Bush and Obama Pre- and Post-9/11: A Comparative Analysis


On September 11, 2001, 19 Islamic terrorists from Saudi Arabia and several other Arab nations associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda hijacked four American aircrafts and carried out suicide attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Two planes were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane struck the Pentagon outside of Washington, and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, its target unknown but suspected to be the White House or the Capitol Building in Washington. The attacks killed over 3,000 people, including more than 400 police officers and firefighters, and seriously injured over 10,000 others. The attacks on 9/11 triggered major U.S. initiatives to combat terrorism and were the basis for the Iraq and Afghan wars. On the night of 9/11, President George W. Bush gave an ominous address from the Oval Office in which he stated, “We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”

The Build to September 11th

During Bill Clinton’s Presidency in 1998, the United Nations inspection agency withdrew from Baghdad in protest of Saddam Hussein’s unwillingness to cooperate with inspection measures. President Clinton then called on American Armed Forces to strike military and security targets in Iraq due to the belief that Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction (WMD); the President stated that Hussein’s reluctance to cooperate with inspections presented “a clear and present danger to the stability of the Persian Gulf and the safety of people everywhere.” The U.S. pledged to enact a long-term strategy of containment toward Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction, but at no point did the Clinton administration consider an operation specifically designed to overthrow Hussein’s regime.

In December of 2000, President Clinton told President-Elect George W. Bush that the biggest threat to be concerned with would be al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden. In January of 2001, soon-to-be Vice President Dick Cheney met with Pentagon national security officials to discuss Iraq; the Pentagon reported to Cheney that Saddam Hussein was contained and isolated, and that there was no need for any aggressive action against him, and that acting otherwise would “immediately engender strong opposition in the region and throughout the world.” However, the Bush administration did not agree with the Pentagon’s sentiments nor did it share President Clinton’s concern with al Qaeda. The Administration instead prioritized China’s increasing military power and the desire to oust Saddam Hussein from power. Former national coordinator for security, infrastructure protection, and counterterrorism in the Clinton administration Richard Clarke was appointed as a special advisor to the NSC by Bush and was startled at the lack of attention that was being placed on al Qaeda by the new Administration. He told his colleagues that the terrorist organization was “clearly planning a major series of attacks against us” and that they “must act decisively and quickly” against imminent attacks. The President’s advisors did not believe Clark’s warnings and said he was giving bin Laden “too much credit.” Throughout the summer months of 2001, the CIA repeatedly warned of imminent attacks by bin Laden on American facilities. On May 1, June 22, 23, and 25, intelligence briefs issued by the CIA warned of imminent attacks. Bush disregarded the warnings.

Strategy of President Bush

Immediately following the attacks, Bush and his advisors met with the CIA to discuss strategy. It was debated whether the focus moving forward should be on the destruction of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden or against terrorism more broadly. The CIA director of counterterrorism argued that the Taliban and al Qaeda needed to be jointly eliminated, due to the intricate entwinement between the two groups. The topic was continuously tabled, but finally, after continuous pressure from the President to develop a concrete plan of attack rapidly, a decision was made.

President Bush’s first objective in the wake of 9/11 was to topple the Taliban regime and attack al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Thus, Operation Enduring Freedom was the first initiative launched by the President. On October 7, 2001, the U.S., with assistance from Australia, France, and the United Kingdom, carried out air strikes on Taliban and al Qaeda targets in an attempt to stop the Taliban from harboring al Qaeda, and to stop al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base for operations. Due to the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan, the Taliban was forced to relinquish power and the state was renamed the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. However, by the time the allied forces took over the capital, most high-ranking Taliban and al Qaeda officials had escaped to Pakistan. Within two years, Taliban forces launched a counteroffensive. Within five years, Bush had almost doubled the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 26,607 to 48,250.

His second goal was to oust Saddam Hussein, the 5th President of Iraq, in order to “prevent him from developing weapons of mass destruction” and to help Iraq create a stable democratic regime. The President and his advisors were set on the idea that Hussein was attempting to recreate the state’s nuclear program that had been eliminated after the Gulf Wars. The Bush Administration was desperate to make a connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, even though top CIA officials and International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) officials insisted that there was absolutely no evidence that Hussein was rebuilding a nuclear program, and that connections between Hussein and al Qaeda were weak. Bush, however, did not accept these claims and continued to press on in order to create a rhetoric that Hussein and al Qaeda were inexplicably linked, and that Hussein was an imminent threat to freedom and U.S. security. Perhaps a more truthful rationale for the Administration’s invasion of Iraq was the desire to democratize the region in order to enhance Israel’s security. Another interest that was severely under-articulated was the United States’ long-standing dependence on Persian Gulf oil. The Bush Administration believed that if Iraq were to have a nuclear weapon, Hussein would be in a position to gain control over a large segment of the world’s oil reserves. Eighteen months after the 9/11 attacks, Bush authorized the invasion of Iraq. The war against Iraq was extremely unsuccessful; it lasted much longer than estimated—formally ending in December 2011—and cost the U.S., Iraq, and the entire Middle East more lives and money than projected. Conflict in both Afghanistan and Iraq continued at the end of Bush’s second term in office, leaving Barack Obama with the remainder of two complicated, costly, and contentious wars.

