This Changes Everything
George W. Bush's go-it-alone approach to foreign policy just came to an abrupt halt. Tuesday's exploding jetliners, crumbling skyscrapers, and unspeakable human carnage made it forever clear that terrorism doesn't just happen "over there." As instantly as the two airliners plowed into the World Trade Center, the nation's political and policy debate was transformed completely and profoundly. Just days earlier, Bush was squabbling with congressional Democrats over spending priorities. Now, such issues seem trivial. Against the backdrop of a nation under attack, Bush must convince the country and the world that he has the political skill and resolve to forge a swift and powerful response to this new terrorist threat.
As awful as the attacks were, they provide Bush with a unique opening to rally U.S. allies--and the world in general--against terrorism. That will require him to work closely with European governments that until now have been largely put off by Bush's unilateral approach. At the same time, the Bush Administration will pressure nervous moderate Arab leaders to crack down on the extremists who operate within their borders.
In the jittery U.S. capital, everything seems to be on the table. The inside-the-Beltway blame game over the disappearing federal surplus has already given way to a bipartisan crusade to protect the nation from future attacks. The mayhem in New York and Washington, where a third plane slammed into the Pentagon, also gives Bush plenty of political cover to dip into the Social Security trust fund to finance a military modernization. But he will surely have to readjust his priorities. Missile defense, for one, becomes a much harder sell. So-called "homeland defense" suddenly seems far more relevant. Before the attack, lawmakers had agreed to address underfunding of intelligence and disaster response. But now, amid congressional investigations into the colossal intelligence and security breakdowns that failed to anticipate the attacks, Bush will no doubt look for much more funding to boost intelligence activities and protect the U.S. against chemical and biological warfare.
The Administration faces other tricky challenges, too. Arab Americans are already on edge about the prospect of a widespread and violent backlash as well as a new round of racial profiling by law enforcement. Bush's attempt to liberalize immigration policy could be another casualty. Civil libertarians fear that new security measures will compromise traditional American freedoms. While the President on Sept. 12 tried to assure Americans their "way of life" won't change, it's a promise that may prove impossible to keep.
If Bush navigates these treacherous waters successfully, he could redefine his Presidency and silence skeptics who doubt his ability to handle foreign affairs. But that's a lot to pull off. Six years ago, Bill Clinton's sensitive response to the Oklahoma City bombing marked a turning point in his then-unpopular Presidency. For Bush, says University of Virginia government professor Larry J. Sabato, "this could be his Oklahoma City to the 10th power."
The President clearly has not mastered the power of TV, but he must nonetheless find a way to unite Americans and restore their confidence in both the faltering economy and their personal security. Americans traditionally come together in an international crisis. Indeed, after Bush's trio of brief speeches on Sept. 11, 64% of Americans say they were confident of his ability to handle the crisis, according to an Ipsos-Reid poll. "But if this becomes a crisis without resolution, it will be dangerous for him," says Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley.
FRIENDS NEEDED. That's why Bush needs to quickly reverse the transatlantic drift that has characterized his early Presidency. And on this issue, Europeans are likely to link arms with the U.S. Despite deep disagreements over missile defense, global warming, and other issues, Bush can count on Europe to back U.S. action against their common terrorist foe.
America has always enlisted European allies in retaliating against terrorism abroad. Now, that terrorism has struck home with such devastating consequences, the President will need more military and intelligence cooperation than ever from NATO nations. "We're going to want all the friends we can find in the world to be on our side in isolating the people who did this," says Chester Crocker, a top State Dept. official in the Reagan Administration. That's more likely than ever, agrees Nicole Gnessotto, head of the European Union's Institute of Security Studies: "You're going to see the two sides [of the Atlantic] stick together completely, and there will be a big push to cooperate much more on intelligence."
One key Bush "friend" could turn out to be Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. A decade ago, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was vital to President George H.W. Bush's international coalition against Iraq. Now, Putin, who has battled rebels funded by Osama bin Laden in Chechnya, is reaching out to the younger Bush to "unite in the fight against terrorism."
