Bush's initial response to the attacks on the World Trade Center was inauspicious. He seemed shaken and halting in his first statement, at 9:30 A.M. , shortly after stepping out of the classroom in Sarasota. He described the incidents as "an apparent terrorist attack" and vowed "to hunt down and to find those folks who committed this act." The Secret Service then rushed Bush onto Air Force One, and the presidential jet roared off into the sky without delay, headed for Washington.
Once on the plane, according to the Washington Post, Bush told aides: "That's what we're paid for, boys. When we find out who did this, they are not going to like me as president. Somebody is going to pay."
Meanwhile, Washington was in chaos. When the Secret Service learned that an airplane was barreling toward the White House, agents burst into the vice president's office, grabbing him by the arms and belt and rushing him downstairs into an underground bunker built to withstand a nuclear blast. Staff were evacuated from key government buildings, with women in the White House and Eisenhower Executive Office Building told to take off their high heels and run for their lives to Lafayette Park. Aides were told to remove the security badges from around their necks, in case snipers were posted to shoot them. Top aides were in the bunker, but it was poorly prepared and at first the audio did not work on the televisions.
The plane that had been thought headed for the White House ultimately crashed into the Pentagon, but now another airplane was detected heading for Washington. Bush, traveling on Air Force One, and Cheney briefly discussed what to do, and Bush gave the order for the Air Force to shoot down passenger planes if necessary. Soon afterward, the second plane heading for Washington, United Flight 93, went down in Pennsylvania. Bush asked, "Did we shoot it down or did it crash?" According to a lengthy reconstruction of 11 September and its aftermath by Bob Woodward and Dan Balz in the Washington Post, no one could answer him. (Eventually, it turned out that passengers had fought with the hijackers, causing the plane to crash).
False and exaggerated reports added to the alarm. There were accounts of explosions at the Capitol and State Department, of many more planes hijacked and headed for Washington. Transportation Secretary Mineta ordered all airplanes across the United States down at once, but that took hours to implement. Meanwhile, a phone threat came in to the White House against Air Force One, and because of a mistake in relaying the message it was believed erroneously that the caller had used the plane's code word, "Angel." The term gave the threat credibility, suggesting some knowledge of security procedures, and the Pentagon scrambled fighters to escort Air Force One.
Cheney and Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, both urged the president not to return to Washington, citing continuing security concerns. Air Force One eventually landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where it was immediately surrounded by U.S. troops carrying machine guns. Reporters on the plane were prohibited from describing the location. Bush made a brief television appearance shortly before 1:00 P.M. , reading a two-minute statement and taking no questions. His eyes were red-rimmed, he mispronounced words, and the tape of the appearance was jumpy and grainy. "The resolve of our great nation is being tested," he declared.
Soon afterward, Bush was in flight on Air Force One again, this time headed for Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, which had an underground bunker and first-rate communications capabilities. While en route, he called his father; on finding out that the former president was in Milwaukee, George W. asked: "What are you doing in Milwaukee?"
"You grounded my plane," his father replied.
Once at Offutt, President Bush convened a tele-conference meeting of the National Security Council and then insisted on returning to Washington. There had been a growing chorus of grumbling by politicians, even some Republicans, at the fact that the president was fleeing west when the East Coast was under attack, at his failure to offer a constant reassuring presence to the American public. The Secret Service resisted Bush's desire to return to Washington, but his political aides strongly agreed that he needed to address the nation from the Oval Office. On the evening of 11 September Bush flew back to Washington, arriving at the White House at 7:00 P.M. and addressing the nation live at 8:30.
"None of us will ever forget this day," he declared, "yet we go forward to defend freedom and all that is good and just in the world." He then outlined what came to be regarded as the Bush doctrine: "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." Even Bush's advisers acknowledged that the speech fell flat, out of tune with the historic nature of the day. But Bush at least conveyed that he was back at the White House, back in command. And from then on, he seemed to regain his footing and sound the right notes in reassuring the nation and responding to the terrorist challenge.
Evidence immediately accumulated that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida ("The Base"), a radical Isla-mist terrorist organization, were responsible for the attacks. For years the United States had pursued bin Laden for suspected involvement in terrorist activities; the wealthy Saudi exile had found refuge in Taliban-run Afghanistan. That evening, President Bush and his National Security Council decided to apply all possible pressure on Afghanistan—and its backer, Pakistan—to hand over bin Laden. Otherwise, the United States would use its armed forces to go into Afghanistan itself.
