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National Security

Early Mistakes in the War on Terror Hurt America Today

A look back on George W. Bush's record fighting Jihadistan and where we are now.

Harold Hutchison · Jan. 25, 2019

President George W. Bush had an unenviable task in the wake of 9/11: addressing the growing threat of radical Islamic terrorism. In some areas of the Global War on Terror, he did very well. But not in all.

He rightly recognized that treating terrorism like a law-enforcement problem, as Bill Clinton did, was the wrong strategy. When it came time to making terrorists talk, Bush’s administration used enhanced interrogation to obtain life-saving information. And state sponsors of terrorism were put on notice that such a status would be hazardous to their regime’s existence.

That said, Bush also made some big mistakes. His failure to push back against the Left’s defamatory “Bush lied” narrative was costly, both in our strategic position and politically. By the time he did fight for the “surge” in Iraq, all he did was stabilize the country to the point that Barack Obama’s premature pullout was a non-concern to most Americans. The resulting rise of ISIS and the atrocities that terrorist group inflicted on millions of innocents are only the most visible consequences of that calamitous withdrawal.

Bush made other mistakes, too. He should’ve turned counterterror statutes on the Gitmo Bar, which was making Hanoi Jane look like a piker. A photo shoot on an enemy anti-aircraft gun pales in comparison to the access to the American legal system that our nation’s avowed enemies received. His failure to shut this down immediately yielded drastic consequences.

One of those consequences was that the CIA operatives who waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (let’s face it: a six-pack of Coors Light and a carton of smokes wasn’t going to cut it) were set upon by the ACLU. Leftists outraged over the alleged outing of CIA desk jockey Valerie Plame were conspicuously silent when these authentic operatives were outed to terrorists for the sake of smearing them as torturers. Another consequence is that our nation’s acceptable interrogation techniques are now public, available on Amazon. It’s kinda hard to beat someone who’s literally read your playbook.

The Bush administration’s biggest mistake, though, was failing to sufficiently build up our military to face a global war on terror in addition to its other tasks around the world. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard all needed to be built up, especially after the short-sighted “peace dividend” of the 1990s.

Not only would this have boosted our Rust Belt economy by creating jobs and upgrading our manufacturing capability, but a larger military would also have been less stressed by its increased workload. And there would’ve been plenty of reserve capability when Obama slashed the force structure.

Sound like a waste of money? Well, think about how much we’ve spent fighting the War on Terror, and how much it’s costing us to play catch-up as Russia and China get more aggressive. We needed a military that could kill jihadists and break (or take) their stuff, deter Russian aggression against Eastern Europe, and deal with any Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. We never quite got that.

Today, we face a tougher situation, as any new build-up will take time to bear fruit. In a very real sense, while we’re safer in some ways because of what George W. Bush did, we also have some hard choices because of what he didn’t do.

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