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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 21:59 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 21:59 | SYDNEY

Howard defends Bush

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11 February 2009 16:54

Former Prime Minister John Howard on the Bush legacy:

Bush’s challenge in the wake of that attack was the greatest faced by any president since Roosevelt at the time of Pearl Harbour. The collective sense of dread that there would be another, and perhaps even worse, attack, which was so strong in the aftermath of September 2001, dissipated as the years went by. Predictably, and as America’s enemies hoped, the public grew weary of constant talk of a further attack. In time this weariness turned to questioning of, even hostility towards, measures legitimately employed to reduce the likelihood of a further outrage. In the process there was an inexorable discounting of the president’s success in protecting the homeland. Finally, to many, it was simply taken for granted.

The passage of time should not allow us to forget how completely preoccupied America was with the possibility of a repeat of the World Trade Center attack. It framed so many things. The removal of Saddam Hussein, the most debated action of the whole eight years of George Bush’s administration, must be seen in the context of protecting America against another attack.

Much of what has gone wrong with the West's response to terrorism since 9/11 can be traced back to the sentiment in that first sentence. Was Bush's challenge really greater than the job of defeating Japan and the Nazis? Of rebuilding Europe? Of containing communism for forty years? Surely not. But it seems the drama of 9/11, the sheer psychological force of the event, overwhelmed the Bush Administration's capacity to see the terrorist threat as serious but containable, and led to massive over-reactions like the Iraq invasion*.

Mr Howard is right to say, in the second quoted paragraph, that the 9/11 attacks 'framed' the decision to invade Iraq. But the passive construction of that passage is revealing. Who did the framing? Why, Bush, Howard, Blair and others, of course. And they did so in the mistaken belief that al Qaeda was an 'existential threat' which justified such extreme action as the invasion of Iraq.

The collective sense of dread and complete preoccupation with a further attack that Howard refers to were genuine, but it was within the power of leaders such as Howard and Bush to influence that public mood in various ways. That they did so to promote the disastrous invasion of Iraq is a stain on both their records.

* I was similarly affected by the attacks, and at the time, I somewhat reluctantly came to the conclusion that invading Iraq was the right thing to do. As should be pretty clear to most readers, I now believe I was seriously mistaken in that view.