It has been six years since the horrid attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Throughout that time, George W. Bush has been president of the United States and, especially given the emphasis he has put on 9/11, it’s fair to judge him on how well he’s done on policies aimed at responding to 9/11. I will leave out, except tangentially, a judgment on his policies on civil liberties, not because I don’t have one, but because I want to focus on foreign policy.
So, how has George W. Bush done? In a word, badly. I’m not challenging his intentions. I believe Bush thought, like almost all Americans and, indeed, like a supermajority of the world’s population, that the attacks were horrific and unjustified. I also believe that he wanted to respond appropriately to the attacks. But I’m judging his responses. As one of my mentors, the late Milton Friedman, loved to say, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." George W. Bush has provided, and is providing, much of that pavement.
The Mistake on the First Day
As my co-author, Charles Hooper, and I put it in our book, Making Great Decisions in Business and Life, "When designing a building, the saying goes, all the really important mistakes are made on the first day." The reason is simple. On the first day, you make decisions that affect every other decision after that. If you choose the wrong place to locate the building, for example, everything you do to build it will compound that mistake. This principle applies more generally. On any project or undertaking, the biggest mistakes will be made on the first day. On the first day, you choose a direction and, if you’ve chosen badly, the longer you move in that direction, the further you deviate from the right outcome.
George W. Bush made a big mistake on literally the first day. He actually started well. When he sat in that Florida classroom and chewed his cheek as he pondered the news he had just heard, I thought, "Good for him; he’s thinking about what he should do rather than acting impulsively." But later that day he said, “Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward and freedom will be defended.” In other words, George W. Bush thought that the reason the United States was attacked was that the attackers hated our freedom. How did he reach this conclusion? He never told us. He made his statement within hours of the attack and never gave any evidence for this view. As far as we can tell, he never questioned this view, never sought evidence that might have challenged it, and acted on the assumption that this view was correct.
Notice the importance of his assumption. If we were attacked because of our freedom, then there are only two options if you want to avoid future attacks: (1) get rid of our freedom, or (2) attack those who want to plan future attacks. But if we were attacked for some other reason, then it’s important to understand this other reason. What could another reason be?
Believe it or not, the Department of Defense, in 1997, had identified another reason that had nothing to do with "our freedom" but a lot to do with the U.S. government’s interventions abroad. The Defense Science Board’s 1997 Summer Study Task Force on DoD Responses to Transnational Threats had written, four years before the attacks:
"As part of its global power position, the United States is called upon frequently to respond to international causes and deploy forces around the world. America’s position in the world invites attack simply because of its presence. Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States." (Washington: U.S. Department of Defense, October 1997, vol. 1, Final Report, p. 15)
I had first seen this report referenced in a Cato Institute piece by Ivan Eland and had found it, and Eland’s piece, persuasive enough that I had put them on a reading list for a policy analysis class that I taught military officers at the Naval Postgraduate School. With the exception of the opening statement that "the United States is called upon," as if the U.S. government doesn’t choose to get involved in other countries’ affairs, the Defense Science Board was making a good point.
I had made the same point in a talk in December 1996 to the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Studies Group when I commented on a paper by my Hoover colleague Henry Rowen, a former president of the RAND Corporation. I pointed out that Rowen had taken terrorism as a given, but that one should take a step back and ask why terrorism exists. I said:
"What leads the Irish Republican Army to put bombs in Britain? Why don’t they, for example, put bombs in Canada or Bangladesh? To ask the question is to answer it. They place the bomb where they think it will help influence the government that makes decisions most directly in the way of their goals, and the governments in the way of their goals are usually governments that intervene in their affairs."
Then I concluded, “If you want to avoid acts of terrorism carried out against people in your country, avoid getting involved in the affairs of other countries.”
How does one choose between the competing explanations, George W. Bush’s explanation that the terrorists hated us for our freedom and my explanation that the terrorists were responding to U.S. government interventions in their countries? There are two ways to do so. The first is by reasoning. Is it plausible that people in one country would be so upset by the freedom of people in another country that they would be willing to commit suicide to strike those people? On the other hand, is it plausible that people who are outraged at a foreign government’s intervention in their countries, but who lack the military might to confront that government directly, would engage in terrorist methods to go after people in that foreign country? Which is more plausible? A good way to reason it out is to use the "put yourself in the other person’s shoes" approach. Since it’s hard to think of a country that is much freer than ours (although George W. Bush and most of the Republicans and Democrats in Congress are working on making ours less free), imagine the opposite. Imagine that a foreign government oppresses its people horribly and that you are someone who believes in freedom. How likely are you to want to be a suicide bomber in that country? Now imagine that a foreign government intervenes in our affairs, spending money to stir up opposition to our government, or even sets up military bases in our country. Imagine also that this foreign government has a great deal of military power and that the U.S. government has little. (You’ll have to use your imagination here.) This means that you can’t confront that government by normal military means. Did your probability of being a suicide bomber within that country’s borders increase? I would bet that for most readers it did.