On the morning of 12 September, when Bush and his aides met in the White House Situation Room, Tenet presented the outlines of what would become the strategy in Afghanistan: bomb Taliban positions heavily, send in CIA officers and special forces to bolster the Northern Alliance that had feebly been battling the Taliban, and arm and organize the Alliance so that it could function as a proxy ground force. Also that morning, Bush read a statement that escalated the stakes. "The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror," he declared. "They were acts of war.... This will be a monumental struggle between good and evil. But good will prevail."
The speech was much more effective than his previous public appearances, and Bush followed it up with meetings with the congressional leadership and with phone calls with foreign leaders. He asked for and received support from heads of state the world over. Even Russia and China, which normally were anxious about American military deployments near their borders, gave Bush surprisingly strong backings. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin used 9/11 to cement a warmer, more cooperative relationship with the United States, one that was remarkably little disturbed even when Bush announced that he would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Likewise, the Bush administration—which had its share of hard-liners who saw China as the major long-term threat to the United States—ended up working closely with Chinese leaders and ushering in a period of civility between Washington and Beijing.
The days and weeks following 11 September were wrenching for American citizens, and Bush—who has a deep emotional streak—was no exception. A reporter asked him in front of television cameras on 13 September about his prayers and thoughts, and he struggled to collect himself as he answered: "Well, I don't think about myself right now. I think about the families, the children." His eyes flooded with tears, and he paused. "I am a loving guy, and I am also someone, however, who has got a job to do, and I intend to do it." Bush later said: "Presidents don't particularly like to cry in front of the American public, particularly in the Oval Office, but nevertheless I did." He added, quite rightly, that his "mood reflected the country in many ways."
On the following day, Bush presided over a prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., with three former presidents, much of the Congress, and many other leaders in attendance. At Bush's insistence, a Muslim cleric had also been invited to speak, to underscore that this was not to be a war against Islam. Bush delivered a speech prepared by his most poetic speechwriter, Michael Gerson, and for the first time he hit all the notes perfectly. "We are here in the middle hour of our grief," he began, and he tried to comfort and console the nation. But, although the setting was a house of worship, he also delivered what was close to a declaration of war: "This conflict was begun on the
On 20 September, Bush spoke to a joint session of Congress to outline his plans. Fighter aircraft circled overhead to defend the Capitol, and some 80 million Americans watched on television. An exhibition professional hockey game in Philadelphia was suspended so that fans could watch the speech on the stadium's screens. Bush delivered a powerful speech that won overwhelming support. He urged Americans to "hug your children" and touched all the emotional bases, but he also outlined a new kind of struggle against global terrorism as a whole, not just against Al Qaida. "Americans should not expect one battle but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV, and covert operations, secret even in success." He also gave a pledge: "I will not yield. I will not rest. I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people."
When the Taliban did not respond to Bush's ultimatum—give up bin Laden and end support for Al Qaida—the United States moved quickly to bolster the Northern Alliance and begin bombing targets. At first the fighting was anemic, and for a time there were ominous articles in the American press about an emerging "quagmire." But then supplies worked their way to the forces on the ground and, most helpfully, American Special Forces arrived in Afghanistan to guide the bombing. The result was that the Taliban began to crumble and retreat from northern cities. And once they began to retreat they kept going. There was never a battle in the contested capital city of Kabul; the Taliban fled in the middle of the night.
European and Arab grumbling about the bombing subsided to some degree with the victory in Afghanistan, partly because of scenes of elated Afghans celebrating their newfound freedoms. And the victory itself was a remarkable achievement for the Pentagon. While small numbers of American troops died in friendly fire and in accidents during the liberation of Afghanistan from Taliban control, only a few soldiers were killed by enemy fire (along with one CIA officer). The United States quickly oversaw the installation of a new interim government, led by Hamid Karzai, handpicked by Washington.
The first few months in the war on terrorism had gone remarkably well. But then the picture grew more complex. Osama bin Laden remained at large, along with the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, and Bush administration officials grew increasingly frustrated at the inability to track them down. There was also no immediate success in finding and prosecuting the perpetrator of a series of mailed anthrax attacks in Washington, New York, and Florida, although the FBI came to conclude that the person was probably an American rather than a foreigner. Another attempted attack on a U.S. airliner, in December 2001 by a man with a bomb of plastic explosives built into his shoe, was foiled but reminded Americans of their vulnerability.
