Andy Card leaned over to whisper into the president’s ear. It was Sept. 11, 2001, shortly before 9 a.m. and the president was listening to a class of reading school children at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla. “There’s one terrible pilot. It must have been a horrible accident.” These comments, spoken by President Bush at a town hall meeting with displaced workers on Dec. 4, 2001, describe his initial reaction to hearing about the first plane that had struck its target in Manhattan on Sept. 11. A plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center … and the first thing the president thought, so he tells us himself, was “one terrible pilot.”
On the morning of Sept. 11, CIA Director George J. Tenet was having breakfast with former-Senator David Boren. Upon hearing the news, an aide rushed to inform the director of the unfolding events. Tenet’s immediate reaction according to those present: “This has bin Laden all over it … I wonder if it has anything to do with this guy taking pilot training.” Tenet’s comments regarding “that guy” refer to Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker, who had been arrested in Minnesota four weeks before the attacks after attracting suspicion at a flight school.
Tenet — who had presented the Presidential Daily Brief given on Aug. 6 entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.,” the same brief of great controversy among Condoleezza Rice and the Sept. 11 commission this past week — realized what was happening. That morning as the president was thinking “one terrible pilot … a horrible accident,” Tenet knew the crash was no accident; he knew the pilot was not terrible but rather trained to proficiency on American soil, and he knew there was more than one.
On Sept. 11, the president was initially clueless, yet his Director of Central Intelligence understood the situation. The stark contrast in reaction to the attacks begs a troubling question. Is the president so totally detached that he failed to grasp the significance of the unfolding events that morning, or is he so poorly advised that he did not comprehend the first collision’s implications despite his top intelligence officer’s full awareness?
I believe the answer to this perturbing quandary lies in the latter explanation. We all understand that the office of president of the United States is a thoroughly demanding job. Although everyone criticizes the president for his malapropisms and puzzled expression, we all recognize that no single human can possibly cope with the complexity of all the issues. It is for this purpose that the president is constantly advised by experts. On that day in September of 2001, the president’s experts failed as they did not fully impart to the president the threat al Qaeda and terrorism represented to the United States. The cause of this failure lies in an anachronistic world view shared my many of the president’s top foreign policy advisors.
While we expect a president to surround himself with the best and the brightest to help him govern, President Bush has selected advisors that largely subscribe to a foreign policy approach that became obsolete with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, Undersecretary Wolfowitz, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Foreign Policy Advisor Richard Perle, as well as many others in the Bush administration are all old guard cold warriors, and the administration’s foreign policy largely reflects the bipolar mentality of a bygone era that concluded more than 10 years ago.
The influence of these cold warriors can be seen in the oversimplified perspective the Bush administration has adopted on foreign policy issues. You are either with us or against us is a common refrain uttered by the president and his top advisors, as is the depiction of the war in Iraq as a battle between good and evil. This condensing of complicated global issues into a two-sided battle between right and wrong, while it may have been beneficial during the American struggle against communism, is an inappropriate approach to today’s complex world. I find it incredibly disquieting that this same foreign policy team that failed on Sept. 11 is still advising the president.
As news from Iraq worsens and American relations with foreign powers sour, it must be recognized that the current American foreign policy is a failure. The simplified, bipolar perspective of foreign affairs, largely constructed by the former cold warriors that the president selected to dominate his foreign policy team, is just not suitable for the challenging issues of this new era. Understanding foreign affairs of this new century and defining the way in which America relates to the rest of the globe, would tax the wisdom of Solomon, let alone any electable politician. By surrounding himself with the best minds of yesterday and developing policy based on their bygone standards, President Bush is doing a great disservice to this nation and world community.
Jonathan Menitove is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.