By Fareed Zakaria
Sunday, January 18, 2009 3:15 PM
"He kept us safe."
That has become the mantra to explain why George W. Bush -- contrary to the view of the American public, people abroad and historians -- is actually a great man. For Dick Cheney, unsurprisingly, Bush will rank "among the most decisive, determined and far-seeing leaders this nation has ever had."
And his chief piece of evidence for this claim is, of course, that "he has kept us safe."
Let me first acknowledge that the administration's policies for weakening al-Qaeda, like those of dozens of other countries, have been intelligent and effective. But "keeping us safe" is still a twisted way to judge a presidency.
At some level, it is not surprising that Bush's acolytes should focus on just this one issue. It is difficult to make the claim on other grounds, such as the economy, the traditional measure used by presidents. Bush inherited the most favorable economic fortunes of any president in two generations. In 2000, the Clinton administration presented the nation with a budget almost in balance -- a $17 billion deficit. The Congressional Budget Office was projecting $5.6 trillion in surpluses over the next 10 years. But within a year, most of those surpluses had been frittered away in an extravagant set of tax cuts. At the end of eight years -- by common consent -- Bush is leaving the country in the worst economic and fiscal shape it has been in since the 1970s or the 1930s.
Not all of this is Bush's fault, but you can understand why this isn't a subject he brings up in exit interviews.
Bush's claim that he kept us safe is mostly true. I say mostly because, of course, he did not keep the United States safe on Sept. 11, 2001, nine months into his presidency. And while it's not right to blame Bush for that day, there is certainly evidence that the administration ignored some serious warnings about al-Qaeda, seeing it as an unimportant "nonstate" actor. The administration's focus from the start was on the rogue states -- Iraq, Iran, North Korea and others.
But certainly, post-Sept. 11, Bush has kept us safe. Just as Jacques Chirac kept France safe and Gerhard Schroeder kept Germany safe. Tony Blair, alas, failed this test. He did not keep Britain safe despite tough policies, an impressive set of counterterrorism agencies and much hard work. My point is that it may not tell us much that a leader presided over a period with no terrorist attacks. In the case of the July 7, 2005, London bombings, the British government's inquiry found that the terrorists had no police records and hatched their plot secretly using a few thousand pounds and information from the Internet. Some had made trips to Pakistan but gained inspiration there, not logistical help.
The problem for Britain (and Spain, which also had a serious terrorist attack after Sept. 11) is that pockets of its immigrant community are alienated. This, coupled with the rise of radical Islam, proved a combustible mix, producing a problem that all the counterterrorism in the world can't solve because it is not about people entering the country -- who can be stopped -- but those already inside. The most significant difference between the United States and most other countries that have had major terrorist attacks is that the United States does not have a resentful Muslim community.
I repeat: The Bush administration deserves credit for its counterterrorism policies. But it also must bear the blame for distorting the challenge. Initially unaware of the problem, Bush adopted an exaggerated view of the threat, seeing al-Qaeda as a vast global organization comparable to the Soviet Union. His conception of the war on terrorism implies that the struggle is largely military. It tends to conflate disparate Muslim groups -- with differing and often opposed agendas -- into one monolithic enemy. If this interpretation sounds uncharitable, it is the one offered by the foreign minister of America's staunchest ally, the resolutely pro-American Blairite David Miliband. In an essay in the Guardian last week, he concluded that "the notion [of a war on terror] is misleading and mistaken."
Under Bush, America has been put on a quasi-war footing, has spent billions on "homeland security," has massively complicated its immigration and visa system, has put friction into the gears of trade, has retreated from its open attitude toward foreigners, and has seen its Constitution circumvented. But Bush has kept us safe. I hope that when Barack Obama thinks about the challenges he faces -- the economy, health care, energy, Iraq and Afghanistan -- he does not obsessively focus on the metric of "keeping us safe."