The second way to judge the competing explanations is to look at evidence. Are the terrorists going around bombing other relatively free countries that don’t intervene in their affairs? If the answer is no, that suggests that freedom is not the crucial variable.
Yet, with the enormous stakes involved in getting the answer right, George W. Bush does not appear to have put much effort at all into thinking about it. Many people accuse George W. Bush of being a stupid man. But there’s a more plausible, and, indeed, more damning, explanation of his decisions: he is a relatively smart man but not a curious man. Call him Uncurious George.
And it wasn’t as if George W. Bush didn’t have time to think through these things. There was no timetable telling him that he had to act within x number of days. It’s true that many Americans, in their understandable anguish, wanted him to bomb someone. But so what? Given the stakes involved, it was worth thinking carefully at the start. And Bush does not appear to have done that. One piece of evidence, which is out in the open and was at the time, is that the weekend after the Tuesday terrorist attacks, Bush and his advisers were at Camp David putting together a strategy for attacking Afghanistan.
Why Afghanistan? Everyone knows, right? Because Osama bin Laden was thought to be the planner of the 9/11 attacks, and he was thought to be in Afghanistan, a country run by the Taliban. But notice the slip in thinking. Even if we take as given all the facts so far in this paragraph, does it follow that one would want to make war on a government that harbors bin Laden? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have pressured the Taliban to give up bin Laden? Of course, the White House tried to do that, but it hit a hurdle. The Taliban actually insisted, before putting its own forces at risk to try to capture bin Laden, that the U.S. government produce evidence that bin Laden was behind the attacks. Of all the nerve! Actually insisting on evidence! But the evidence was not forthcoming. Bush never presented it to them. Nor has he yet, as far as I can tell, presented it to us.
Consider the following dialogue between NBC interviewer Tim Russert and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (from Meet the Press, Sept. 23, 2001):
Russert: Are you absolutely convinced that Osama bin Laden was responsible for this attack?
Secretary Powell: I am absolutely convinced that the al-Qaeda network, which he heads, was responsible for this attack. You know, it’s sort of al-Qaeda the Arab name is for “the base.” It’s something like a holding company of terrorist organizations that are located in dozens of countries around the world, sometimes tightly controlled, sometimes loosely controlled. And at the head of that organization is Osama bin Laden.
So what we have to do in the first phase of this campaign is to go after al-Qaeda and to go after Osama bin Laden. But it is not just a problem in Afghanistan. It’s a problem throughout the world. That’s why we are attacking it with a worldwide coalition.
Russert: Will you release publicly a white paper which links him and his organization to this attack to put people at ease?
Secretary Powell: We are hard at work bringing all the information together, intelligence information, law enforcement information. And I think in the near future we will be able to put out a paper, a document that will describe quite clearly the evidence that we have linking him to this attack. But also, remember, he has been linked to earlier attacks against U.S. interests, and he’s already indicted for earlier attacks against United States.
But the very next day, Sept. 24, 2001, Ari Fleischer, President Bush’s press secretary, backtracked. The following conversation took place at Fleischer’s press briefing:
Question: Ari, yesterday Secretary Powell was very precise that he was going to put out a report on what we had on bin Laden that could be reported and not classified. Today, the president shot him down, and he’s been shot down many, many times by the administration [inaudible] indicating that he also retreated on the question of putting out a report. No, I’m wrong?
Fleischer: No, I think that there was just a misinterpretation of the exact words the secretary used on the Sunday shows and the secretary talked about that in a period of time I think his word was “soon” there would be some type of document that could be made available.
As you heard the secretary say today, he said, “As we are able, as it unclassifies,” and
Question: Much more emphatic yesterday at the
Fleischer: Well, I think he said the word “soon.”
As I was reminded today by a very knowledgeable official at the State Department, that’s called State Department soon. And so it’s fully consistent with what the president’s been saying and the secretary said.
You know, I mean, look, it shouldn’t surprise anybody, as soon as
Question: The American people thought soon meant soon.
Question: But is this a sign, Ari, that
Fleischer: Let me I was getting there. I was answering.
What I was saying is it shouldn’t surprise anybody that as soon as the attack on our country took place the immediate reaction is that investigations begin. They begin with the intelligence agencies, they begin with domestic agencies, they begin with the regulator law enforcement authorities, and they start to collect a whole series of information.
Some of that information is going to end up in the form of grand jury information, which of course is subject to secrecy laws. Others, coming from intelligence services, is by definition going to be classified and will treated as such.
Over the course of time, will there be changes to that that can lead to some type of declassified document over whatever period of time? That has historically been the pattern, and I think that’s what the secretary is referring to.
