The real way George W. Bush didn’t keep us safe

Updated 3:07 PM EDT, Tue October 20, 2015

Story highlights

Juliette Kayyem: Forget whether 9/11 could have been prevented

Kayyem says George W. Bush's biggest error was totally unnecessary Iraq War

She says presidents will be dealing with the horrific aftermath of Iraq for a long time

Editor’s Note: Juliette Kayyem, a CNN national security analyst, is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. She also is the host of the “Security Mom” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

As Donald Trump and Jeb Bush squabble about whether Bush’s brother, President George W. Bush, could have prevented the attacks and whether he made us safer, we may be losing sight of the obvious.

We can’t seriously think that the deaths of nearly 3,000 civilians constituted anything but an epic failure, at all levels of government. As my colleague Peter Bergen notes in riveting detail, there is extensive evidence that George W. Bush’s lack of focus on the growing threat, despite signs that Osama bin Laden was planning something epic in the United States, favors Trump’s assertion: 9/11 was preventable. Trump may be right.

But he is also so wrong. On so many levels.

First, Trump’s assertion about Bush is too simplistic, arguing that because 9/11 happened, then Bush is at fault. The hints of a potential threat are almost always known before, in some fashion, by a president asked to weigh inconclusive or vague evidence.

Pearl Harbor is a case in point. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration has been criticized for not taking sufficient action to prepare despite intelligence indicating a Japanese attack on the Hawaii naval base was a possibility.

It goes without saying, however, that bad, horrific things are going to happen under every president’s watch. Bush is to blame not because 9/11 happened, but because he fully and consistently neglected to view the evidence of a growing threat as worthy of any deliberation. Whatsoever.

Second, Trump is just factually wrong to believe that his tough-on-immigration stance would have prevented 9/11. Of all the failures of intelligence that led to 9/11, it simply is unsubstantiated that a tough-on-the-borders stance would have rounded up the hijackers or prevented them from coming into the country.

Trump’s immigration rhetoric today would have us believe that our borders are porous and uncontrolled; they are not. Most immigrants that he would call “illegal” actually got here not by some secret border crossing but by overstaying a lawful visa status.

That was the case of some, but not all, of the 9/11 hijackers. So unless we had moved all of our Border Patrol agents to the American interior to try to deport those who overstay their student or employment visas, the hijackers, once here, were not going to be caught because of immigration enforcement.

Finally, what is most disconcerting about Trump’s statements, however pleasing they may be to critics, like me, of the Bush presidency, is that they keep us from focusing on the real error in judgment: the Iraq War.

This newfound obsession on whether Bush could have or could not have stopped 9/11 risks having us stray from the real reasons why Jeb Bush’s statements about his brother keeping “us safe” should be met with skepticism: the war in Iraq.

The decision to go to war there without adequate intelligence, to mock critics, to eclipse the war in Afghanistan, to wage the war as we did – with some fanciful belief that we would be greeted with roses in the streets – that is what made us less safe.

Supporters of George W. Bush will say that critics need to move on and stop blaming him. Nothing could be further from the truth. The limitations of our power today, Arab unrest, the rise of ISIS, the Syrian civil war, the re-emergence of the Taliban and, of course, a vulnerable homeland all begin with the original sin of Iraq. For those who say “move on,” the only response is just to focus on the headlines. We simply can’t.

The data on Hurricane Patricia doesn’t need much expert analysis to understand why this is such a big deal. Already packing sustained winds of 200 mph, this is the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere. And it will be deadly. Indeed, the unfortunate reality is that the measure of success for areas on the western coast of Mexico – which has instituted state of emergency orders – will be the extent to which they can minimize fatalities.

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