9/11 + 4: an abject failure of leadership

by Stephen Tall on September 11, 2005

It didn’t have to be like this. Today, the fourth anniversary of 9/11, brought news of the death in Iraq of another British soldier, the 95th to date. The US military has suffered 1,896 losses since war began in March 2003. Both these figures are dwarfed by the estimated 25,000 Iraqi civilian casualties killed by the Allied invasion. Neither George W. Bush nor Tony Blair will ever recant their decision to pursue military action in the teeth of international opposition.

As Jackie Ashley remarked, with uncharacteristic perception, of Mr Blair in the Guardian in September 2003: “he has a theological belief that it was right – he has to believe it was right, or he would go mad.” Doubtless President Bush’s ‘dry drunk’ evangelical convictions of his own moral rectitude are at least as strong. Both will view their actions as testament to their profound ability to lead their countries through the most testing trials and tribulations. That they are the co-authors of the most disastrous foreign policy decision in half a century is a fact from which they will as proudly dissent as historians will loudly condemn them.

It was all very different four years ago when, dumbfounded, the world watched the World Trade Centre crumple helplessly. We cried not only for the 2,106 Americans, but also for the 53 British, 34 Indians, 25 Dominicans, 20 Japanese, 18 Chinese, 18 Columbians, 16 Canadians, 16 Germans, 16 Filipinos, 15 Trinidadians, 14 Guyanans, 13 Ecuatorians, 13 Italians, 11 Ukrainians, and 208 other foreign-born residents who perished there. This was an international tragedy. It required an international response.

Mr Blair pledged solidarity, promising our two countries would stand “shoulder to shoulder”, and a nation applauded. Le Monde – long before it became the newspaper for cheese-eating surrender monkeys – staunchly declared “We are all Americans now.” For the first time in its history, Nato invoked Article Five and declared that the whole organisation had been attacked. The Americans had allies, a natural coalition of the willing. If Mr Bush were a true leader he would have recognised he had a unique opportunity to harness this unparalleled display of unity: to foster alliances, to combat terrorism, to make the US a shining beacon of enlightened democracy. Yes, it would have been a tough sell to his base. Yes, there would have been disagreements with peripatetic partners abroad. But the glistening possibility to confound his critics was briefly, tantalisingly his to grasp. And he coughed up the ball big time.

The 2004 US Presidential race was a test of character, both for the candidates and the American people. To reduce it to one question is to over-simplify, but not by much – who did US citizens trust most to defend them: President Bush or Senator Kerry? Fifty-one per cent of them chose Dubya, presumably on the rationale that he would shoot any intruder stone dead – or, more likely, ask someone to do it for him – no questions asked (then or later); while the ‘flip-flopping’ JFK would wait first to see if he recognised his assailant, so he could work out how best to disarm them, in order that justice might take its course. The irony was certainly noted that those who were most likely to trust Mr Kerry – the liberal-leaning Eastern Board states – were the ones most likely to have to face another terrorist attack. The deep Red, southern states of Oklahoma and Texas were never high up Al’Qaeda’s target list of Must-Bomb destinations.

The iconic image the 43rd President has spent the last four years attempting to erase is the one Michael Moore’s infamous polemic Farenheit 9/11 dwelt on most lingeringly: the moment Mr Bush’s chief-of-staff, Andrew Card, leant over to inform his boss of the hit on the second WTC tower, and Mr Bush chose to continue reading My Pet Goat with a class of school-children. For seven minutes. If any piece of videotape should have nailed the idea that Mr Bush is a man at his best in a crisis – it was that one. If any piece of videotape should have nailed the idea that Mr Bush’s faults were well compensated by the talents of his closest advisors – it was that one. To sit still, stunned, trapped, petrified while your country is under attack when you’re the Commander-in-Chief is pretty lame. To know that he hired the staff who let him sit there stupefied is pretty terrifying. If you ain’t got the smarts, at least hire you someone who has.

But the US was a nation in crisis, in mourning, desperately searching for some hope among the rubble: they wanted so much for Dubya to inspire them, to become their hero, to be their President. So when he eventually summoned up his famous strut, and held aloft the arm of an NYC fire-fighter at Ground Zero, a pact of mutually assured deception was implicitly, complicitly, sealed. Mr Bush would appear presidential in the future in return for the American people’s promise to forget that he had not been presidential in the past.

Which is why the past fortnight has proved so damaging for the President. Yet again destruction has hit the US – this one an Act of God, not man-made – and yet again their Commander-in-Chief’s capability is in tatters, smashed to pieces in Katrina’s wake. It took a day for Mr Bush to appear even semi-concerned, mounting perhaps the least well-advised photo opportunity since John Gummer force-fed beef-burgers to his daughter to prove they were safe – Dubya flew over New Orleans, peeking out of the window of his jet to comment that it looked bad from 2,500 feet so “It’s got to be doubly devastating on the ground.”

He then succeeding in combining inane optimism (“out of the rubbles of Trent Lott’s house – the guy lost his entire house – there’s going to be fantastic house. I look forward to sitting on the porch.”) with insane out-of-touchness, obsessing over ‘zero tolerance’ for looters at a time when some of his poorest, most vulnerable citizens were dying. To cap it all, he heaped praise on the out-of-his-depth head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”), before relieving him of his post-Katrina duties when the weight of media derision became just too much to bear.

Perhaps the President can take some solace in reflecting that it takes a special kind of skill to unite his former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and hip-hop rapster Kanye West: both have, in their different styles, criticised his lacklustre performance. Mr Powell opined “not enough was done”; Mr West was more forthright, more bang-on-the-money: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” More worrying for Mr Bush is that his approval rating – crucial ahead of next year’s mid-term House and Senate elections if he is to avoid being a lame duck – is now at its lowest ever, 42%, according to Time magazine’s latest poll.

It is not as if Katrina could have been a complete shock. FEMA had already identified a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the three most likely catastrophic disasters likely to face the US (along with a terrorist attack on New York City, and a major earthquake in San Francisco). And Mr Bush had already observed the political collateral damage which could be wrought by gauche handling of a natural disaster. Back in 1992, his father, George H. Dubya, almost lost the state of Florida to then-Governor Clinton in the presidential election, following the federal government’s much-criticised response to Hurricane Andrew’s ravaging of Miami.

Dissing Dubya is a favourite liberal game on both sides of the Atlantic, but he should not be mis-underestimated. Despite all evidence to the contrary, 36% of Americans are satisfied Mr Bush did all he could to help those whose lives Katrina destroyed. And, according to the latest Zogby poll, he would still beat Senator Kerry in a future, hypothetical Presidential race. That Mr Bush has successfully established a sizeable wedge of ├╝ber-loyal neocon support should not, however, blind us to the obvious. This is a President who has failed, and continues to fail, every serious test of leadership. He has frittered away the colossal good-will which was America’s to build upon on 12th September, 2001, and has entrenched in its stead a hatred of his nation which will endure long beyond his pitifully abysmal tenure. I hope he will be forgotten by history. My fear is he will be remembered, but for all the wrong reasons.