Especially after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Bush stirred widespread approval for his strong stand and pledge to avenge the thousands of lives lost. He told Americans he wanted to bring Osama bin Laden to justice “dead or alive.” He called the terrorists “evildoers” and “barbaric people.” He called for allies to stand “with us or against us.” A month after the attacks, he told Americans that al Qaeda was “on the run.” And in a pointed jab at Bill Clinton, who once tried to take out bin Laden with a cruise missile attack but hit only empty tents and sand, Bush was blunt, saying:
When I take action, I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a ten dollar empty tent and hit a camel in the butt.
That style framed a sharp, decisive response to the terrorist attacks. But that approach did not work well when applied to other thornier issues, for which black-white, “with us or against us” responses were not appropriate. For example, just a few months after the attacks, the Middle East erupted in a new series of Palestinian bombings of Israeli buses and Israeli retaliations against Palestinian strongholds. It was a problem with no real answer.
As was the case for virtually every president since World War II, Bush found himself drawn into the Middle East fray. More than most presidents, he had tried to skirt the controversy, for he and his advisers saw it as a no-win swamp. And just as his predecessors failed to settle the issue, a stable solution for the ageless problem eluded Bush as well. A president can scarcely be criticized for failing to find a way out of the swamp. It’s been a seething problem for decades, predating even the creation of the state of Israel.
However, the case raises a deeper issue about the Bush style and how it can fail when confronting complex problems. In dealing with these puzzling issues, his instinct was to ground them in his deeply felt values. The ultimate question is whether new problems might, at some point, push into territory that his value system did not chart, and whether he—and his team—might become blind to subtle and unexpected implications.