There was also a vigorous debate about how to deal with Taliban and Al Qaida prisoners from Afghanistan. President Bush proposed the creation of military tribunals, and he also oversaw the transfer of prisoners from Afghanistan to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, where they could be interrogated without the protections that would apply if they were on American soil. The administration initially asserted that the Third Geneva Convention, on prisoners of war, would not apply to them, but after an uproar in Europe—and a lesser one in the Pentagon, which did not want precedents that could harm Americans taken prisoner—the White House said that the conventions would apply, but that in any case none of the captured were prisoners of war.
Coverage of the war on terror also became more skeptical. Reporters in Afghanistan began writing about cases in which Americans apparently bombed the wrong targets, killing civilians. After Pentagon officials boasted that they had killed a man whose height made it possible that he was the six-foot-four-inch bin Laden, reporters confirmed that the man was not bin Laden but an impoverished Afghan trying to make ends meet collecting scrap metal. Another raid, initially described by the Pentagon as successful, turned out to have killed anti-Taliban fighters and to have seized guns that had already been confiscated and stockpiled. Afghanistan began to show the strains of rivalries, and there was growing pressure on Washington to provide troops for an international security force in the major cities.
The United States expanded the war on terror by sending troops to the southern Philippines, ostensibly to train Filipino soldiers in counterterrorism techniques. In practice, there were some signs that the Americans intended mainly to pursue the Islamist group Abu Sayyaf, a criminal gang that had kidnapped two Americans but that had few ties to Al Qaida. Doubts began to be raised about the Philippine venture.
By far the most controversial step was the discussion of taking on Iraq. Within a few days of 11 September, there was a push within the administration—led by Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, to begin planning the overthrow of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, a longtime adversary of the United States—especially during the 1991 Gulf War—who was known to be trying to accumulate weapons of mass destruction. The Pentagon and National Security staffs generally approved, while the State Department was alarmed at the idea. And those in the world opposed to American unilateralism watched with dismay as the Bush administration began to talk more openly about invading Iraq.
When President Bush addressed these themes in his State of the Union address in January 2002, two paradoxes were striking. First, for a man who took office often denigrated as bumbling and inarticulate, he has often been remarkably eloquent in his prepared speeches. That was evident in the first words of the address: "As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our Union has never been stronger."
Second, for a president who initially seemed relatively uninformed and uninterested in international affairs, his presidency has come to focus on matters abroad. Indeed, the most striking aspect of Bush's speech was its hawkish tone—it owed much more to the Pentagon than to the State Department—as it described an "axis of evil" consisting of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. And, although officials said they had no plans to go after Iran or North Korea militarily, it caused jitters in Europe for what foreigners saw as its jingoism. Bush in effect expanded the list of adversaries from states that support terrorism to those that pursue covert nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons programs: "Our second goal is to prevent regimes that sponsor terror from threatening America or our friends and allies with weapons of mass destruction. Some of these regimes have been pretty quiet since 11 September. But we know their true nature. North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people's hope for freedom. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror. The Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade.... States like these, and their terrorist allies... [are] arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic."
Bush's budget proposal included the largest increase in defense spending in two decades, allowing a push toward new kinds of weaponry and platforms in the coming decades. Other elements of government spending were tightly restrained, creating a measure of dissatisfaction. Early proposals to revise Social Security spending, by allowing workers to put their money into investment accounts, also lost momentum, because of the difficulty in winning consensus on any specific proposal. The administration's economic stimulus package also encountered difficulties, partly because of signs that the economy was recovering in the spring of 2002 on its own and partly because the dramatic decline in the fiscal picture made further tax cuts seem questionable. From an outlook of huge surpluses as far as the eye could see, allowing the complete retirement of America's debt within a dozen years, the picture changed to one of continued deficits. That was partly because of the Bush tax cuts, and partly because of the recession, but it amounted to one of the challenges for the administration in the remainder of its time in office.
This essay takes the reader only up to the State of the Union address in early 2002, and at this writing it is far too early to offer a firm assessment of President Bush. Only the most tentative summation is appropriate: He grew in the job, particularly in his handling of the events of 11 September and overseas terrorism; his public speaking improved dramatically, as a onetime bumbler gave ringing speeches that touched the nation and elevated his own standing; he was immensely popular in the aftermath of 11 September but by early 2002 there was a growing willingness at least among Democrats to criticize administration policies at home and abroad; one of his greatest achievements was an enormous tax cut, but critics charged that it would erode American economic strength and undermine his legacy. Ultimately, the Bush presidency continues to revolve around a series of paradoxes that it is too soon to resolve.