration. Nearly every morning that I come to work, I talk to George Tenet, FBI Director Mueller and others about the threats to the United States. And there’s still serious threats because of what we stand for. There are still people who want to harm our country. And so — whether it be an Hamas threat, or an al Qaeda threat, we take them very seriously in this administration.
The president isn’t addressing the question. He says the attacks will happen, apparently inevitably, because of “what we stand for.” But the question was whether actions by an ally had increased the risk to the United States and its citizens abroad, and he doesn’t provide any position on whether the killing of Yassin was the right policy for Israel to pursue. He goes on to reiterate his “troubled” opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off, repeating his Roadmap position, one that has utterly failed because of the Administration’s failure to make Israel stop its attacks on Palestinians and to get Palestinians to suspend attacks on Israelis.
As far as the Middle East, it’s a troubled region, and the attacks were troubling. There needs to be a focused, concerted effort by all parties to fight terror. Any country has a right to defend itself from terror. Israel has the right to defend herself from terror. And as she does so, I hope she keeps consequences in mind as to how to make sure we stay on the path to peace. This administration is committed to finding a two-state solution — a two-state solution for the good of Israel, a two-state solution for the good of the Palestinian people. To this end, if the circumstances on the ground allow, I’ll be sending a team back out to the Middle East next week to see if we can’t keep the process alive, the process toward peace.
In short, the President has no new response to the situation in the Middle East, he hasn’t even got an evolving plan. What he has is a marketing strategy for his campaign, but no solid policy on which to build the kind of doctrinal foreign policy at which he has played throughout his tenure at the White House.