We’re having a festival of retrospectives of What Happened on September 11.” I want to do something a little different — review the first few days after September 11. In particular, I want to look at the period that began with the collapse of the second WTC tower on September 11 to September 21, when the nation’s pundits were lauding the President for his leadership and resolve and speech making.
When I reviewed news stories of September 11 and the ten days after I was surprised to find copious foreshadowing of the mess Bush would make. It was all there, from delayed reactions to Iraq to bullying and bluster, and all in the public record. Yet few of us noticed at the time. President Bush’s performance after September 11 is remembered — by the general public and MSM, anyway — as strong and purposeful, yet hindsight reveals many of the same traits that caused him to bleep New Orleans. Bennet Kelley wrote recently,
With this anniversary coming on the heels of the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it is striking how President Bush’s response to the horror and barbarity of Sept. 11 parallels his response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina — both of which are defined by Bush’s three rules of crisis management. The first rule is to disclaim any responsibility for the calamity by claiming that no one had anticipated or imagined planes being used as missiles or levees breaching despite abundant evidence to the contrary and then opposing any independent inquiry of the catastrophe that would expose that claim.
The second rule is to deliver an impassioned speech in a dramatic setting expressing resolve and promising action. After September 11, Bush spoke at Ground Zero, the National Cathedral and before Congress pledging that he “will not forget this wound to our country or those who inflicted it (and) will not yield … rest (or) relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people;” just as he had stood in New Orleans’ Jackson Square and promised to “confront … poverty with bold action” after Katrina.
President Bush’s third rule of crisis management is inaction. Just as Bush has offered no bold action to confront poverty, by the first anniversary of 9/11, Bush was offering only lip service to the fight against bin Laden as he ignored CIA calls in November 2001 to dispatch Marines to Tora Bora to prevent bin Laden’s escape. By March 2002, he conceded that “I just don’t spend that much time on him.” By 2005, the administration would shut down the CIA’s bin Laden unit even though its former head believes that al-Qaida “remains the single most important threat to the (nation)”, while the campaign in Afghanistan receives less than 20 percent of the troops and one-third of the resources spent on the much smaller and less populous Iraq .
Few Americans saw the trap we were about to hurl ourselves into, but Ed Vulliamy wrote for the Observer only twelve days after the attacks:
Between the cascades of applause, Bush’s long-awaited definition of the coming battle cleared a way for the waging of a potentially limitless global war, unfettered by borders or constraint of time, until its awesome tasks of obliterating terrorism and deposing the regimes that nurture it are achieved. But behind Thursday night’s explosive display of unity there are fractures and tensions the new President must ride – within his administration, in the nation and across the world. …
…There are still few smiles on the streets of America’s most exuberant city. But within that fog of despair is a kernel of anger, hatched on the day, last weekend, that Bush came to New York. Until then his performance had been a chronicle of invisibility, insincerity and political stumbling. Then he climbed the rubble that was once the World Trade Centre, and hit his own stride.
He promised the world would soon hear the voice of New York, and suddenly he was a President. Next day, Saturday, Bush remained visibly in authority – albeit flanked by the sinister guiding hand of Vice-President Dick Cheney, dressed as though he was going to fly the first fighter bomber himself. …
… Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Cheney’s closest advisers favour early strikes against Afghanistan, Iraq and, if necessary, Lebanon. The scope of their war includes Hizbollah in the Lebanese Beqaa valley, and all bases at which terrorists are trained across the Middle and Far East. Rumsfeld has not included Iraq but believes the war should embrace ‘proliferation’ as a target. …
… During the Cabinet shouting match, Powell stood up and said the Pentagon’s plans would ‘wreck’ the coalition. Powell is not impressed by the quick-hit plans, which involve the establishment and securing of ground bases in enemy territory, dropped in with air cover, from which special operations troops and ‘snake eaters’ would mount ‘in-and-out’ attacks. Such attacks would have to be unilateral, for reasons of secrecy. But all Bush’s staff know he is ready to go it alone, if that is what is needed, so long as he has Britain and a sound Pakistan on board.
During the argument at Camp David, Bush turned to Powell and said: ‘General, the United States can do whatever it wants in self-defence.’ The President’s giveaway line on Thursday night was that promising how ‘this country will define our times, not be defined by them’.
He was not talking about the usual stuff, the popularity of Coca-Cola, or the two Michaels, Jordan and Jackson. When the new President that emerged last week tells other countries they are either with the United States or against the United States – as defined by the United States – he means just that.
In the September 20, 2001, New York Times, Patrick Tyler and Elaine Sciolino reported (“A NATION CHALLENGED: WASHINGTON; Bush’s Advisers Split on Scope Of Retaliation“),
Some senior administration officials, led by Paul D. Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, and I. Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, are pressing for the earliest and broadest military campaign against not only the Osama bin Laden network in Afghanistan, but also against other suspected terrorist bases in Iraq and in Lebanon’s Bekaa region.
These officials are seeking to include Iraq on the target list with the aim of toppling President Saddam Hussein, a step long advocated by conservatives who support Mr. Bush.
