Days of Fire

“I began Tuesday, January 20, 2009, the same way I had started every day for the past eight years: I read the Bible. One of the passages that final day was Psalm 18:2 – “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer: my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge.” Amen.

A little before 7.00 a.m., I took the elevator to the ground floor of the White House, walked down the Colonnade, and opened the glass-panelled door to the Oval Office for the last time. Josh Bolten was waiting inside. He greeted me with the same words he’d used every day as my chief of staff: “Mr President, thank you for the privilege of serving.” [1]

Thus George W. Bush describes his final day in the White House, the end point of a fierce arc of US history now smouldering out into this cold January morning, as the President prepares to leave for President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration. The West Wing is “eerily quiet … The only sound I heard was the occasional buzz of a workman’s drill, refitting the offices for a new team.” Before saying goodbye to the White House staff, Bush slips out – alone – onto the South lawn to take a final lap around the jogging track, “where Spot (his English spaniel) and I had walked the morning I gave the order to liberate Iraq”.

The elements which made Bush distinctive are on display: an obsessive relationship with God (and, less on show here, his ancestors – he read 14 different biographies of Abraham Lincoln while in the White House), a prodigal son’s austere reverence for the responsibility of office, the domesticity of a warm-hearted family man who evoked strong loyalty from his staff. The loneliness of a Commander-in-Chief wounded and unpopular after years of military disappointment – no President since Lyndon Johnson has had to carry the burden of so many dead.

Bush had been in office less than nine months when he experienced what he describes in his autobiography as the Day of Fire. It began in Sarasota, Florida with a pre-dawn jog around a golf course (“the locals must have found this run in the dark a little bizarre”) followed by a shower and “light breakfast” at his hotel. At 8.00 am received his Daily Briefing from a CIA analyst, it covered Russia, China and the Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Afterwards the Presidential motorcade drove him to the Emma E. Booker Elementary School (Bush was on a visit to highlight educational reform). By 9.35 Flights 11 and 175 had hit the World Trade Centre and the Presidential motorcade was rushing back down Florida Route 41 towards Air Force One. Flight 77 was 2 minutes away from crashing into the western wall of the Pentagon. “My blood was boiling” records Bush, the one-time fighter pilot and Governor of Texas. “We were going to find out who did this and kick their ass.”

Back inside Air Force One Bush asks to be alone, and prays. Things get worse: as news came through of the Pentagon attack, the President’s Secret Service team refuse his requests to fly him back to the capital. Instead they divert to a US military base in Louisiana. The communications on Air Force One is so poor he and his team have to watch whatever local TV feeds they can pick up from their 40,000 feet emergency altitude. Stuck on the end of a satellite phone, Bush delegates management of the emergency response to Vice President Cheney, including authorisation to order the shooting down of hijacked aircraft. It takes time to reach Donald Rumsfeld because the Defence Secretary is busy helping emergency workers lift Pentagon’s wounded onto stretchers. When they do speak Bush tells Rumsfeld that he considers the attacks an act of war (not terrorism), and that he plans to mount a “serious” military response. Sometime after 6pm Air Force One touches down at the Andrews Field Air base outside the capital, and the Presidential party is hurried onto Marine Force One for a helicopter ride to the White House lawn. Bush, nearing the end of an interminable journey, tired, presumably in a state of shock, turns to his Chief of Staff, Andy Card. “You’re looking at the first war of the twenty-first century”. Over the course of one day, in the midst of pandemonium, with scant discussion and advice, Bush has decided to declare war on an enemy whose identity remains unconfirmed.

Early the next morning, back in the Oval office, Bush speaks with Tony Blair. The British Prime Minister expresses his sympathy and pledges solidarity with America. This collaborative tone comes naturally between Anglo-American leaders, and it must have been heartening for each man to hear the other resolve to face this enemy together, and perhaps its happening helped create a little private momentum of its own. But at this stage Blair’s agenda is not yet wholly aligned with Bush’s – at this moment Blair knows a lot more about terrorism than his friend, and is sensible to the dangers of the US furiously lashing out. He urges a multi-lateral response. He is effective for a while, but gradually, maybe inevitably, he becomes drawn into the slip stream of American action. Soon Bush is relying upon him, and can’t let him go. And Blair comes to believe in the mission. “As the years passed and the wartime decisions grew tougher, some of our allies wavered. Tony Blair never did”.