Strategy of President Obama

President Obama inherited the failed attempts to reform both the Afghan and Iraqi governments and to rid the Taliban of its power. By 2009, the Taliban had fled Afghanistan into neighboring Pakistan. Drug trade in Afghanistan had become a $4 billion business, and the Taliban used the money to fund its insurgency against the Afghan government and the occupying forces. Al Qaeda had also secured safe havens in Pakistani tribal regions. Obama’s first move was to send Vice President Joe Biden to Pakistan to meet with President Asif Ali Zardari to secure diplomatic ties with the government and to emphasize the important role Pakistan had in the Afghanistan conflict, which, unlike Bush’s Administration, was to be the Obama Administration’s focus. Zardari expressed concerns at the anti-American sentiment in the country, and said that helping the U.S. would create hatred toward the Pakistani government unless there was something in it for the people. He requested economic resources so that he could justify supporting the U.S. and Biden did not object.

The next stop was a meeting in Afghanistan with President Hamid Karzai. Karzai expressed that the Afghani people did not want Americans to leave the country because they were there fighting terrorism, but that civilian casualties were a concern. He stated that an additional 30,000 American troops would make the efforts more successful. Biden was hesitant. Obama’s first decision as president was to commission a sixty-day review of the Iraq war, since additional troops were likely to be needed in Afghanistan, and a drawdown in Iraq would be necessary to supply the additional forces. Obama called on advisors to come up with strategies for Afghanistan, because if more troops were needed in the country, he would need a set plan in order to validate further involvement. The debate went back and forth between sending an additional 17,000 troops or 30,000 troops, and Obama took the time necessary to hear from multiple sources about what the best plan of action would be. After several days to think on the final strategies, Obama approved the request for an additional 17,000 troops, knowing that without more Americans on the ground, the Afghan elections would probably not be possible.

In late March of 2009, Obama announced that the U.S. would help Pakistan battle al Qaeda, but Pakistan had to “demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders.” He also announced that the U.S. would send 4,000 troops to Afghanistan to train and enhance the Afghan army and police force, and that economic and social aid would be sent to the country.

Bush vs. Obama and Present Day

Several key differences between the Bush and Obama administrations can be noted at this point in the War on Terror timeline: President Bush was bent on ousting Saddam Hussein and focusing on Iraq rather than on Afghanistan. At the start of his Presidency, Obama made it clear that stabilizing Afghanistan and attacking the Taliban in neighboring regions would be the chief objective. Bush was also less receptive to information that went against his own personal beliefs about how the war should be fought, as well as what was truly happening in the region. No matter which senior official told the President that there was absolutely no evidence that a nuclear program was being reestablished in Iraq under Hussein, Bush and his advisors continued to push the discourse until it became accepted and acted upon. Obama, although reluctant to send additional troops into Afghanistan, listened to all opinions and encouraged dissenting voices at the table. In deciding how to continue in Afghanistan, Obama said, “I’m a big believer in continually updating our analysis and relying on a constant feedback loop. Don’t bite your tongue. Everybody needs to say what’s on their mind.” There was not as much pressure to act quickly under Obama; Bush was fixated on the idea of responding with concrete action within days of the attacks, but Obama was more determined to act with strategy and purpose, even if that meant a delay in action.

Although the experience of these wars has, obviously, been negative, and billions of dollars and thousands of lives have been lost since 2001 when the war began, retrenchment is not an option for several reasons and on several fronts. In regard to Afghanistan, stability will continue to decrease as U.S. forces decrease in the region. Total retrenchment would be the most extreme, and worst, scenario. In 2015 Afghan security forces, including local police, suffered a 70 percent increase in casualties compared to 2014. The average count of casualties per week currently stands at around 330. This increase in violence is directly related to the decrease of foreign aid and military services. The toxic combination of a new unstable government with leaders who have not yet been proven trustworthy, and the simultaneous withdrawal of U.S. troops is increasing the likelihood of a resurgent Taliban and potentially wasting years of war and the American lives lost during the conflict. The withdrawal at this critical yet sensitive time in Afghanistan’s move toward stabilization also provides the perfect breeding ground for ISIL to gain power and control. While difficult and messy war efforts that last longer and cost more than expected are not the ideal reality for any nation’s foreign policy, isolationist strategies would not bode well for the international community either. The globalized world is as interconnected as it is interdependent, and the United States’ deep involvement in all regions of the world is important and necessary. The capacity of that involvement, however, may change over time.

Emily Dalgo is a student in the School of International Service and College of Arts & Sciences class of 2017. She can be contacted at ed6563a@student.american.edu.

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.


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About Emily Dalgo

Emily Dalgo is a senior in the School of International Service pursuing a BA in international studies with a focus in justice, ethics, and human rights and a minor in philosophy. Dalgo was a 2016 AU Summer Scholars and Artists Fellow, where she conducted independent research on xenophobia in the 2016 presidential election. She is the 2016-17 Executive Editor of the World Mind.