If the latest polls are accurate, most voters believe that Republican politicians deserve greater trust on matters of national security. At a moment when Americans feel threatened by rising terrorist movements and authoritarian regimes, that finding is politically salient – and proves that amnesia is the most durable affliction of our democracy.
Every year around this time, ever since 2001, we promise never to forget the victims of 9/11, the courage of the first responders, and the sacrifice of the troops sent to avenge them all. Our poignant recollections seem to be faulty, however, obliterating the hardest truths about that terrible event as well as the long aftermath that continues to this day. The result, attested to by those polls, is that Republicans escape responsibility for the derelictions and bad decisions of their party’s leaders at crucial moments in the recent past.
Not long after the 9/11 attacks occurred, the Republican noise machine instantly began blaring a message of blame aimed at former president Bill Clinton, insisting that he had ignored the threat posed by al Qaeda during his White House tenure. That accusation was wholly false, but discovering the truly culpable wasn’t easy — because President George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, worked hard to prevent a full investigation by the 9/11 Commission.
In due course that probe revealed how Bush and Cheney had ignored clear warnings – from Clinton himself, from counterterrorism advisor Richard Clarke, and finally from the CIA on August 6, 2001 – that al Qaeda was preparing to strike the homeland. Preoccupied by their tax cuts and their plans for an invasion of Iraq, they had done nothing.
The country and the world rallied around Bush as he declared war on the Taliban and sent U.S. and NATO troops into Afghanistan. But thanks to the incompetence of Bush, Cheney, and their military command, not only did bin Laden and Mullah Omar escape and remain at large for years, but the entire effort eventually collapsed into futility, with no plausible goal or exit strategy. It soon became clear that the Bush White House and Defense Department had other fish to fry, over a few borders in Baghdad.
Even the most forgetful citizens probably recall how Bush, Cheney, their national security cabinet and their allies in Congress misled the nation into war against Iraq, falsely alarming us about non-existent “weapons of mass destruction.”
They may even recall how those great Republican statesmen pursued the invasion, lawlessly, and without adequate preparation or clear objectives, costing thousands upon thousands of Iraqi and American lives and trillions of dollars. Their actions led to horrific human rights and Geneva treaty violations; they embarrassed the United States and enhanced the regional influence of the ayatollahs in Iran.
And now, of course, the current dismal situation in Iraq – unfairly blamed on President Obama – is a direct consequence of the war, the American occupation, and the divisive sectarian government installed in Baghdad by the Bush administration, which also disbanded the Iraqi Army and all of Iraq’s government institutions. Without the destruction inflicted on that country and especially its Sunni population by Bush and Cheney, there would be no burgeoning “Islamic State” movement today.
Disremembering all of those unpleasant facts, voters may well consider the Republican Party better able to manage foreign and defense policy. After all, Republicans have long styled themselves as the tough-guy “daddy party,” and bamboozled much of the public with that image. What remains to be seen is how much more of their brilliant stewardship this country and the world can survive.