"Whatever it takes." So spoke a rescue worker to U.S. president George W. Bush at the smoking ruins of teh World Trade Center after al-Qaida terrorists had smashed hijacked airliners into the towers on the day now known as 9/11.
The president told the workers and the nation that vengeance would be theirs.
In the next seven years, through two administrations, the quest to punish al-Qaida and prevent further attacks took two dubious wars, an unprecedented executive order to torture "enemy combatants," the passage of a sweeping new law (the Patriot Act) to legalize and expand the electronic surveillance of American citizens, and demagogic denunciations of anyone who would shrink ("cut and run") from these harsh measures.
That no new large-scale terrorist strikes occurred on U.S. territory in those years inspired the claim (still made) among their defenders that Bush had achieved essential success for his policies. Their claim is under scrutiny.
Peter Baker, who was the New York Times chief White House correspondent during the Bush and Cheney era, offers a huge chronicle of "W's" presidency, exploring the critical decisions, day-by-day, almost down to the ticking of the clock. The exhaustive detail will tax the patience of the non-specialist reader.
It is important to note that Baker has intended to offer a non-judgmental approach to these events, telling what happened, and how it happened. He leaves the deeper questions of "why" to future historians.
Inexperienced in foreign affairs, buoyant on the oceanic fury of public opinion after 9/11, Bush became the "war president" envisaged by his strategist Karl Rove. He was strongly influenced by the vice-president, Dick Cheney, who embraced the "dark side," including torture. Water-boarding suspects was, Cheney laughed, "just a little dunk."
Clever lawyers supplied slithering rationales for "enhanced interrogation," smudging the bright line between civilization and barbarism. It was Cheney and his long-time mentor, Donald Rumsfeld, now secretary of defence, encouraged by the bellicose neo-conservatives on their staffs, who sought to initiate a war on Saddam's Iraq, supposedly to uncover "weapons of mass destruction." Once pursued, the Iraq war diverted men, materiel, focus and energies from Afghanistan, where actual al-Qaida elements roamed the mountains.
By 2005-06, the occupation of Iraq, minimally planned and heedless of sectarian hatred, became the emblem of failure for Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. The Democrats made sweeping gains in the 2006 elections. Bush felt constrained to fire Rumsfeld and increasingly ignore Cheney, reflecting his disabused grasp of the war's miseries. In a press conference, Bush admitted that 2,000 U.S. soldiers and 30,000 Iraqi civilians had died for the troubling results.
Bush was finally master of his own dismal fate, advised by a more conciliatory Condoleezza Rice. Torture was abandoned if not openly repudiated. He soon ordered the "surge," a strategy designed to suppress Iraqi civil carnage that bought some time but nothing close to a victory.
Along with the trumpeted "freedom" agenda ostensibly targeting Middle Eastern dictators came the entrepreneurial freedom crusade at home. The collectively held resources of Social Security would be, if Bush had his way, channelled into private, individual accounts; the big investment banks would be freed from regulations that limited their creativity; the animal spirits of capitalism would surely make Americans (and others) more prosperous.
We know how that turned out.
Bush's policies would become what Baker calls "touchstones" of national debate: torture, wars of choice, electronic surveillance of routine citizen life. Even today they remain provocative, shocking the conscience of a large body of reflective citizens.
Baker's episodic treatment tends to obscure durable patterns in U.S. policy. But his unmatched access to the principal figures will invigorate the continuing discussion of Bush's unpopular presidency.
Garin Burbank taught U.S. history for 39 years at the University of Winnipeg.