Unless I’ve missed something, six years later we’re still waiting for the White House to release that information. Is it just possible that President Bush and those who work for him were never able to find the evidence?
Moreover, let’s say that George W. Bush had had evidence that Osama bin Laden was behind the attacks. Would that have justified attacking a whole country, with thousands of innocent people killed, just because that country’s government had refused to turn him over? Before you answer "yes," consider one implication of a "yes" answer. For years now, the U.S. government has allowed Luis Posada Carriles to live in the United States and has refused to extradite him to Venezuela. Carriles is suspected of having bombed a Cuban airliner in 1976, a bombing that killed 73 people. So here’s my question: would you support a decision by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to attack the United States? If you wouldn’t, why wouldn’t you? And, more important, if you wouldn’t, how could you support a decision by George W. Bush to attack Afghanistan?
That’s the philosophical case against George W. Bush’s attack on Afghanistan. Now to the practical case: it hasn’t worked. After all of George W. Bush’s bluster about wanting Osama bin Laden dead or alive, he still has not delivered. But it’s even worse than that. Bush let himself be sidetracked by deciding to invade a country that had no apparent connection, and that he himself agreed had no connection, with the attacks on 9/11. That country, of course, is Iraq.
Bait and Switch
Despite George W. Bush’s apparently sincere concern about the victims of 9/11, he got sidetracked four and a half months later. In his Jan. 29, 2002, State of the Union speech, Bush talked about the "axis of evil." This axis, he claimed, consisted of North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. There are so many things that are screwy about Bush’s claim. First, Iraq and Iran had been mortal enemies since at least the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, which took about 300,000 Iranian lives and between 160,000 and 240,000 Iraqi lives. Claiming that there was an axis between these two countries was like claiming that the Hatfields and McCoys were part of an alliance. Moreover, there was no alliance between either North Korea and Iran or North Korea and Iraq. In short, while I can certainly accept that the governments of these countries were evil, especially the government of North Korea, there was no axis.
Second, despite the fact that he still hadn’t caught bin Laden, Bush talked as if he wanted to settle scores, real or imagined, with the governments of these three countries. This, even though he had no basis, and admitted he had no basis, for thinking there was any connection between those governments and 9/11. In other words, George W. Bush cynically engaged in a gigantic bait and switch. The bait was that he was going to talk about 9/11 and what to do about it. The switch was that he tried to stir the pot to get Americans upset at the governments of three countries, none of which had anything to do with 9/11.
I could discuss the Iraq war further, but it doesn’t fit in a discussion of 9/11. It simply has nothing to do with 9/11, as virtually everyone, hawk and dove, admits. But it certainly has drawn resources away from the search for bin Laden.
The bottom line is that, if we judge George W. Bush’s actions in responding to 9/11, he has failed miserably.
Intentions vs. Results
One of the most important things I learned from Milton Friedman and, indeed, from economics in general is that it is crucial to distinguish between intentions and results. Most of us economists, for example, don’t doubt the good intentions of many people who advocate increases in the minimum wage. But we insist on considering the consequences of such increases and putting much less weight on the wishes of those who advocate them. It would be nice if the world were so simple that increasing the minimum wage simply created better-paying jobs rather than destroying low-paying jobs for unskilled workers. But the fact that it would be nice is irrelevant. What matters are the actual consequences, and these are, on net, negative.
But few of my fellow economists, especially the free-market ones, have been willing to apply this distinction between intentions and results to foreign policy. Unlike many of my antiwar allies, especially those on the Left, I have little doubt that the world George W. Bush would like to see is somewhat similar to the world I would like to see. He would like the world to be full of vibrant, freedom-loving countries whose governments do not oppress them. But so what? We still need to judge him by his actions. His actions have not created such freedom-loving countries and have not even achieved the specific goal of capturing or killing bin Laden. At the same time, George W. Bush has become the oppressor-in-chief of Americans and of many others elsewhere in the world. To put it into perspective, think of the damage done by the minimum wage, multiply it by 1,000 times, and you will still probably underestimate the damage done to the world by George W. Bush’s foreign policies and anti-civil-liberties domestic policy. I condemn presidents who destroy our domestic economic freedom. I don’t draw a line, as the old cliché goes, at the water’s edge. Nor do I put a zero weight on civil liberties. Which is why I condemn President George W. Bush. His actions since Sept. 11, 2001, have been, with few exceptions, a disgrace.
Copyright © 2007 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.
Read more by David R. Henderson
- Rex Tillerson at Hoover – January 21st, 2018
- Robert Gates, Pro and Con – January 9th, 2017
- Questioning the Powerful – December 15th, 2014
- Richard Epstein’s Faulty Case for Intervention – September 17th, 2014
- An Economist’s Case for a Non-Interventionist Foreign Policy – April 27th, 2014