A number of conservatives circulated a new letter today calling on the president to ”make a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power” even if he cannot be linked to the terrorists who struck New York and Washington last week.
Already we see Colin Powell and the moderates pitted against the Neocons:
”We can’t solve everything in one blow,” said an administration official who has sided with Secretary Powell.
But at the Pentagon today, asked if he felt there was an Iraqi connection to the attacks, Mr. Wolfowitz said, ”I think the president made it very clear today that this is about more than just one organization, it’s about more than just one event. …
… But there are tensions. They stem in part from the basic clash of roles: Secretary Powell faces the pragmatic work of coalition building and careful diplomacy with allies who will take significant risks to support the United States when so much anger is directed at its policies in the Middle East. … There are also ideological differences and even old personal conflicts from the first Bush administration, the Reagan and the Ford administrations cleaving a group of people facing an urgent crisis. …
During a weekend of intense national security planning, Secretary Powell was said by several officials to have urged caution. He argued that to undertake a broad military campaign, especially including Iraq — whose civilian population draws great sympathy in the Middle East for the suffering it has endured since 1991 — would undermine the support Mr. Bush needs now.
On Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney seemed to ally himself with Secretary Powell’s view when he said in a televised interview that the administration did not have evidence linking Saddam Hussein to last week’s attacks.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was said to have joined the consensus position of leaving Iraq and other targets out of initial plans. ”Rumsfeld for whatever reason has decided that Iraq can wait,” one official said, adding that ”he hasn’t given up on it.”
But Mr. Wolfowitz, the Pentagon’s influential deputy secretary, is a conservative thinker who has frequently clashed with Secretary Powell and the State Department. He has continued to press for a military campaign against Iraq that would not only punish Mr. Hussein for his past support for terrorism at home and abroad but would also eliminate the danger he poses to Israel and the West in his quest to acquire weapons of mass destruction.
One account of last weekend’s private discussion among Mr. Bush and his senior aides suggested a tense exchange occurred when Mr. Wolfowitz made the the case for a broad and early campaign, including bombing Iraq. Secretary Powell said targeting Iraq and Saddam Hussein would ”wreck” the coalition.
Mr. Wolfowitz has been more ”concerned about bombing Iraq than bombing Afghanistan,” one senior administration official said.
In his column today Frank Rich calls September 11 “the day that was supposed to change everything and did not.” And he looks at the following days:
Mr. Bush was asked at a press conference â€œhow much of a sacrificeâ€ ordinary Americans would â€œbe expected to make in their daily lives, in their daily routines.â€ His answer: â€œOur hope, of course, is that they make no sacrifice whatsoever.â€ He, too, wanted to move on â€” to â€œsee life return to normal in America,â€ as he put it â€” but toward partisan goals stealthily tailored to his political allies rather than the nearly 90 percent of the country that, according to polls, was rallying around him.
This selfish agenda was there from the very start. As we now know from many firsthand accounts, a cadre from Mr. Bushâ€™s war cabinet was already busily hyping nonexistent links between Iraq and the Qaeda attacks. The presidential press secretary, Ari Fleischer, condemned Bill Maherâ€™s irreverent comic response to 9/11 by reminding â€œall Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do.â€ Fear itself â€” the fear that â€œparalyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,â€ as F.D.R. had it â€” was already being wielded as a weapon against Americans by their own government.
Less than a month after 9/11, the president was making good on his promise of â€œno sacrifice whatsoever.â€ Speaking in Washington about how it was â€œthe time to be wiseâ€ and â€œthe time to act,â€ he declared, â€œWe need for there to be more tax cuts.â€ Before long the G.O.P. would be selling 9/11 photos of the president on Air Force One to campaign donors and the White House would be featuring flag-draped remains of the 9/11 dead in political ads.
And what about the “unity” we were all supposed to have felt? In a very perceptive column in today’s Boston Globe, Steven Biel writes that while we may have felt a sense of unity after September 11, in fact what we felt was highly individualized.
A week after the attacks, Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian-American poet, wrote from her kitchen window looking across the East River toward where the Twin Towers had stood:
I have never felt less american and more new Yorker — particularly brooklyn, than these past days, the stars and stripes on all these cars and apartment windows represent the dead as citizens first — not family members, not lovers. Compassion and political consensus aren’t identical either, even though the effort to fuse the two began almost immediately. “Our unity is a kinship of grief and a steadfast resolve to prevail against our enemies,” President Bush said at the National Cathedral on Sept. 14, 2001. But a kinship of grief is emotional rather than political, and to be united in sorrow is not the same as being united about how to respond geopolitically to such a calamity. Nor is it the same as remaining united once the messy implications of those responses are revealed.
Beginning tomorrow and for the next ten days, I plan to dredge up the news from five years ago, as it was written at the time. For tomorrow, for example, I have articles about what President Bush did from the time he left the Florida classroom and until he spoke to the nation from the Oval Office that evening. Some of this will be familiar, but some of it might surprise you.