George W. Bush’s Lesson For Donald Trump


For years, Americans have run headlong from the foreign policy legacy of George W. Bush. Barack Obama ran and won on opposition to the Iraq War. Donald Trump ran and won while essentially calling Bush a lying war criminal.

Now, a new book from James Mitchell, Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying To Destroy America, makes a strong case that W. did indeed protect Americans – and it was his militaristic approach to radical Islam that made the difference. The book contains interviews with Al Qaeda mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. As Marc Thiessen relates:

Today, some on both the left and the right argue that al-Qaeda wanted to draw us into a quagmire in Afghanistan — and now the Islamic State wants to do the same in Iraq and Syria. KSM said this is dead wrong. Far from trying to draw us in, KSM said that al-Qaeda expected the United States to respond to 9/11 as we had the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut — when, KSM told Mitchell, the United States “turned tail and ran.” He also said he thought we would treat 9/11 as a law enforcement matter…. “Then he looked at me and said, ‘How was I supposed to know that cowboy George Bush would announce he wanted us ‘dead or alive’ and then invade Afghanistan to hunt us down?’” Mitchell writes. “KSM explained that if the United States had treated 9/11 like a law enforcement matter, he would have had time to launch a second wave of attacks.” He was not able to do so because al-Qaeda was stunned “by the ferocity and swiftness of George W. Bush’s response.” But KSM said something else that was prophetic. In the end, he told Mitchell, “We will win because Americans don’t realize…we do not need to defeat you militarily; we only need to fight long enough for you to defeat yourself by quitting.”

George W. Bush’s theory was that state sponsors made large-scale terror possible. Trump seems to reject that, instead favoring the Clinton-era theory that terrorism was impossible to target on a regional scale, and kowtowing to state actors rather than holding them accountable.

KSM’s comments should be a lesson for the Trump administration. Bush’s nation-building may have gone too far, but abandoning his approach to state actors will have consequences. Trump has cast himself as a foreign policy realist, a man who will hand leadership in terror-fighting over to Vladimir Putin, even though Putin has no interest in wiping out terrorism; Trump has talked of cutting out foreign alliances and undercutting national security interests in Eastern Europe and the South China Sea. It’s unclear whether Trump’s realism looks more like Pat Buchanan paleoconservatism or Ted Cruz quasi-interventionism, but it certainly opposes the notion of full-scale invasions and occupations – precisely the strategy that KSM says destroyed al Qaeda’s capacity to commit acts of terrorism. “Bombing the s*** out of them,” as Trump recommends, might make for good copy, but unless it’s backed up by real military willingness to destroy the enemy – which typically means boots on the ground – terror attacks could be just as much a norm under Trump as they are under Barack Obama.