Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

Defining moment

A war is make-it-or-break-it time for a president

JULIAN BELTRAME October 1 2001
Maclean's SPECIAL REPORT

Defining moment

A war is make-it-or-break-it time for a president

JULIAN BELTRAME October 1 2001

Defining moment

A war is make-it-or-break-it time for a president

JULIAN BELTRAME

As his appearances grow more frequent and his rhetoric more fervent, Americans have almost forgotten that in their darkest hour, their president briefly went missing in action. Unlike New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani—who with Churchillian bravado rushed to the smouldering ruins of the felled twin towers of the World Trade Center— George W. Bush headed for the safety of the clouds. He flew from Florida to Louisiana, where he taped a brief address weakly referring to the terrorists as “those folks,” then to an underground bunker in Nebraska. With Vice-President Dick Cheney also in a “secure location,” it fell remarkably on Bush adviser Karen Hughes to reassure the country that “your federal government continues to function effectively.” It was not until 8:30 p.m., almost 12 hours later, that Americans saw the commander-in-chief from the Oval Office, tackling the challenge that will define his presidency.

in Washington

He has not been long absent from public view ever since. In the subsequent days, Bush toured the gaping wound at the Pentagon, visited ground zero in New York, comforted victims at a Washington hospital, and played host to a string of visiting world leaders. He has used the bully pulpit to condemn sporadic hate crimes against innocent Muslim-Americans. The White House even admonished Rev. Jerry Falwell, a Bush supporter, for suggesting abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians were somehow pardy to blame for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Last Thursday, in his strongest performance to date, Bush issued a series of demands to Afghanistan’s Taliban—meet them or face the consequences, he said. “Freedom and fear are at war,” he told a cheerleading joint session of Congress. “We will not tire, we will not falter and we will not fail.”

The American people are rallying. Bush’s approval rating soared from 51 per cent before the attacks to as high as 91 per cent last week, the third-highest in the history of American polling. Only his father during the Gulf War, and Harry Truman after the Allied victory in Europe, scored higher. Seizing a moment that seldom comes to presidents, Bush asked for and received carte blanche from Congress to use military force against anyone—terrorists or nations that harbour them—involved in the attacks. He secured $40 billion in funding for reconstruction and defence, and his administration signalled it will ask for expanded powers to conduct domestic wiretapping, detain foreigners and track money-laundering. Congress is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, but dissenters mostly held their tongues. “No one wants to say no to Bush now,” groused one Democratic legislator.

That’s no surprise. Americans traditionally look to their president when faced with a national calamity, and Congress is loath to appear unpatriotic. But Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at Washington’s American University, believes Bush has mostly earned the high level of support. “He’s been sombre and compassionate and careful not to overly stoke up anger,” he says. “More important, he hasn’t been precipitous. He’s explained we will act, but only on the basis of a clear plan and a clear objective.”

But if there’s a president who can ill afford missteps, even fleeting ones, it’s Bush. During the presidential campaign, doubts surfaced about his foreign policy inexperience. On several occasions, the former Texas governor stumbled when asked the identity of world leaders—including Canada’s Jean Chrétien. Before and after he won the dragged-out election last November, he has been mercilessly skewered on talk shows. His intelligence has been questioned, his awkward mannerisms mocked, and his famous malapropisms played and replayed for the amusement of late-night audiences. Now he’s being asked to set aside his unilateralist tendencies and lead an international coalition against an enemy that inhabits no territory and, in his own words, “hides in the shadows.” And he must exert American power into the snakepit of Middle East politics without further inflaming radical Islamic fundamentalists, whose calls for a jihad frighten Western-leaning nations in the region as much as they now do Americans.

In other words, Bush has a lot to prove. And the first days of what promises to be a long, protracted campaign, lasting perhaps years, have been the easy part. Nor has he performed flawlessly, says Ronald Heifetz, co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. For one thing, Heifetz says Bush’s use of the word “crusade” to characterize the battle ahead will cause unease among Washington’s Middle East allies, who equate the word with the Christian campaigns of the Middle Ages. Leadership in crisis is “an improvisational act,” says Heifetz, so Bush’s missteps are understandable. “The true test comes as we enter the long-term phase of the problem.”

Bush’s most valuable asset may be that he seems to know what he doesn’t know. “He’s not an arrogant man,” says Heifetz. “He is willing to listen and learn.” He’s also blessed with a strong foreign policy team, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and Cheney, both of whom were front and centre during the Gulf War, Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Cheney as secretary of defence. Then there’s the elder Bush, who is said to be offering advice daily. The lessons from the Gulf War may not fit neatly into the current situation. For instance, the Powell Doctrine, which dictated that American troops should be committed only in overwhelming numbers and when there was a clear exit strategy, was ideally suited to a conventional war against an outgunned enemy. Judging by their statements, though, Bush, Powell and Cheney know they are not fighting the last war.

Is Bush up to it? When their respective conflicts dragged on without clear end, Harry Truman (the Korean War) and Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam) lost the confidence and patience of the public. “Make no mistake,” says Gary Schmitt, executive director of Project for the New American Century, a conservative foreign policy think-tank. “This is a regime-breaking issue.” Or regime-making. The good news for Bush is that he has more than three years left of his first term to prove he is the president few Americans thought they would need. The bad news is there’s plenty of time for terrorists to prove that the United States is powerless against an enemy even smart bombs may not be able to find.