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A War of His Own Making

On the day that defined his presidency, Bush never wavered from his decision: 9/11 meant war.

Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

More than nine years after Sept. 11, 2001, it feels strange to once again be reliving the drama of al Qaeda's devastating assault on America's symbols of economic and military power. Americans seem to have moved on from terrorism, overwhelmed by their fears about the economy and the persistent lack of jobs. The president today is more worried about how to get out of a war than how to get into one. News of foiled terrorist plots is now swiftly pushed off the front pages by stories about political donations by talk-show hosts.

In that sense, reading Decision Points, George W. Bush's long-awaited new memoir -- and its blow-by-blow account of how the man charged with leading the world's response reacted during those first few bewildering hours and days after the attacks, when it seemed as though Osama bin Laden was 10 feet tall -- is like taking a journey back in time.

There are many newsworthy sections in the book -- from the revelation that Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice once thought they might be dying of a biological attack, to his explanation of why he refused an Israeli request to bomb Syria, to his reaction to learning about the abuses at Abu Ghraib for the first time ("I felt sick, really sick."), to the fact that Colin Powell once asked to reconsider his resignation, to Cheney's final plea to pardon vice presidential aide Scooter Libby -- but Bush's chapter on 9/11 stands out as essential reading.

More than nine years after Sept. 11, 2001, it feels strange to once again be reliving the drama of al Qaeda’s devastating assault on America’s symbols of economic and military power. Americans seem to have moved on from terrorism, overwhelmed by their fears about the economy and the persistent lack of jobs. The president today is more worried about how to get out of a war than how to get into one. News of foiled terrorist plots is now swiftly pushed off the front pages by stories about political donations by talk-show hosts.

In that sense, reading Decision Points, George W. Bush’s long-awaited new memoir — and its blow-by-blow account of how the man charged with leading the world’s response reacted during those first few bewildering hours and days after the attacks, when it seemed as though Osama bin Laden was 10 feet tall — is like taking a journey back in time.

There are many newsworthy sections in the book — from the revelation that Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice once thought they might be dying of a biological attack, to his explanation of why he refused an Israeli request to bomb Syria, to his reaction to learning about the abuses at Abu Ghraib for the first time ("I felt sick, really sick."), to the fact that Colin Powell once asked to reconsider his resignation, to Cheney’s final plea to pardon vice presidential aide Scooter Libby — but Bush’s chapter on 9/11 stands out as essential reading.

"The story of that week is the key to understanding my presidency," he writes.

Indeed it is. More than any account to date, the chapter makes clear that Bush seized immediately on an aggressive, military response to the attacks — even before he knew who was responsible — with consequences still reverberating in the hills of Yemen and North Waziristan today. And it’s equally clear that he never really considered a different approach. This was war.

From the first moments he learned that planes had crashed into the World Trade Center, Bush began to formulate his strategy — what would soon become the global war on terror.

"My first reaction was outrage," he writes. "Someone had dared attack America. They were going to pay." Many have wondered what was going through the president’s mind as he sat in a Florida classroom, reading "The Pet Goat" to elementary-school students for seven long minutes. "The reading lesson continued, but my mind raced far from the classroom," Bush says. "Who could have done this?"

By the time an aide informed him of the third plane crash, the one that hit the Pentagon, Bush, then in the presidential motorcade on the way to Air Force One, had already made up his mind about what to do: "I sat back in my seat and absorbed her words. My thoughts clarified: The first plane could have been an accident. The second was definitely an attack. The third was a declaration of war."

"My blood was boiling. We were going to find out who did this, and kick their ass."

When he landed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, Bush was reminded of the awesome arsenal at his disposal: "The taxiway was lined with bombers. It made for a striking scene, the power of our mighty Air Force on display. I knew it was only a matter of time before I put that power to use against whoever had ordered this attack." (The observation makes one wonder: What if Bush had landed instead at a police station, or a courthouse? Would history have turned out differently?)

Once safely inside the base, Bush spoke with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the first time that day. "I told Don that I considered the attacks an act of war," Bush writes. "I told Don our first priority was to make it through the immediate crisis. After that, I planned to mount a serious military response."

Bush then flew to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, the headquarters of Strategic Air Command, and assembled the rest of the national security team over a secure videoconference line.

"We are at war against terror," he declared. Only then did he turn to ask George Tenet, his CIA director, "Who did this?" (Tenet’s answer: al Qaeda. If Bush had guessed as much earlier, he doesn’t say so.)

In the same meeting, Bush told his advisors to gird themselves for war: "I also made clear that I planned to use the military in this war when the time was right. Our response would not be a pinprick cruise missile strike. As I later put it, we would do more than put ‘a million-dollar missile on a five-dollar tent.’"

Bush then thought about what he would say that evening when he returned to Washington: "My first instinct was to tell the American people that we were a nation at war. But as I watched the carnage on TV, I realized that the country was still in shock. Declaring war could further contribute to the anxiety. I decided to wait one day."

On the helicopter ride from Andrews Air Force Base to the White House on the evening of Sept. 11, Bush saw "smoke rising from the Pentagon," and knew he was "looking at a modern-day Pearl Harbor." He turned to Andrew Card, his chief of staff, and told him: "You’re looking at the first war of the twenty-first century."

The next day, Bush laid out his thinking to the American people. "The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror," he declared. "They were acts of war."

That morning, Bush met with members of Congress for the first time. In the book, he relays that Sen. Tom Daschle, then the Democratic majority leader, cautioned him to "be careful about the word war because it had such powerful implications." Bush disagreed. "If four coordinated attacks by a terrorist network that had pledged to kill as many Americans as possible was not an act of war, then what was it?" he thought. "A breach of diplomatic protocol?"

In his speech later that day at Washington National Cathedral, Bush said, "[O]ur responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil. War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing."

Almost a decade hence, the war on terror grinds on. The United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars, perhaps trillions, to pacify Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. officials have learned a lot about fighting terrorism and have foiled a number of frightening plots, but bin Laden remains at large, the Guantánamo Bay prison remains open, and Afghanistan has become the longest war in U.S. history. Militancy has spread like a "cancer" in neighboring Pakistan, in the words of Bush’s successor Barack Obama. Dangerous al Qaeda franchises have sprung up in North Africa and Yemen. Somali-Americans in Minnesota and Pakistani-Americans in Connecticut have signed up for the jihad. If victory is any closer than it was on the day when Bush first declared war, its outlines are very hard to discern.

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