The American tragedy also will draw Bush deeper into the complex web of Middle Eastern politics, something he tried to avoid in the early months of his Presidency. Recently, the Administration has prodded Israel and the Palestinians to curb the violence that has left the peace process in tatters. If the New York and Washington attacks are linked to terrorists bent on holy war in the Middle East, Bush will be under enormous pressure to take an aggressive role in mediating. Former Senator Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), a member of an international commission aimed at restarting peace talks, says the panel would like to see Bush more involved. "Unless this [Palestinian] situation is brought under control, it will spread in many ways--and we've seen one [on Sept. 11]," he says.
SHIFT IN FOCUS. At the same time, America's allies will continue to exert pressure on Bush to shelve his missile-defense plan. Already, skeptics at home say there isn't enough money to protect against both attacks from space and those closer to the ground, and the danger Star Wars is designed to thwart--rogue nations with nuclear weapons--is less urgent than the risk of attack by terrorist cells working across borders. "This should be a wake-up call to reorient our national-security threat assessments away from future missile threats and toward earthbound, here-and-now threats," says Joseph Cirincione, a defense expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Still, missile-shield advocates won't relent without a fight. "This is something you've got to do," says Kenneth Adelman, a Reagan Administration arms-control negotiator. "We have plenty of money for what's important."
Just days before, such big-spending boasts would have been scoffed at on Capitol Hill. The military budget looked like a juicy target for Democrats seeking more domestic spending and Republicans seeking a new round of tax cuts. The White House was in a political bind because the President had promised repeatedly on the campaign trail not to raid the Social Security trust fund to finance government spending. A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken just prior to the attacks found that a phenomenal 92% of voters wanted to protect Social Security under any circumstances.
Everything looks different now. "The first thing we've got to do is defend this country," says Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) "That's got to be the priority." The Bush Administration will ask Congress to beef up spending on airport security, which many lawmakers have long complained is too lax. Although Congress in recent years has spent nearly $250 million on equipment to screen luggage for bombs, most of the machines have been idle because airlines balk at paying for the staffers needed to use them or the longer wait times travelers would face. Fumes House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.): "A lot of the [airport] security measures are for show. There isn't enough emphasis on the real risks."
An overhaul of U.S. intelligence looks likely, too. After the massive failure of America's spies and eavesdropping systems to uncover the unprecedented attacks, Congress is pointing fingers at the CIA and FBI. "Why is it we were not able to pick up any of this, not even a whiff or a phone call?" says Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). Terrorism experts advocate a clean sweep of those in charge. "All of the heads of all the counterterrorism units should be removed, and [CIA Director George] Tenet should be fired," says Michael Lundine, a terrorism specialist at American Enterprise Institute. "You can't just say: `Try harder.' They've already demonstrated they're incompetent."
Indeed, Congress may create a job to oversee the war on terrorism. This new post would direct "homeland defense" measures designed to thwart terrorist threats and coordinate a rapid response to any violence that does occur. The costs of homeland defense "are not going to be trivial," notes Leon Fuerth, national security adviser to former Vice-President Al Gore. Still, he concludes, the plan "needs to become a reality."
SECURITY FIRST. These fast-changing priorities in Washington will also complicate matters for Corporate America. The Senate recently passed business-backed legislation to loosen curbs on exports of computers and other high-tech goods over the strong objections of law-enforcement agencies. The House version of the proposal is much more restrictive. After the attacks, business isn't likely to persuade House leaders to bend. And corporate efforts to roll back unilateral U.S. sanctions against rogue nations such as Libya, Iran, and Sudan now seem destined for defeat.
For a tentative President, the chaotic aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror offers a real opportunity to break out of his isolationist mold. Indeed, Bush has little choice but to take the lead on a global stage he long sought to avoid, even as he calms and guides a worried nation. That would be a tall order for even the most seasoned politician. For George W. Bush, they're the challenges of a lifetime.
By Richard S. Dunham, Amy Borrus, and Stan Crock in Washington, with bureau reports