The irony of the last year is that the two leading protagonists in the 9/11 drama, Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush, have found themselves in the opposite circumstance from what they envisioned for themselves on Sept. 10, 2001.
Surely bin Laden did not intend to be hidden in a cave somewhere -- whether dead or alive. And Bush did not intend to be a foreign policy president, walking down the same path as his father, whose foreign preoccupations cost him a second term.
Bin Laden's goal was to be another anti-Crusader, the devout Muslim who drove the infidels out of the Mideast. In a 1996 interview, he called the truck bombing of an American facility in Saudi Arabia "the beginning of war between Muslims and the United States." In his first videotaped message after the World Trade Center attacks, released last Oct. 7, he reiterated his point: "America will never taste security unless we feel security and safety in our land and in Palestine."
Since then, of course, the United States has not only occupied bin Laden's Afghanistan, but it has also established a significant and probably enduring presence all through the Central Asian "Stans," from Pakistan to Uzbekistan. And it's a seeming certainty that America will occupy another Muslim country, Iraq, and stay for a good long time. As a point of comparison, the United States conquered Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945, and to this day, American troops remain in both countries.
While it's hard to think of an attack that had greater unintended consequences for the attacker than bin Laden's venture, Bush, too, could soon be feeling the whip-sting of irony. He was going to be a mostly domestic president, espousing a campaign mantra of "compassionate conservatism."
The Texan showed little interest in foreign affairs -- he carelessly confused "Slovakia" and "Slovenia" -- and when he did pay attention, he mostly criticized what he saw as Clinton-era military over-reaching. During his first debate with Al Gore on Oct. 3, 2000, he warned, "If we don't stop extending our troops all around the world and nation-building missions, then we're going to have a serious problem coming down the road."
Of course, everything changed on 9/11. But, at first, Bush tried to minimize the domestic impact of the War on Terror. He asked for no economic sacrifice on the home front and no legislation to create a security apparatus. Only belatedly did he realize that a foreign war would impose real domestic costs, debited against the economy and against his own political capital. An early reversal was the switch on a Department of Homeland Security; after months of dithering, he submitted his plan to Congress in July.
And now his presidency is starting to resemble that of his father's, as foreign policy considerations crowd out economic policy. In May 1990, three months before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the elder Bush partially repudiated his no-new-taxes pledge. But in October of that year, spurred by the need to present a common front to the world, he signed a deal with the opposition Democrats that not only raised taxes but also raised spending, weakened the economy and further hiked the budget deficit. Faced with such a self-inflicted quadruple whammy, the 41st president, victor in Desert Storm, was easily defeated by a challenger who said, "It's the economy, stupid."
Today, another President Bush is in a similar conundrum. The economy is stalling, and yet the most obvious solution, a stimulative tax cut -- an idea some Bushies raised after last month's Waco Economic Forum -- is off the table. Why? The big reason is that the Democrats, whose help Bush will need to wage war on Iraq, are united against it. Democrats say they are worried about the deficit and helping "the rich" -- although Republicans say the Democrats are really eager to see the economy remain stagnant for the 2002 and 2004 elections. Bush could make such an argument, too, but of course, he'll be busy leading a war effort that requires the continuing cooperation of the loyal opposition.
Bin Laden may already be history. But for the Bush family it looks as if history -- foreign policy trumping domestic policy -- is repeating itself, as the younger president trudges toward the same one-term fate as his father.
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