PART 2: Sept. 12
'We Will Rally the World'
Monday, January 28, 2002
Second in a series of eight articles.
At 7:30 a.m., half an hour after arriving for work in the Oval Office, President Bush phoned his friend Tony Blair, the British prime minister. He knew Blair would help buoy his spirits -- and might have some useful advice about what to do.
The president was driven by conflicting impulses that morning. He was anxious, even impatient, to strike back as quickly as he could at those responsible for the Pentagon and World Trade Center attacks less than 24 hours earlier. He wanted, as he said later, "to move yesterday." But the response had to be big enough to inflict pain on the terrorists and demonstrate to them and the rest of the world that there had been a fundamental change in U.S. policy.
Within Blair's government -- and in other European capitals -- there were widespread fears that Bush would be under irresistible political pressure at home to retaliate with an immediate military strike. Many Europeans believed that hasty military action not only would be ineffective in deterring future terrorism but also would shatter any hopes of building an international coalition.
Blair did not share those fears about the United States acting prematurely, confiding to an adviser his belief that American public opinion would give Bush breathing space and adequate time to prepare. But on the phone with Bush, he expressed shock and horror, pledged his "total support" to the president and said he assumed Bush was considering an immediate response.
"Obviously, you know, we're thinking about that," the president replied. But he added that he did not want to "pound sand with millions of dollars in weapons" to make himself feel good. He did not plan to shoot off a bunch of cruise missiles.
The two leaders agreed it was important to first move quickly on the diplomatic front to capitalize on international outrage about the terrorist attack. If they got support from NATO and the United Nations, they reasoned, they would have the legal and political framework to permit a military response afterward.
Before hanging up, Bush and Blair returned to the question of a military response. Blair told Bush he had to make a choice between rapid action and effective action. And effective action would require preparation and planning.
Bush agreed. For the second time, he said he didn't want to fire missiles at targets that did not matter.
In the first hours after the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, Bush and his top advisers had been preoccupied with the crisis at hand, assessing additional threats, grounding airplanes, moving government officials to safety, mobilizing emergency rescue crews, measuring the scope of the devastation in New York and Washington, determining who might be responsible. Now, on the day after, they began to turn their attention more systematically to the U.S. response.
Like many members of his national security team, the president believed the Clinton administration's response to Osama bin Laden and international terrorism, especially since 1998, had been so weak as to be provocative, a virtual invitation to hit the United States again. Most often, they believed, Clinton had chosen to respond to terrorist incidents by launching a cruise missile attack that did not jeopardize U.S. forces.
In an interview last month, Bush described his own thinking. "The antiseptic notion of launching a cruise missile into some guy's, you know, tent, really is a joke," he said. "I mean, people viewed that as the impotent America . . . of a flaccid, you know, kind of technologically competent but not very tough country that was willing to launch a cruise missile out of a submarine and that'd be it."