The first controversy of the Bush-Kerry face-off occurred when the president’s re-election campaign premiered its initial television commercials. The largely platitudinous spots aim to depict George W. Bush as the Grand Leader without any mention of specifics. They cite the recession and September 11 and proclaim that Bush had delivered “steady leadership in times of change.” What caused the fuss was the Bush campaign’s use of 9/11 footage showing the charred remains of the World Trade Center and rescue workers removing the dead. Firefighters (including officials of the firefighters union, which supports John Kerry) and relatives of 9/11 victims howled about Bush’s appropriation of 9/11. Bush’s spinners defended the ads, with Karen Hughes, a top campaign adviser, saying, “It’s a reminder of our shared experience as a nation.”

Thanks for that public service. But how many sentient Americans had to be reminded that 9/11 happened? Days after the ads appeared, Bush provided a better justification. “How this administration handled that day, as well as the war on terror, is worthy of discussion,” he said. “I look forward . . . to the debate about who [is] best to lead this country in the war on terror.”

Bush is right. September 11 should be an issue in the 2004 campaign — perhaps the issue. No better measure of his presidency exists. Sure, Bush kicked butt in Afghanistan, routing the Taliban and smashing part of al Qaeda’s infrastructure and leadership. But that was the easy part (and saying so does not diminish the sacrifice of Americans wounded or killed in Afghanistan). Going after Osama bin Laden’s protectors was not a tough call. But the rest of Bush’s response to 9/11 ought to be judged.

There is, of course, the matter of the war in Iraq. The administration continues to defend Bush’s decision to turn his war on terror into an invasion of a nation unconnected to the events of 9/11. But these first Bush campaign ads do not trumpet his move against Saddam Hussein. And each week brings more reason to doubt Bush’s decision. It’s not merely that those weapons of mass destruction are still missing and that there has been no evidence uncovered of an operational link between al Qaeda and Hussein. (A Knight Ridder investigation recently noted, “Senior U.S. officials now say there never was any evidence that Saddam’s secular police state and Osama bin Laden’s Islamic terrorism network were in league.”) Perhaps more importantly, increasing signs suggest that Bush’s war in Iraq has hindered the efforts to deal with the actual threat: al Qaeda. Last week, for instance, a senior CIA official told the Washington Post that thanks to the war in Iraq, the CIA “is stretched beyond their limits.” That is, the lead agency in the campaign against al Qaeda is suffering because of the war in Iraq. And Bush’s commitment to (or obsession with) his elective Iraq war has created large opportunity costs.

It’s not just the usual anti-war types who have argued that Bush undermined the war on terror with his war in Iraq. In December, the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College published a report that harshly called the war on Iraq “an unnecessary preventive war of choice against a deterred Iraq that has created a new front in the Middle East for Islamic terrorism and diverted attention and resources away from securing the American homeland against further assault by an undeterrable al Qaeda. The war against Iraq was not integral to the [global war on terrorism], but rather a detour from it.”

A few weeks ago, James Webb, secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, made the same point more brutally: “Bush arguably has committed the greatest strategic blunder in modern memory. To put it bluntly, he attacked the wrong target. While he boasts of removing Saddam Hussein from power, he did far more than that. He decapitated the government of a country that was not directly threatening the United States and, in so doing, bogged down a huge percentage of our military in a region that never has known peace. Our military is being forced to trade away its maneuverability in the wider war against terrorism while being placed on the defensive in a single country that never will fully accept its presence.” Webb added, “The reckless course that Bush and his advisers have set will affect the economic and military energy of our nation for decades. It is only the tactical competence of our military that, to this point, has protected him from the harsh judgment that he deserves.”


So Bush blew it on WMDs, the al Qaeda– Hussein link and the need for the war. He also has shortchanged homeland security. It may be hard for many voters to believe this, but the Bush administration has consistently underfunded domestic-security needs. A good example: Last month the American Association of Port Authorities criticized Bush’s budget proposal for devoting no federal funds for port security. The association noted that this decision was particularly disappointing, since the FBI had recently stated that ports remained vulnerable and were of known interest to terrorists. Other security needs — chemical-plant security, equipment for first responders — have also been neglected by the Bush administration.

Bush’s reaction to 9/11 is indeed, as he said, “worthy of discussion.” Kerry took up that invitation and blasted Bush for not fully cooperating with the independent 9/11 commission. But Kerry has to aim his blows with precision and smarts; everything 9/11 is sensitive terrain. Others can fire away. Last week, Senator Ted Kennedy slammed Bush for having manipulated intelligence before the Iraq invasion to support his case for war. It was a rock-’em, sock-’em speech. But with all due respect to Kennedy, other Democrats — not merely this old liberal lion — have to roar and echo the message that Bush has not handled 9/11 well. Admittedly, that won’t be easy, since so many in the party (including Kerry) voted to hand Bush the authority to invade Iraq. But for Kerry to have a chance, he, the Democrats and other anti-Bush partisans must chip away at Bush’s effort to portray himself as the Supreme Commander of 9/11. (Note to How about an ad that features Webb’s caustic quote?) At a minimum, the Bush foes need to be as sharp in their attacks on Bush as the Army War College and Reagan’s secretary of the Navy.

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