Until September 2001, I was one of those lefties who believed that George W. Bush had come to power in an “electoral coup.” Though I grudgingly accepted the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore
, I considered the Bush presidency illegitimate and trusted nothing that it said or did. Many of my friends continued to believe that, long after the events of September 11, and even after Bush won a popular majority in 2004.
After the initial shock of the attacks, the smug contempt picked up where it had left off. In addition to the morally stunted arguments about how the U.S. was itself to blame
, and had no right to use military force in response, the left mocked President Bush for My Pet Goat
, ridiculed Vice President Dick Cheney for moving to an “undisclosed location,” and claimed Bush knew about the impending attacks--which many Democrats believed
[caption id="attachment_113804" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="The Muslim neighborhood in South Africa where I lived in 2001 (Google Maps Street View)"]
Today, the left is trying to deny Bush any credit for the bin Laden operation. Lawrence O’Donnell of MSNBC reminded viewers
that Bush said he was “truly not that concerned” about bin Laden in 2002--and neglected to mention that then-President-elect Barack Obama had also played down bin Laden’s importance
on the eve of taking office.
In truth, the left had been attacking Bush’s efforts even before they had begun after 9/11.
I remember that vividly. I also remember joining my peers, somewhat half-heartedly, in the hand-wringing about how Bush was going to exploit 9/11 to push an evil domestic agenda. The left later interpreted the Patriot Act in that light, and convinced itself that Bush’s counter-terrorism measures were evidence of incipient fascism that Republicans had been plotting for years. The “9/11 Truther” conspiracy theory was fed by such fears.
Perhaps it was because I was living in a Muslim community in South Africa at the time (working as a freelance writer) that I refused to follow the left down that road. I was witnessing the anti-American hatred that swept the Muslim world--and also the quiet decency of Muslims who rejected Al Qaeda. I’ll never forget how my neighbors came over to apologize personally for 9/11, though of course they had nothing to do with it.
I had to acknowledge, as many of my lefty friends back home in the USA could not, that radical Islam was not a fabrication, but a real and potent political and ideological force. I was able to defend “moderate” Muslims without idealizing Islam as a “religion of peace,” which western leaders were at pains to do. I didn’t vote for Bush in 2004--I was still a Democrat then--but I defended his foreign policy before hostile South African audiences.
It’s important to give Obama credit for the bin Laden operation, but also important to remember that he didn’t break with the left after 9/11. On the contrary, he blamed
the attacks on “a failure of empathy” by the attackers, and “a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair.” His pastor damned America
, and Obama said nothing. For a time, he refused to wear a flag pin
, and railed against the war on terror.
If Obama’s policies had been enacted then, bin Laden might never have been found today. Ambition for higher office led Obama to reconsider his approach to fighting terror. Yet he continued to make the unfounded and unfair accusation that Bush had botched the hunt for bin Laden by invading Iraq. (The same logic would apply to Obama’s faltering war in Libya.) In fact, intelligence gained in Iraq may have helped the U.S. find bin Laden
It is also wrong for Obama to claim today that he made the search for bin Laden more of a priority than it was under Bush. Though Bush tried to dampen public expectations after bin Laden eluded capture at Tora Bora, we know that he continued relentlessly
to push his intelligence staff to find new leads. To imply otherwise--as Obama did in his national address--is to pander, irresponsibly, to the Bush hatred that predated 9/11.
For me, and a few of my friends, the tragedy of 9/11 became an important milestone in our slow political transition from left to right. It’s disturbing to watch some of those still on the left trying to exploit America’s success in hunting down bin Laden to continue their anti-Bush crusade. It’s also bound to backfire politically, as Americans learn more about how Bush enabled the hunt, and how his policies continue to protect our nation.