WASHINGTON -- As he announced the death of infamous terrorist Osama bin Laden on Sunday night, President Barack Obama struck an extraordinary contrast with his predecessor, George W. Bush.
That was to some degree unavoidable. Bush’s consistent failure to respond appropriately to bin Laden -- as a potential threat, as a fugitive, or as a public enemy no. 1 -- represents one of the greatest shortcomings of his presidency.
Obama has now succeeded where Bush failed. And it was impossible to hear Obama declare that "justice has been done" without thinking about how long it went undone.
But Obama also went out of his way to draw distinctions between how he approached the problem and how Bush did.
For instance, as the months and years went by after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- and Bush’s initial bluster about capturing the al Qaeda leader “dead or alive” became a source of embarrassment -- Bush began to insist that bin Laden himself wasn’t so very important.
"I truly am not that concerned about him," Bush said at a White House press conference on March 13, 2002. And of course the following March, he shifted America’s focus to Iraq, which proved to be a gigantic diversion.
Obama took a different tack.
"Shortly after taking office," the president explained Sunday night, "I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network."
Obama's comments on Sunday night were clearly directed not just to the American public but to the world, evoking images of the horror of 9/11 in an effort to dampen any possible al Qaeda propaganda value from bin Laden’s death.
By contrast, the tactics and the rhetoric of Bush’s “war on terror” -- most notably his decision to invade Iraq and the torture of Muslims in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere had served as al Qaeda’s most potent recruiting tools.
And to a nation of people who, nearly ten years after the terrorist attacks in America, are overwhelmingly despondent about both of the wars launched by Bush, Obama was at long last able to deliver something that, at least for a moment, seemed like victory: "The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda,” he said.
Ironically, Obama’s announcement came eight years to the day after Bush famously and prematurely declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier.
And if all that weren’t clear enough, Obama made an explicit appeal to set the clock back to those days of national and international unity right after Sept. 11 -- before Bush took the nation to war in Iraq, subverted historical prohibitions against torture and domestic surveillance, and used fear of terror to achieve partisan goals.
"[T]onight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11,” Obama said. "I know that it has, at times, frayed."
As Obama noted, the U.S. was virtually a different country then.
"On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together," the president reminded the nation on Sunday night. "We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.”
The Bush record on bin Laden, of course, starts with him failing to prevent the attacks in the first place. As has been exhaustively documented by now, during the summer of 2001, his White House waved off repeated warnings of an imminent attack from former counterterrorism director Richard A. Clarke and then-CIA director George Tenet.
Bush and his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, were said to be more focused on their pet issue, missile defense, and the hunt for a reason to attack Iraq. Bush, according to Bob Woodward, said he wasn't interested in "swatting flies."
The unsuccessful attempts to engage Bush culminated in a briefing he got while vacationing on his Texas ranch. As investigative reporter Ron Suskind reported in his book, "The One Percent Doctrine," an unnamed CIA operative flew to Crawford to call the president's attention personally to the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S."
"All right," Suskind reported Bush saying after hearing out the operative. "You've covered your ass, now."
Former President Bill Clinton in 2006 notably complained that he came close to killing bin Laden in a 1998 missile strike, while Bush and the "right wingers ... had eight months to try [before 9/11]. They did not try. I tried. So I tried and failed. When I failed, I left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy and the best guy in the country, Dick Clarke, who got demoted."
Bush’s post-9/11 swagger may go down as one of history’s worst examples of false bravado. After the invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban government quickly fell and al Qaeda retreated into the hills. But in December 2001, when bin Laden was unquestionably within reach of U.S. troops in the mountains of Tora Bora, Bush didn’t pull the trigger.
Then for more than three years, Bush treated bin Laden a lot like the wizards in the Harry Potter books treat He Who Must Not Be Named.
In the summer of 2005, Bush started invoking bin Laden again -- but this time, to win support for his Iraq policy, which was very much on the ropes.
"Hear the words of Osama bin Laden," Bush said, "'This Third World War is raging' in Iraq."
By 2006, on the stump for his fellow Republicans, Bush was citing bin Laden extensively. The president cast bin Laden as the oracular leader of a global movement, and warned of the possibility of an Islamic caliphate "stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia" -- an unsubstantiated fantasy with only one thing going for it: It served the political agendas of both men.
Meanwhile, in an Oval Office session that same month, Bush told to a group of conservative columnists that focusing on bin Laden didn’t fit with his military plans. Putting "100,000 of our special forces stomping through Pakistan in order to find bin Laden is just simply not the strategy that will work," he explained.
Yet, in his attempts to persuade the voting public of the dangers it faced, Bush gave bin Laden exactly the attention he seemed to crave.
After the 2008 presidential election, during which politicians from both parties publicly renounced him, Bush finally admitted some regret in an ABC News interview.
"Do I wish we had brought Osama bin Laden to justice? Sure," Bush said. "But he's not leading a lot of parades these days."
Bush stalwarts are now trying to make the case that their president deserves some, if not most, of the credit for dispatching bin Laden.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor on Sunday night called bin Laden’s death "a victory for the United States and a tremendous achievement for the military and intelligence professionals who carried out this important mission." As for Obama’s role? "I commend President Obama who has followed the vigilance of President Bush in bringing Bin Laden to justice," Cantor said in a statement.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney similarly credited "the military and intelligence professionals who carried out this important mission,” citing their "tireless work since 9/11." It was those years of effort, the majority of which were during the Bush administration, that "made this achievement possible, and enabled us to capture or kill thousands of al Qaeda terrorists and many of their leaders,” Cheney said in a press release.
A small group of young fans gathered outside Bush's house in Dallas Sunday night with a sign that read, "President Obama forgot to say... THANK YOU PRESIDENT BUSH."
Bush himself issued a brief statement congratulating Obama and declaring, "[t]he fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done."