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2001 In Review: Observers Say War Against Terror Helped Bush Grow As U.S. President

  • Andrew Tully

During his 11 months in the White House, George W. Bush has changed from a hesitant president into, many believe, a strong and decisive leader who is more comfortable in his new role. Analysts attribute this metamorphosis to his dedication to protecting the American people after the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Washington, 13 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- When George W. Bush was sworn in as president of the United States in January, he had to prove he was deserving of the world's most powerful office. And many observers of the American presidency say he has done so admirably because of the way he has responded to the terrorist attacks of 11 September.

In last year's election, Bush, of the Republican Party, actually lost the nationwide popular vote to Al Gore, a Democrat, by about half-a-million ballots out of more than 101 million cast. But American presidents are not elected by direct popular vote. They are chosen indirectly by electors selected by voters in each state. Bush received 271 electoral votes, compared with 267 for Gore.

To make matters worse, the vote in the key southern state of Florida was so close that a winner there could not be determined for more than a month.

The state's count said Bush had won by an extremely narrow margin -- about 1,800 votes out of some six million cast. Gore supporters contested the count because of malfunctions in voting machines that they said were limited to areas where Democrats predominate. They demanded recounts in those areas, confident that closer scrutiny would turn the state's results in Gore's favor.

A long legal battle ensued in the state's courts, which ultimately ruled that a recount was unnecessary. The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington -- the nation's highest court -- agreed on appeal.

On 13 December 2000 -- 36 days after the election -- Gore conceded defeat. But many of his supporters complained that Gore belonged in the White House and that Bush was, essentially, a pretender.

Perhaps exercising caution following questions about the legitimacy of his election, Bush began his presidency by adhering closely to the issues that dominated his campaign -- domestic matters like reducing the federal income-tax rate. Critics said his foreign policy was often isolationist in tone and deed -- until, that is, the events of 11 September.

Bush and his administration moved quickly to respond to the September terrorist attacks in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. They assembled a coalition of nations to support the war against terrorism, focusing on Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network and its protectors in Afghanistan, the Taliban.

The president's campaign against terrorism went beyond the diplomatic and military fronts. Shortly after the attack, Bush announced that the U.S., with the help of its allies, would declare financial war on terrorism, freezing the assets of Al-Qaeda and of groups that support it. So far, Washington says it has frozen $60 million worth of these organizations' assets.

Bush also made a point of saying that the U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign is not a war against Islam. He accused Al-Qaeda and the Taliban of perverting the message of Islam, which he called a religion of peace, not war.

And Bush also became more eloquent, especially on the issue of Islam and religious tolerance. In an address to a joint session of Congress -- and to the nation -- nine days after the attacks, Bush had this to say:

"I also want to speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful. And those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah."

Bush's response to the 11 September attacks inaugurated an entirely new Bush presidency, according to Stephen Hess, who studies government at the Brookings Institution, an independent Washington policy center.

Hess told RFE/RL that early in his presidency, Bush seemed less committed to a strong relationship with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. But he says the terrorist attacks of 11 September changed his approach to NATO as abruptly as if an electric power switch had been thrown.

After the 11 September attacks, NATO invoked for the first time in its history Article 5 of its founding treaty, which says that an attack against one member constitutes an attack against all members. Hess said:

"NATO becomes a very important link because we're in -- the president is in -- the midst of putting together an international coalition. And Europe is particularly important in this regard. [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair has become [Bush's] chief partner in this enterprise. His new relations with Russian President [Vladimir] Putin and its implications for NATO play a very large role in it."

Hess says Bush's background did not inspire confidence in his foreign policy abilities. Before becoming president, Bush was governor of the southwestern U.S. state of Texas, while Al Gore, his Democratic opponent in the presidential race, spent virtually his entire political career in Washington -- first as a congressman, then as a senator from the state of Tennessee, and finally as vice president under Bill Clinton.

According to Hess, that assessment of Bush is not entirely fair. He notes that Texas shares a 2,000-kilometer-long border with Mexico, with which his state has much diplomatic and commercial contact. And he points out that Bush chose capable aides, like Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

"And yet it is almost remarkable how he has now focused on this [foreign policy], how he had, in fact, maybe accidentally, a team of experienced advisers who turn out to be a very strong war council or war cabinet."

David Lublin agrees. He is an assistant professor of politics at American University in Washington. He says Bush deserves nothing but praise for surrounding himself with some of the best minds in foreign policy, both on the diplomatic and military levels.

"I think he's been very fortunate in some ways, much like president [Ronald] Reagan, to have appointed highly competent advisers, which for a president are, I suppose, even more important than your own competence. Bush knows where he wants to go generally and has been able to pick people who help him get there. Given the current crisis, he's been especially fortunate, I think, in his foreign policy team overall."

Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, says the key to Bush's performance has been his ability to communicate with the American people, a skill that improved dramatically after 11 September.

"I think he's more confident in the message he's conveying to the American people. He's obviously very focused in that message, and while he is not eloquent in the way, say, a Franklin Roosevelt or a John F. Kennedy was eloquent, he is sincere, forthright and to the point. And I think he's done what he hadn't done in the early days of his presidency, and that is create that special mystical bond that only a president can create with the American people."

Lichtman says Bush's improved ability to communicate demonstrates something deeper: a much improved command of the presidency itself. Some presidents -- Bush included -- have taken time to grow accustomed to their responsibilities. He says Bush's focus on the U.S. response to terrorism has accelerated this learning process and transformed him into a mature president in less than a year.

"You can see it in his eyes. When Bush is not fully in command, his eyes almost look transparent and unfocused. Now his eyes are focused and resolute. You can see that he believes he has found the fundamental mission of his presidency, and that is to protect the country and root out terrorism wherever it can be found. He believes he now has an historic mission, something about which he was very unsure when he was first elected."

Lichtman says he believes Bush was unsure of himself when he took office because of the questions surrounding his election. But he says the issue is no longer relevant to Bush's presidency. According to Lichtman, Bush now will be judged by how well he governs, not by the circumstances of his election.

In fact, most questions about the circumstances of the disputed November 2000 vote seem to have been resolved. Last month, eight news organizations issued a report based on an exhaustive review of the Florida vote. The study concludes that Bush did, indeed, defeat Gore in Florida.

Further enhancing Bush's legitimacy is a recent poll, conducted in late November, in which 76 percent of respondents said they would prefer to have Bush in charge of the country during a time of war. Only 15 percent said they would prefer Gore.

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