Two days later Bush visits Ground Zero, and the President’s tone becomes personal and emotional. “I felt like I was entering a nightmare”, the vicinity around the collapsed towers was “pure hell”. A soot-covered emergency worker looks him in the eye and tells him “George, find the bastards who did this and kill them”. Other workers heckle him: “Do not let me down”. “Whatever it takes”. He takes the fateful decision to “pour my heart and soul into protecting the country, whatever it took”. Three days have passed since the attacks and Bush is at war and he is committed for the long haul. Later that day the mother of a missing first responder presses her son’s Port Authority Police badge into his hand. Bush would carry it with him for the remaining 2,685 days of his Presidency. He would find the bastards and he would kill them.

Thirteen years later the death toll in Afghanistan and Iraq is estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000 people, the majority civilians. Nearly 10,000 coalition soldiers (mainly Americans and Britons) have been killed. Bush can claim that America has not been attacked since 9/11, but areas of the Middle East are in deep crisis, barbarism rages across Iraq and Syria and the consensus is that America’s wars have made the world more dangerous. Not less. Al Qaeda, once small enough to avoid CIA and FBI detection while it planned and executed the attacks of 9/11, has spawned a new generation of stronger, better armed and better financed jihadist groups. It takes more than US policy to radicalise young muslims but Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan, 2001 – ongoing) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq, 2003 – 2011) have swollen their ranks, motivated their followers and built weak governments in Baghdad and Kabul incapable of ruling their territories and controlling their borders. However well intentioned – and it was – Western intervention in both countries has been too fleeting to make any ground in the generational struggle Tony Blair now warns us about[2], yet too long, costly and unconvincing to sustain political support at home. We did enough to put out the fires in Afghanistan and Iraq, but only for a while, and many other smaller fires started while we weren’t looking.

Read Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy’s historical novel set in the Texas-Mexico borderlands of the 1840s, to conjure a sense of what prevails in chunks of Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan today. McCarthy describes austere, open vistas of country dotted with the remains of failed civilisations where impoverished cowering civilians are raped and robbed and butchered by mobile groups of violent men. Across lands of insecurity hegemony belongs to whoever is most destructive, the threat moving on but never going away, the dire beauty of a landscape so vast and indifferent that it makes those still alive, even those gone to the bad, question their place in the universe. McCarthy’s principal character / victim is the Kid, a young blood – untutored but skilled and with a good centre, inclined to violence but whole and constant, with constraints. The Kid escapes his drunken father, is almost killed in a brawl, joins a force of US army irregulars, survives an apache ambush, joins a scalp-hunting party, fights and rides and drinks and fights and rides and drinks himself into middle age. The Kid is not in control, and this makes him a victim, and perhaps it is his victimhood which gives him his grace; the knowledge that harm is surely coming to him. He is at the mercy of of unforgiving circumstance, of fate and random fortune. And nearby, sometimes leading the Kid and sometimes stalking him and always watching and goading is the figure of Judge Holden, the “great corpus”: a great pale hairless beast of a villain who possesses learning and understanding and strength and complete disregard for human life. This Judge represents evil and within this cruel world he is a joyful dancer, light on his feet for such a big man. “It’s a great thing, the dance … Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his in most heart, only that man can dance.”

The dance is on now in the parts of Syria and Iraq ruled by Islamic State (IS). But Judge Holden danced in what we now call the United States of America. This is the dark brand of American identity, far from Thomas Paine and the Founding Fathers. This crazy, grisly history of men and women struggling to survive in a hostile landscape helps explain an American disposition towards violence (“George, find the bastards who did this and kill them”). It also helps explain America’s “inwardness”, a word I heard used by a worried beltway analyst (ex-CIA) recently. America’s vast geography is big enough to challenge and nurture one generation after another. There is always work to do at home – remember Bush’s inclination to work from his ranch at Crawford, to clear brush, to stay in control of his personal landscape? America challenges and nurtures its people, and there will always be Americans who prefer to cut themselves off from the rest of the world, to reap their self sufficiency, to man their porous borders (young bloods are still fighting and dying in the US-Mexico borderlands). This tendency the analyst described as “very mistaken”.

The analyst, who had advised previous White House administrations, was speaking at a London think tank event on global trends: which winds were blowing, and where from. The man – a grey-haired man in a button-down collared shirt and a world weary air – described himself as an optimist, but the weight of the discussion quickly fell on two interminable problems. One was the constraint Washington’s political stasis was placing on America’s effectiveness as a global power. The issue was not analysis, he explained: “we understand what the problems are”. The difficulty was getting the attention of politicians deafened by the white noise of day-to-day democratic politics, building consensus on Capitol Hill, getting the right decisions made and executed. The second problem was the Middle East. The region has too many young men and not enough good jobs, Middle East governments seemed disinclined to reform quickly enough to provide political solutions to the region’s chronic conflicts. Once these fires were lit they took years to burn out. (A third problem was Putin and Russian nationalism, but the analyst deemed Russia chronically weak and therefore containable. It should be possible to “bring Russia back into the system.”).

The analyst flared a little himself as he remembered the decision to invade Iraq. There were a lot of papers written about the dangers, he recalled, but the decision was made in spite of them, “or without even reading them”. “And pretty soon after 9/11” he added. There had been “high levels of confidence” among a few senior politicians around the President. He regretted the fact that sceptics like Secretary of State Colin Powell (“you break it, you fix it”), had allowed themselves to be steam-rolled out of the way. In the end Iraq was a “gross mistake which could have been avoided”. It had wasted blood and treasure, and left the region less stable. It had strengthened the case for American isolationism.

The awkward truth about multi-polarity is that America can no longer act alone but the West has not yet learnt how to act in concert. The UN is over-stretched and its structures outdated, allowing China and Russia to veto Western initiatives at will. NATO has been run down, though Russia’s incursion into the Ukraine has given it a jolt and it should revive. The European Union is still too fragmented to act decisively, and invests little in its military capability. And developing countries like China, India and Brazil, three countries with stakes in global stability, are pre-occupied with sustaining economic growth, and their governments lack the means and the political mandate to help police global problems. China’s foreign policy focuses mainly on pushing out her territorial sovereignty which raises tensions in her neighbourhood.

But the analyst thought the US and China should be able to build a strategic partnership – they were too inter-dependent to risk anything else. A note of optimism, then back to the Middle East, where the threats were so complex, so unstructured and unpredictable yet in possession of powerful weapons, that the analyst said that many of his former colleagues in the CIA now remembered the Cold War with something approaching nostalgia even though at its height the chance of a “catastrophic event” reached 60%; he estimated we were now at 20-30%. Gone are the Cold War’s certainties, its protocols and its symmetry – the Cold War was a conflict between states, neither the US nor Russia were genocidal. IS seems different. Sometime something will happen which shunts international relations forwards. In the meantime, America and her allies will patch things together as best they can.

Western democracies default to complacency because by nature they are pacific, they reflect their voters’ pre-occupation with the bread-and-butter of domestic life. And the elites have been content to deal with the difficult business of overseas without bothering the voters too much; this gives them more room for manoeuvre and flatters their self-image as strategists and guardians. International Relations has become an academic genre, obscured by complex language and acronyms. But these days there is no more ‘overseas’, even for a great continent like America, and the challenge is social and cultural as well as political and military. The response must be social and cultural too. Today we are 7.5 billion people sharing one planet, watching the same images on television, using the world wide web, and buying and selling from one another and coming and going into one another’s houses. Thus a London muslim cuts off the shaven head of an American journalist wearing a US style prison uniform in the Syrian desert and everyone in the world sees, and men and women in New York call on their government to find the bastard and kill him. No one can hide anymore – not even the US President.

So Blair is right to warn the West against complacency. Yes, he is compromised by his unquestioning support for the Iraq invasion, for his stubbornness, for the clean heels he has shown politics and the money he has made outside it, but this does not mean his analysis on this subject is wrong today. He has been courageous in his way, and constant. Few at his level have thought as hard about the problem. Can you disagree with the following:

“The beginning of understanding is to appreciate that resolving this situation is immensely complex. This is a generation long struggle. It is not a ‘war’ which you win or lose in some clear and clean-cut way. There is no easy or painless solution. Intervention is hard. Partial intervention is hard. Non-intervention is hard.

Ok, so if it is that hard, why not stay out of it all, the current default position of the West? The answer is because the outcome of this long transition [towards modernisation across the Middle East] impacts us profoundly. At its simplest, the jihadist groups are never going to leave us alone. 9/11 happened for a reason. That reason and the ideology behind it have not disappeared.”[3]

Like Bush, Obama planned to focus his Presidency on domestic issues. Unlike Bush, he has the gift of hindsight. He has now ceased stepping thoughtfully around this problem, and announced his intention to take the US back to war in Iraq. His wariness is understandable. “We don’t have a strategy yet” trumps “my blood was boiling”. Precisely because of the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama has less military options at his disposal than Bush. Putting US troops into action would now be politically very hard (Bush sent almost 200,000 Coalition troops into Iraq, 148,00 of them Americans). But he now has no choice but to move forwards. So he will muster a coalition,  launch air attacks, bolster his local allies, squeeze the jihadists supplies of money and reinforcements. He will take calls from Tony Blair. He will engage us all in a generational struggle we must win. Success is not guaranteed. It will, Obama warns, take a long time.

[1] Decision Points (Crown Publishing, 2010)

[2] Iraq, Syria and the Middle East – An essay by Tony Blair.

[3] Iraq, Syria and the Middle East – An essay by Tony Blair.

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